Chapter 26: Stress and Learning

Chapter 26: Stress and Learning

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Stress impacts kids

We hear about stress and its negative effects all the time. And usually, the conversation is about those of us in the adult world. Tough jobs, mounting bills and relationship problems can all have a negative impact on our health and our emotions. But did you ever wonder if stress affects kids, too? It does. It impacts their growth. It hurts them emotionally. And it can make it harder for them to learn.

Is stress always bad?

Stress is a body’s reaction to what’s going on in the world around it. And under certain circumstances, it can actually be a good thing. If a dog starts to chase you, for instance, your body releases hormones that speed up your heart, sharpen your senses and give you that quick burst of energy you need to sprint to safety. Once you’re out of danger, your body relaxes and quickly returns to its prestress state. Whew!

Stress becomes a problem, however, when it is ongoing. If the problem that causes the stress isn’t quickly resolved – like escaping from that dog – then your body doesn’t wind down. The stress hormones continue to circulate. That’s when stress can be damaging.

Symptoms of stress

Kids don’t always tell us in words when they’re upset. As parents and caregivers, we need to watch for signs that all is not well. Below are some of the symptoms of stress in children. Circle any that you see in your own child, and then talk to your child’s doctor about whether or not they could be caused by stress.

  • Complaining of headaches or stomachaches that the doctor says are not caused by an illness.
  • Being unusually short-tempered.
  • Crying easily.
  • Becoming frustrated over little things.
  • Wanting to avoid school.
  • Fighting with friends or siblings.
  • Not wanting friends to come over.
  • Staying in bed longer than usual.
  • Eating more than usual.
  • Eating less than usual.
  • Having trouble getting to sleep.
  • Showing an increase in nervous habits such as nail biting or hair twirling.

How you can help

Ongoing stress can, according to the Mayo Clinic, cause memory problems, impair concentration and disrupt sleep patterns. These can all affect learning – including learning how to read. If your child is struggling to learn to read, stress could be part of the problem. You can help by eliminating as much of the stress in your child’s life as you can. You can also teach him some ways to cope successfully with the stress that can’t be avoided.

Here are some simple ways you can help your child handle stress:

  • Get him moving – Exercise is a great way to counteract stress. It burns off nervous energy and releases calming hormones called endorphins. Find ways for your child to be physically active every day. This can include walking the dog, going to the swimming pool, riding a bike, bowling or even playing a video game that requires him to jump, dance or swing a bat.
  • Keep things calm – Wherever possible, look for ways to destress your household environment. This can include limiting the number of visitors on school nights, making your child’s room a comfortable place for him to relax and unwind, and even turning down the volume a little on the TV or computer. If you need to have an adult conversation, and you know tempers might flare, try to wait until your child is sound asleep or even away at a friend’s house. Kids often blame themselves when adults have a conflict, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with them.
  • Keep things regular – Kids benefit in many ways from a regular schedule. As much as possible, try to have meals at the same time of day, and give your child a regular bedtime, as well. Even simple activities such as bath time, snacks and watching TV should be done at about the same time every day. Knowing what’s going to happen during the day can be very calming, especially for younger children.
  • Talk about it – We know that sharing our concerns with a loved one can be very relieving. The same is true for kids. Let your child talk about the things that concern him. You can ask, “What’s wrong?” when he seems stressed or upset, or you can even have a regular time when he knows he can talk to you – right after school, for instance, or just before bed. You don’t have to solve his problems or even offer solutions. Simply having someone who cares listen to him is often all that is needed to relieve the stresses of the day.
  • Practice meditation – Meditation may sound like an esoteric, spiritual practice, but it’s really just a simple way to relax and calm your mind. Child-friendly versions include lying in a quiet room and listening to instrumental music, following a guided meditation designed for children, or simply sitting quietly for a few minutes and concentrating on breathing slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth. 
  • Give him some tools – Kids don’t automatically know how to respond to feelings of frustration and stress. Give your child some tools to use when he feels anxious or angry throughout the day and needs to calm down. Things to suggest include taking a deep breath and counting slowly to 10, walking away from an argument, talking with a teacher or counselor at school, or even spending time with a favorite pet.


The Mayo Clinic, Healthy Lifestyle Stress Management, “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk,”