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Can the Brain Teach and Learn Curriculum During a Pandemic?
By: David A. Sousa
The short answer is: Not very well. Why? Because the brain’s main function is to keep its owner alive. It does this by constantly monitoring the immediate environment for potential threats. If it detects one, it must quickly determine what action to take to protect its owner.
With the constant threat of COVID-19 looming, many students and educators are struggling to keep their focus on teaching and learning. But taking the time to understand how stress affects the brain and using seven practical strategies to lower stress can make a big difference in improving the learning environment.
Taking the time to understand how stress affects the brain and using seven practical strategies to lower stress can make a big difference in improving the learning environment.
How stress takes over the brain
The pandemic presents stressors that educators cannot control – but knowing how the brain reacts to stressful situations is the first step in finding ways to lower anxiety so that effective teaching and learning can occur.
To understand how the brain processes thoughts and emotions under stress, imagine we are in a building when the fire alarm sounds. The brain’s limbic system flares up, prompting fears of injury, thoughts of our family, and other emotional scenarios. These emotions cause the problem-solving part of our brain (called the frontal lobe and located just behind the forehead) to spring into action. It tries to determine whether the signal is genuine rather than a false alarm. If perceived as genuine, the next step is to find the quickest and safest way to exit the building.
At the same time, the levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol increase rapidly in our bloodstream to help our body deal with the demands of the situation. In some cases, the flood of emotions overwhelms the frontal lobe’s problem-solving processes, causing us to make poor exit choices or worse—panic and freeze in place.
Why higher-order thinking can halt under stress
The fire alarm example explains how our brain prioritizes incoming information. Survival and emotional input are always processed first, primarily to determine what action we need to take to protect ourselves or avoid the situation.
When the brain detects an environment it perceives as free from physical threats and negative emotions, it can then focus on cognitive enrichment, such as learning new information and skills. Using higher-order thinking to learn and solve problems is a luxury the frontal lobe experiences when all else is calm.
However, positive emotions such as curiosity and love of a topic often motivate the brain to learn and can even be strong enough to overcome stress responses. This is why we can spend hours reading, surfing the Internet, playing video games, or attending to various hobbies as we try to keep our minds off difficult circumstances. Educators may be able to tap into these positive emotions to re-engage students in their learning even in times of stress.
Positive emotions such as curiosity and love of a topic often motivate the brain to learn… Educators may be able to tap into these positive emotions to re-engage students in their learning even in times of stress.
Important mental health considerations as schools reopen
Students and educators across the country face an uncertain year. As decision-makers struggle to figure out the best procedures for safe and effective learning, it is important to keep in mind the mental state of the school children, teachers, administrators, and parents who are the constituents involved in these decisions.
School children have seen some family and friends lose their jobs, and seen others get sick and suddenly die. Most children are confined to their homes. They have had little or no in-person contact with people outside the household, and no time to interact face-to-face socially and emotionally with school mates and friends.
Spring semester schooling became a hybrid of formats—everything from parents acting as teachers to contacting district teachers through internet connections. None of us has ever experienced a health disaster of this magnitude, so our actions are a patchwork of seemingly plausible but sometimes ineffective responses.
Among the most difficult decisions that communities are making during the ongoing pandemic is when and how to reopen schools. What procedures will provide the safest and most effective way to help our children learn curriculum under these circumstances?
There is no one right answer to this question because the factors affecting this decision vary widely across the country and change rapidly. Nonetheless, here are some important considerations.
What procedures will provide the safest and most effective way to help our children learn curriculum during a pandemic? It is important to keep in mind the mental state of the school children, teachers, administrators, and parents who are the constituents involved in these decisions.
The science behind an extended time in “fight-or-flight” mode
We start with understanding the functions of the stress hormone cortisol. Moderate levels of cortisol are always present in the body to perform several regulatory functions. Among several things, it controls the sleep/wake cycle, moderates blood sugar, regulates blood pressure, and monitors metabolism.
When under stress from a perceived danger, the body increases the amount of cortisol to prepare for “fight-or-flight.” Blood pressure and pulse rate increase, metabolism changes, and glucose levels rise to provide additional energy to muscles.
After the danger passes, cortisol levels decrease, and body systems return to normal. Because of the powerful effects that cortisol can have on the body, high levels are meant to be temporary, giving the body the physical boost it needs to deal with the present danger.
Because no one is immune to the stress associated with living through an extended pandemic, there is a high probability that most of us have elevated amounts of cortisol continually present in our bloodstream. When high levels of cortisol are present for an extended period, mental and physical health concerns arise. The early ones to emerge are anxiety and depression.
The stunningly rapid effects of lockdowns on students’ mental health
Research studies on depression are few because the pandemic is so recent and moving quickly, and studies take time. However, a mental health study was conducted of nearly 1,800 Chinese students in grades two through six in Hubei province, where the pandemic originated. These children were locked down for an average of just 33 days, yet 22.6 percent experienced depressive symptoms and 18.9 percent reported anxiety (Xie, et al., 2020). Chances are these percentages would increase as the lockdown continues.
Children’s levels of stress will depend on several factors, including age. Very young children will be aware that something is amiss in the family scene because of their parents’ anxious moods, but not cognizant of the causes.
School-age children, on the other hand, are fully aware of the unexpected limitations that the pandemic has caused. Their stressors will depend on several variables. For example:
- Did they lose someone in the family to the virus?
- What economic toll is it taking on the family?
- How much do they miss their friends?
- Will the family ever be able to travel?
According to a mental health study conducted in China, children were locked down for an average of just 33 days, yet 22.6 percent experienced depressive symptoms and 18.9 percent reported anxiety.
Can effective teaching and learning occur in a stress-filled in-person school environment?
When we add in-person schooling to the mix, students’ stressors from the lockdown environment are likely to translate. Those stressors include worrying about what precautions they need to take to stay safe at school.
Students may worry:
- Are there infected students in the classroom who are asymptomatic?
- Are the teachers and school staff virus-free?
- Is the school bus ride safe?
- Will they ever be closer than six feet to their friends?
- Could they unintentionally infect family members?
Teachers and other adults in schools have their own stressors, especially those who are older or have underlying medical conditions or both. In addition to their usual behavior monitoring, teachers will need to ensure that students are strictly following all safety protocols. Parents, too, will be wondering about the welfare of their children in school.
It seems, then, that in-person schooling at this stage of the pandemic presents an environment that will be highly stressful for all persons involved.
Virtual vs. in-person schooling: Which is better for learning and mental health?
The forces to restart in-person schooling are strong, despite the stressors involved. Parents who still have jobs want to get back to work instead of being homeschool teachers. Child psychologists are worried about the effects on mental health of prolonged home isolation. The brain’s social and emotional systems in preteens and teenagers are developing rapidly and searching for face-to-face interactions with peers. Teachers who are dissatisfied with online learning are ready to return to school with adequate precautions.
The dominant question here is whether meaningful and effective teaching and learning of curriculum can occur in a stress-filled in-school environment when all participants have high levels of cortisol.
One alternative to in-person schooling is the virtual classroom. Students and teachers meet online to engage in teaching and learning from the safety of their homes. Many schools have been using some variation of this model since the March closings.
As appealing as this option may be, it too, has drawbacks—though admittedly none as serious as the risk of getting infected with COVID-19. In addition to the mental health concerns resulting from prolonged isolation, spending so much time with digital devices and online forums is training the developing brain to see human relationships as device-centered rather than person-centered. Research indicates that technology can transform young brains (Sousa, 2015).
Ultimately, districts will need to decide for themselves whether virtual or in-person learning is better for their students, educators, and communities.
Can meaningful and effective teaching and learning occur in a stress-filled in-school environment?
Seven ways to lower stress and increase the brain’s focus on learning
Whether districts decide on virtual, in-person, or hybrid schooling, perhaps the biggest stressor is not knowing when some semblance of normalcy will return. What can we do in the meantime? Finding ways to lower stress and cortisol levels increase chances that effective teaching and learning can occur.
Here are some suggestions for lowering stress.
Help students regulate the stress factors they can control
Teachers and parents should talk frankly but calmly to preteens and teenagers and correct any misinformation they have. Ask about what stresses them and to think of ways they can act over those stressors they can control. For instance, the constant barrage of bad news on TV about the spread of the pandemic and daily death count is incredibly stressful. Eliminating or limiting watching TV news coverage of the pandemic is something a person can control, and such action will likely reduce stress. When in school, students can control how much they adhere to the safety protocols, such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and frequently washing their hands.
Use instructional strategies that engage students’ attention on academics
Regardless of the schooling format, teachers will need to use instructional strategies that keep students engaged in real-world and relevant curriculum topics. Engagement in the curriculum, such as students working in socially-distanced or virtual academic teams, redirects attention away from the stressors and toward discussion, collaboration, and successful problem-solving.
Integrate the arts into lessons whenever possible as they promote creativity and joy. Whether in-person or online, the goal is for teachers and students to work together – socially, emotionally, and cognitively – to get enthusiastic again about teaching and learning.
Encourage safe and fun activities
Find activities at home or in school that are enjoyable and still doable with safety in mind, such as playing a video game, listening to music, or taking a walk in the park.
Limit social media
Limit social media activities that often spread misinformation. This is especially important for younger children who may get upset over something they do not understand.
Maintain social connections
Connect frequently with friends and family members to help overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Take care of physical needs
Take care of your body. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthfully and take deep breaths. Limit caffeine intake.
Schooling during a pandemic presents serious challenges, no matter the format. Students, teachers, school personnel, and parents will continue to be under varying levels of stress through the pandemic. Keep in mind that stress is best managed when the focus is on those stressors we can control rather than the ones we cannot.
When the pandemic eventually eases, we want to be able to look back and believe we made the best out of a bad situation.
Schooling during a pandemic presents serious challenges, no matter the format. Keep in mind that stress is best managed when the focus is on those stressors we can control.
Sousa, D. A. (2016). Engaging the rewired brain. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.
Xie, X., Xue, Q., Zhou, Y., et al. (2020, April). Mental health status among children in home confinement during the Coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak in Hubei Province, China. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/ jamapediatrics.2020.1619.