Stress and the Learning Process


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Stress tends to be thought of as an adult problem, if not preoccupation these days. For years many doctors didn’t even recognise its existence. But that’s all changing now as our knowledge of brain chemistry improves. Today we can give chapter and verse on what stress is.

Put simply, stress triggers our fight or flight response, a reactive, automatic defence mechanism which gives us extra energy to fight or flee any given emergency via a burst of adrenaline.

The Brain The brain’s control centre, the Limbic system, contains four major elements. One of these is the Hypothalamus, sensitive to any outside danger which could result in physical or emotional hurt.

The Hypothalamus immediately signals the Pituitary gland which in turn signals the adrenaline glands which release up to 30 hormones, one of which is cortisol, too much of which damages the immune system leading to colds and flu at best.

Major Energy Boost These extra hormones are pure energy and are used as an extra burst of speed for escape, or to give us extra and sometimes extraordinary strength to fight the danger. (There are many recorded incidents of small women lifting huge weights to free trapped children for example, or men tackling fierce animals to save their partners or children. )

Other examples of heroism are accompanied by the phrase, it all happened so fast. And of course, that’s the clue. Our reaction to the event is governed at a subconscious level and therefore at a speed far beyond normal conscious thought processes. The rush of adrenaline is instant and our consequent reactions are equally instant and out with our control.

Anxiety Stress can manifest itself as anxiety or secondary stage tension. Females and young boys tend to be anxious whereas older males hold their anxiety in check i. e. fake it, leading them into the more harmful ‘tension’ stage. Which is one reason I’m sure why males on average live up to five years less than females.

Tension and anxiety in most children however begins with their parents, especially the mother. Show me a school failure or underachiever and I will show you an anxious child who has an anxious mother. The child picks up the tension and/or anxiety from the parents at a subconscious level.

The following questions now arise. How does this anxiety affect the child? And, what can be done about it?

Bedwetting Anxiety can affect the child in a variety of ways. One obvious example is bed-wetting. Less than 1% of bed-wetters have a physical problem, it’s virtually always anxiety of some sort of another which creates so much tension that the bladder cannot be fully opened while the child is awake. When the child sleeps, that part of the brain which controls the bladder ‘switches off. Muscles relax and the water flows uncontrollably.

This doesn’t mean that the anxious child sleeps well, on the contrary, anxiety creates havoc with sleep patterns and this in turn affects the child’s ability to function properly. First of all, the child can be tired and listless next day.

Assimilating Information Secondly, we use sleep to make sense of events which happened during the day, that includes making sense of what we have learned during the day. If we don’t fully assimilate the days learning, our decks are cluttered for the next days learning and that makes future assimilation even more difficult. Multiply that over a period of weeks and months and you can see how easily it is to fall behind in the learning process.

Expectations It’s understandable but completely wrong to imagine that if someone is failing to pick up the basics like spelling, tables and reading that they must be lacking in intelligence. Most learning, especially early learning is done at the subconscious level via a process known as Ontogenesis. For example, we don’t learn to speak formally we pick it up as we develop. Equally, other major players in the learning process also work at the level of the subconscious, for example belief systems, in this case self-belief and self-confidence.

The expectations of others affect our own expectations and as you will read in future articles, these expectations are extremely powerful forces. They can drive us on to higher things or they can limit us for the rest of our lives. Happily they can also be altered. The point is they have to be recognised. Unrealistic expectations, for example parents demanding too much of a child before the child is ready, will drive up the child’s anxiety ratings which will have the exact opposite affect which the parent is trying to achieve for the child.

Intellectual Development Recent research by Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard Psychology Department has identified 8 different types of intelligence in all of us, two on the left side of the brain, what I call the masculine intelligence and two on the right, which I call the feminine intelligence. Masculine intelligence is straight line and sequential in nature, i. e. mechanical. It is relatively simple to develop and most of its work is already being taken over by computers. The vastly more complex feminine intelligence is what gives us our humanity and will never be matched by anything other than a living computer, if such a thing can ever be devised.

The point here is that left brain children, especially boys will appear to soar ahead on in the academic field leaving their right brain counterparts floundering in their wake. At this point parents, especially left brain fathers might panic. They begin to put major pressures on their right brain sons to stop being so ‘lazy’, get some work done and stop messing about with all that arty farty rubbish, without realising that their right brain sons were infinitely more intelligent than they were themselves. With the correct training, i. e. using Wholebrain Teaching methods their children could easily begin to master the basics and make considerable progress across the academic map.

Know Your Child First of all, all humans are programmed to learn, but we are not all programmed to learn the same things or in the same way. Indeed, the modern workforce is expected to continually update its information throughout its working life and this will be the case for generations to come.

Learning for life is no longer an empty slogan but a reality. So if your child seems a bit slow at times, encourage and stimulate by all means, but do not force, panic or show alarm or you will create growing anxieties in your child which, as we have seen, will actually prevent your child from learning.

Look for the signs of right brain dominance. The most obvious is left-handedness. Most left handers, certainly everyone I’ve ever met, are right brain dominant. Right brain children tend to be dreamy and unworldly. They will remember tunes better than words, will be sensitive and intuitive, people orientated and caring. They are far more likely to be affected by any form of row in the house than their left brain counterparts, but will be especially hurt and confused if the shouting is directed at them.

They are delicate flowers and should be handled with care, loads of love and affection. They thrive on intellectual and emotional stimulation and the attention of adults. All children should be treated with respect, but right brain children especially; they are very perceptive and are not easily fooled; though they might allow you to think they have been.

Right brain intelligence wont accept that 4(2a – 3b) + (2d + 3c) = x elephants – 77p unless they know why and what for, whereas the left brain will happily accept it if told to and learn the why’s and wherefores later on. Left brain intelligence is one dimensional and operates in a narrow range whereas right brain intelligence thinks wide and deep and wants to know everything.

Physical and Emotional Development Linked to intellectual development and a crucial part of it is the development of the body and the child’s emotions. Each is linked to the child’s self esteem and self-confidence and general feelings of self worth.

It is now well documented that children with low self esteem and poor self confidence are slow learners. Spoon feeding children and keeping them in a ‘safe’ environment (the home, the car, at mum’s side wherever they go etc) is actually killing them physically and emotionally. Never in history have so many children been overweight or at best, unfit. Never before have children been so cautious and in many cases frightened about life.

In our efforts to protect and preserve our children we have in fact been slowly strangling the life forces in them. This in turn produces stress, which affects the learning process but more importantly it affects their ability to mature emotionally. It produces weak men who in turn are less able to help their own children to develop. We are in the middle of a vicious circle which we must break and soon.

Dyslexia and its Signs Finally, a word on dyslexics and defence mechanisms Most, if not all dyslexics are right brain dominant, dyslexia being an underdevelopment of the left hemisphere and a dysfunction between left and right hemispheres. The left hemisphere organises our thinking and our information, by paying attention to the details of a subject. Some of the signs that your child may be dyslexic to some extent or another:

1. Difficulty distinguishing between left and right.

2. Difficulty mastering the technique of tying shoe laces or buttoning coats or shirts/blouses.

3. Learning anything in sequence for example: Days of the week; Months of the year; the Alphabet.

4. Writing d instead of b and vice versa.

5. Short term memory problems (99.9% due to anxiety. )

Defence Mechanisms To combat problems within their lives your child’s subconscious will develop defences to keep the trauma of failure to a minimum e. g. ‘laziness’; withdrawal; selective deafness; defiance; truancy; to name but a few. The Fear of Failure in itself is a major obstacle to learning. Fear of letting you, the parents down. Letting the teacher down, letting themselves down in front of adults they respect and need respect from, and of course, from their peers. They would rather die than look stupid in front of their peers.

Conclusion Children can be even more affected by stress than adults can. What’s more they pick up our stress and develop their own from it. Stress interferes with the short-term memory, which is electrical in form and very easily disrupted. It’s housed in the Limbic System and is the brain’s ‘clearing house’ or control centre. All information flows in and out of the Limbic System. Stress interrupts the flow of information in and out of the centre, thus learning and memory is disrupted. It affects all of us this way, but especially children and especially those very sensitive right brain boys.

Solutions: The Edinburgh Techniques To combat stress in children, Brian Hill adapted and developed two psychotherapeutic techniques especially for students, The Magic Garden and The Study Relaxer. Soon young clients were being brought to the Edinburgh Centre from all over the UK. The Magic Garden is a simple but powerful piece of therapy aimed at those students under 12 years old. The Study Relaxer is for all students from the age of 12 and over. Either can be downloaded in minutes from the Edinburgh Techniques site.

Both techniques ware designed to relax the students, allowing for a good wholesome night’s sleep. They build confidence and self esteem and generally create the correct atmosphere for students to learn and assimilate new information and of course, remember and use information already learned, especially during exams.

As a secondary issue, The Magic Garden also stops bedwetting, nightmares and sleepwalking within 7 to 10 days.

Brian Hill MA (Edin) is an Educationalist, formerly at the Edinburgh Centre for Accelerated Learning and the Stress Management Centre in Harley Street, London. He is a specialist in Accelerated Learning and Stress Management.

In the 80’s he developed a range of Whole-brain Learning Techniques to help dyslexics and slow learners who came to his Centre from all over the UK. In the mid 90’s he wrote the Techniques up and they have been selling ever since over the Net. From 1997 to Dec 2004 he licensed Classroom Resources to sell his Techniques throughout UK schools.

Those techniques and more can now be downloaded from the new website:

Key Points of the Article

1. Stress affects children even more than adults because they are less able to handle its effects than we are.

2. Most childhood stress is caused by adult expectations, adult disapproval, or even parental stress picked up at a subconscious level by the child. This is particularly true of boys and mothers.

3. Stress interferes with signals entering or leaving the brain. Thus learning is a major victim of stress, especially in children.

4. Children in particular, need a happy, loving environment in which to learn.

5. Feeding the child’s physical and emotional needs is paramount to its intellectual development.

6. Signs of stress can stretch from withdrawal to tantrums in younger children. Tiredness could indicate broken sleep patterns due to stress.

7. A happy, supportive, unconditional loving atmosphere is the best cure for childhood stress.

8. The combination of Stress, broken sleep, frustration with failure in the learning process and low self esteem and poor self confidence caused by this failure leads to can lead to severe unhappiness in the child which can accentuate the withdrawal symptoms over the years or explode into violent episodes.

Case Study

One of my earliest clients was a 12 year old girl from Fife who was in special needs. She had a very low IQ, as denoted by her low pitched voice and slow speech. She couldn’t go out on her own. She threw tantrums, wet the bed, had nightmares and regularly walked in sleep. She was making virtually no academic progress and the parents were led to believe this was not likely to improve much over the years.

I adapted a simple visualisation technique to her needs, The Magic Garden, and made a tape for her which she played nightly. Within 10 days her nocturnal problems were over. She had been suffering from acute anxiety which prevented her from learning; this further lowered her confidence and self esteem. The Magic Garden tape broke the cycle of anxiety, non learning, low self esteem etc and allowed her to begin to move forward. That, combined with other ECAL Wholebrain Learning Techniques, saw her make improvements that her parents had been told would be impossible by professionals in conventional educational psychology.

A para from her father’s letter of March 1998 can be seen in the testimonials page:

Brian Hill MA (Edin) Aug 2005
Edinburgh Techniques

Brian Hill ran the Stress Management Centre in Harley Street 1997 to 2001 and before that the Edinburgh Centre for Accelerated Learning. His techniques have been selling round UK schools and over the net since 1997. Countless articles, radio interviews and lectures have he has given have helped to spread the word about left brain/right brain, wholebrain learning, stress and learning, masculine/femine IQ etc in the the UK. Currently based in the Far East his latest contribution to educational adavances is his new Thinking Skills Programme due on his site: by the end of November 2005.


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