How Stress Can Cause Learning Delays & Behaviour Challenges


August has been a crazy month for a lot of us. In a matter of three weeks I bought and sold a house. The stress was nothing short of insane. I didn’t realise just how stressed I was until afterwards. I experienced all the usual symptoms of stress like anxiety and insomnia but what stood out was the poor memory, feeling easily confused and overwhelmed as well as poor focus.

I got to thinking how much my symptoms were similar to many of the challenges my clients struggle with. The effects of stress on the brain and body are profound, but we can mitigate those effects by caring for our children’s nervous systems. This is what creates resilient children.

Trauma and Learning Struggles Go Hand-in-Hand

Since the beginning of my career, I have worked with countless children who are struggling with learning because of stress and trauma. The last few months since the start of the COVID crisis has impacted kids in different ways. Some kids are thriving, and some are not. Many parents have shared their children have anxiety over returning to school.

Parents are stressed too about many things – their child’s academics being one of them. In the last months, several people have suggested I write a blog about what parents can do to set their kids up for academic success – well this is it.

Academic Success Starts with Mental Health

If you want to ensure your child’s brain is able to learn and develop as it should – then this year – avoid making academics the top priority. Let it be the side dish. Focus on addressing anxiety and calming the fight-or-flight response.

So many of us feel like we need to find the right educational resources, tutors or curriculums. I am here to tell you if you want your child to learn this year – our first priority has to be getting our kids to feel calm and safe.

… and this doesn’t just apply during the COVID crisis – I am talking for better learning in general. When kids are stressed their brains have a much harder time learning. Ensure your child’s nervous system is calmer and you ensure they are learning and behaving better.

How Stress Impacts Learning

The thing is that stress tends to turn on the brain in all the wrong ways and slow it down in all the ways we don’t want as well.

The effects of stress and even trauma on the brain is so rarely considered when addressing learning and behaviour difficulties and yet they are so well researched. It’s easy to think our kids are doing okay because on the surface it appears so, but some kids hide it better. I was definitely one of those kids.

Children Process Stressors Different

It’s easy to forget just how amplified a child’s anxieties can become, but when they don’t have the life skills or experiences to process those fears – it can be downright crippling.

So whether it is the COVID crisis or something like a move, a divorce, a death in the family, bullying, the stigma of having a learning or behaviour disorder or any other stressor – we absolutely need to be aware of the role that stress and even trauma plays in our child’s ability to learn.

How Stress Slows Down the Brain

I’ve said a million times how the brain is plastic, and this is wonderful when it comes to trying to turn around and overcome learning and behaviour disorders. Yet this neuroplasticity is also what can cause undesirable changes in times of intense stress or crisis.

Most of us familiar with the fight-or-flight response where during times of stress the body is flooded with a rush of adrenaline. However, there is another response known as freeze-and-surrender in which the body’s response actually ‘slows down’.

This can cause a child to zone out or even shut down. Learning in this situation is as difficult as it is for kids who are stuck in the fight-or-flight response.

Life Stress VS. Chronic Stress & Trauma

While we all experience stressors in life, generally our body and brain recover, and we go back to our regular selves.

Severe shocks or continuous stressors result in changes that can have more profound impacts. This is where the brain makes changes as a result of being pushed too far. In some instances, this can result in PTSD where everyday situations can trigger the alarm response in the brain.

The Effects of Trauma on the Developing Brain

Chronic childhood stress or trauma can make changes to a developing brain. When a child’s brain is in an alarm state, the ability to perform higher order skills like planning, organizing, focusing, memorizing or reasoning is compromised.

The brain is flooded with stress hormones that affect brain development: both the structure and overall bio-chemistry. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is toxic when it is released in high amounts. This hormone can cause damage to the very areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning and memory – that is the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

What It Looks Like

Learning should be a natural process for most children, but in this state it becomes a laborious if not impossible task. These kids are ‘absent’ during the learning and this can ultimately contribute to cognitive delays because of invasive thoughts, memories or disassociation.

Memory is commonly impacted since the fight-or-flight response takes front seat to deal with apparent threats and turns down the functions that are less important to survival like learning and memory.

Understanding Learning Gaps

Even worse, their ability to learn becomes further impeded by the behaviours that so often accompany stress and trauma: anger, withdrawal, impulsiveness, aggression, poor focus, hyper-activity and more. This in turn creates learning gaps.

The research shows that children who experience chronic stress or trauma are more likely to repeat a grade, have behaviour issues that often leads to suspension and they are also more frequently absent from school.

Chronic Stress and Trauma Can Look Like Bad Behaviour

The child who appears disengaged, withdrawn/lazy, uninterested, absent-minded, unfocused or even aggressive may actually be trying their best despite a brain that is in fight-flight.

Changes due to stress early in development can be more detrimental since the brain is still developing. This can potentially wire a child to have a learning disability or an anxiety disorder. Yet there is no reason to be pessimistic. There is plenty that can be done to mitigate the effects of chronic stress and even trauma.

Supporting the nervous system can be the difference between a child who is resilient to the stressors of this COVID crisis or life in general or one who struggles to bounce back. In my next article, I will outline ways to support your child’s nervous system to mitigate the effects of stress on the brain.

If you want to learn more about how you can balance your child’s brain so they can reach their full potential with learning, focus and managing their emotions and be a happier more confident kid then schedule a free Better Brain Breakthrough call here.

In Health & Wholeness,