This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
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and the end of this newsletter.
Stress and Education
This is the second of a sequence of IAE newsletters dealing with stress
and education. We know that chronic stress impairs both one’s brain and
one’s health. This issue examines some of the major sources of chronic
education-related stress and some general education implications.
People vary considerably in how they react to various stressors. In the
discussion that follows, we look at various stressors that relate to
education. For example, we know that growing up in poverty is linked
with doing poorly in school. Research suggests that stress is part of
the linkage. However, not every child growing up in poverty has chronic
stress that leads to health and cognitive declines.
Nature and Nurture
We know that how a person reacts to stress is dependent on both nature
and nurture. Any change that one encounters may be stressful. For
example, learning to use a GPS or a hands-free cell phone built into a
new car may be stressful. A child’s first encounters with school, or
ongoing school attendance, may be stressful.
In recent years, there has been significant progress in understanding
the genetics of stress. The details of this type of research are quite
technical. Here is a tiny (technical) sample quoted from Way and
The serotonin transporter
[gene SLCA4] is best known as the site of
action for the drug Prozac and related antidepressants (Wong et al.,
1995). Within a portion of the serotonin transporter gene, there is a
segment of DNA that is longer in some individuals than others (Lesch et
Researchers have found considerable differences in reaction to stress
among people with the various forms of the serotonin transporter gene.
Of particular interest to this current IAE Newsletter are the
differences found in reaction to adverse childhood environments. Growing
up in an abusive home environment and/or in poverty can have serious
long-term effects on children with the short/short form of the gene.
Adverse reactions to chronic stress for such children affects them in
school, throughout their daily lives, and continue throughout their
Setting High Education Expectations
One of the hallmarks of a good teacher is establishing high
expectations and then successfully working with students to achieve
these expectations. Carol Dweck is one of the world’s leading
researchers in this aspect of education (Dweck, n.d.; Nussbaum and
Dweck’s research includes a focus on the educational benefits of
discouraging use of labels such as "smart" and "dumb." Her research
indicates it is much better to praise students' effort, strategies, and
progress, not their intelligence.
Readers interested in applications of brain science to education may
want to visit the Brainology site http://www.brainology.us/webnav/program.aspx
The Brainology Program is based on research by Carol Dweck and Lisa
Now, here’s the educational challenge. If expectations are set too
high, the situation will be very stressful to many students and quite a
few will be stressed by their failure to meet expectations. This is
somewhat akin to the upside down U-shaped discussed in the previous
newsletter, in which some stress in test taking and in other
performance challenges improves performance, but too much decreases
The teacher wants to stress each student just the right amount.
However, the “right amount” for a particular student can be very
dependent on other stressors in the student’s life. The next few
sections discuss some possible stressors that can affect student
Poverty (Low SES) and Stress
It has long been known that a very good predictor of how well a school
district will do on state or national assessments depends on the
percentage of its students living in poverty (Berliner, 2009).
Berliner’s article discusses out-of-school factors (OSF) that affect
low SES student performance in school. Quoting from the paper:
OSFs common among the poor
that significantly affect the health and
learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what
can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic
prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental,
vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical
food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family
and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics. These OSFs
are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and
psychological problems that children often bring to school,
from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive
absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.
[Bold added for emphasis.]
Nowadays, researchers are delving more deeply into the causes of the
poor school performance. We know, for example, that on average children
of low SES status have higher cortisol levels than children of high SES
status. This stress reaction can produce both long-term and short-term
memory impairments (Pawlik-Kienlen, 2008).
In a discussion of the research of Gary Evans of Cornell University,
Karene Booker (2011) says:
Chronic stress, in
addition to parents not investing much time in
cognitively stimulating their children, "can hinder children's
cognitive functioning and undermine development of the skills necessary
to perform well in school," says Gary Evans, professor of design and
environmental analysis and of human development, who has been studying
the effects of poverty on children for more than two decades.
"Their homes, schools and neighborhoods are much more chaotic than
those of their higher-income counterparts," he added. "They live with
such stressors as pollution, noise, crowding, poor housing, inadequate
school buildings, schools and neighborhoods with high turn-over, family
conflict, family separation, and exposure to violence and crime. These
conditions can produce toxic stress capable of damaging areas of the
brain associated with attention, memory and language that form the
foundation for academic success." [Bold added for emphasis.]
The book Teaching with Poverty in
by Eric Jensen (2009) provides substantial information
about how poverty affects a student. The second chapter of this ASCD
book is available free online at http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109074/chapters/How-Poverty-Affects-Behavior-and-Academic-Performance.aspx
It’s Not Just in the United States
Poverty is a worldwide phenomenon. If the poverty is extreme, children
might not even have the chanced to go to school. Australia provides us
with an example of a “first world” country that has patterns of poverty
somewhat like in the United States. Quoting from a 2008 Australian
report available at http://www.valuesineducation.org.au/pdf/sos0804.pdf
Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of
[Australian] Students from
high SES families have much higher education outcomes than students
from low SES families:
- 41% of students from low SES families fail to complete Year 12
compared to 22% of students from high SES families;
- On average, 15 year-old students from low SES families are over
two years behind high SES students in reading, mathematics and science;
- 22-23% of students from low SES families do not achieve expected
international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science;
- 60% of Indigenous [Native Australian] students who start
secondary schooling do not go on to Year 12 compared to 25% of all
Robert Sternberg’s theory of multiple intelligences can help us
understand why children living in poverty tend to do poorly in school
(Wikipedia, n.d.) In brief summary, his three-part theory posits street
smarts, school smarts, and creativity as three types of intelligence.
Children growing up in a low SES environment put more of their creative
energies and learning efforts into achieving street smarts. This helps
them survive in their low SES environment. Children growing up in high
SES environments put more of their creative energies and learning
efforts into achieving school smarts. Rather than needing to be in
survival mode, they are being groomed for success in school.
In addition, there are differences in opportunities. Higher SES tends
to provide more opportunities for travel, access to books and other
learning aids at home, visits to science and technology museums, music
lessons, sports camps, and so on. This difference is often described as
growing up in a “rich” cognitive development environment versus growing
up in a “poor” cognitive development environment. The poor cognitive
development environment often sets low expectations (see Carol Dweck
mentioned earlier in this newsletter).
On average, by the time they start school, the “street smart” kids are
significantly behind the “school smart” kids in their preparation for
school. This preparation gap can add to a student’s stress. While
schools are well aware of this gap and work to overcome it, the gap
tends to persist (indeed, to grow) throughout K-12 education.
Berliner, David C. (March 2009). Poverty and
potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Great Lakes Center
for Education Research & Practice. Retrieved 9/19/2010 from http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Berliner_NonSchool.pdf.
Booker, Karene (2011). Chronic stress appears to be
linked to low-income achievement gap, reports expert. Cornell
University Chronicle Online. Retrieved 5/7/2011 from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Jan11/EvansStressPoverty.html
Dweck, Carol S. (n.d.). Dweck’s home page, Stanford
University. Retrieved 5/7/2010 from https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/cdweck.
Contains links to a number of her papers.
Jensen, Eric (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind. ASCD.
Nussbaum, A. David and Dweck, Carol S. (2008).
Defensiveness versus remediation: Self-theories and modes of
self-esteem maintenance. Retrieved 5/7/2011 from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDEQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.stanford.edu%2Fdept%2Fpsychology%2Fcgi-bin%2Fdrupalm%2Fsystem%2Ffiles%2FDefensiveness%2520vs%2520
Pawlik-Kienlen, Laurie (2008). How stress affects
your memory: The relationship between short-term anxiety & brain
functioning. Retrieved 5/7/2011 from http://www.suite101.com/content/how-stress-affects-your-memory-a47649.
Way, Baldwin and Lieberman, Matthew (2010). Is there
a genetic contribution to cultural differences? Collectivism,
individualism and genetic markers of social sensitivity. Retrieved 5/7
2011 from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&sqi=2&ved=0CB4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fscan.oxfordjournals.org%2Fcontent%2F5%2F2-3%2F203.full&rct=j&q=genetic%20allele%20proclivity%20%20stress%20human&ei=BG7ETbGnFYvEsAOYro3rAQ&usg=AFQjCNGGWVl4-b7WEk5pyB4mGHB9ZB3CQw&cad=rja.
Wikipedia ( n.d.) Triarchic theory of intelligence.
Retrieved 5/7/2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triarchic_theory_of_intelligence.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
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