Information Age Education
   Issue Number 65
May, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Information Age Education publishes a blog covering a variety of topics related to improving education. The following entry about a 2010 book by David Perkins may interest you.

IAE Blog 4/26/2011. Substantially decreasing the illnesses of element-itus and about-itis in education. Retrieved 5/0//2011 from

Stress and Education Part 2:
Education-related Stressors

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 Lieberman (2010):

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 al., 1994).

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 lives.

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, 2008).

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 The Brainology Program is based on research by Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell.

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 performance.

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 learning.

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 schools  can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal  influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a  result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4)  environmental pollutants; (5) family relations 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, ranging 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 Mind 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

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

[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 students.

Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

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

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

Dweck, Carol S. (n.d.). Dweck’s home page, Stanford University. Retrieved 5/7/2010 from 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

Pawlik-Kienlen, Laurie (2008). How stress affects your memory: The relationship between short-term anxiety & brain functioning. Retrieved 5/7/2011 from

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

Wikipedia ( n.d.) Triarchic theory of intelligence. Retrieved 5/7/2011 from

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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