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How to Not Let Stress Stop Students from Succeeding

Issue 5 and Volume 39.

It’s important for educators to understand that while our students may have exceptional cognitive abilities, there may be external and internal factors working to drain that intelligence. I call this a “intellect ual hemorrhage,” and it’s something that occurs right in front of us. Without intervention, we can lose a viable student to a full “academic arrest.” But with some emergent and preventive measures, we can salvage hemorrhaging students and bring them back from the brink of disaster.

Bandwidth Blues
In the article, “Freeing Up Intelligence,” from the January/February 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Elder Shafir note that stressors can create a “scarcity in the brain that diminishes IQ and self-control.” Our brain is held hostage to stressors that create a shortage of attention and inability to focus on targeted areas of our life. When we worry about our children, the bills, the car breaking down or other stressors, we have less cognitive capacity, or bandwidth, to deal with other intellectual requirements. This directly affects our cerebral performance. When our bandwidth is taxed, we have entered into a state that neuroscientists have coined as “bandwidth blues.”

Spend time with your family to recharge from daily stresses.

Spend time with your family to recharge from daily stresses. Photo Chris Nollette

In the classroom, a student’s ability to retain information (cognitive capacity), reason and solve problems (fluid intelligence), and initiate and inhibit actions (executive control) relies on having normal or higher bandwidth to process information and fill space in the brain. When students are under stress, intellectual functions are diverted away from learning.

The authors of the article cite Raven’s Progressive Matrices as the prominent and universally accepted measure of fluid intelligence. Several studies using these matrices showed that participants under stress have a dramatically lower IQ and an increased chance of impulsive behavior. Educators see this daily in their classrooms and in ourselves as we juggle jobs and families. Steps must be taken to stem the bandwidth blues and stop intellectual hemmorhage.

Stop the Hemorrhage
Simple measures can help counteract the effects that sap our brain when stressors come to the forefront:

Sleep. This is one of the most important first steps to improved cognition—the benefits are innumerable. The brain punishes those who fail to listen to its warning signs. Remind students of the importance of sleep (they should get between 6.5 and eight hours of sleep consistently each night).

Finances. Show students the value of budgeting and help guide them to financial aid or other resources.

Exercise. Encourage students to work out—alone or with a friend. Take time in the classroom to get them on their feet and motivate them to go outside for a walk during breaks or lunch.

Vacation. Encourage students to take time off, be with their family, plan a trip before the big test—anything to get away to recharge.

Family time. Encourage students to have a date night once a week to stay connected to their spouse or significant other, or plan a family day if they have children.

Food. Eating smartly increases cognitive bandwidth. Students can do something as simple as increase fluid intake or stay away from high-caffeine and sugary drinks. If your budget affords, have water readily available in the classroom.

Although these remedies are simple, the results are potent. We must encourage our students—and ourselves—to apply these coping mechanisms so we can create a healthier learning environment. An old Texas phrase states that “common sense just ain’t so common anymore”: We need to increase the cognitive bandwidth of the mind if real learning is to take place.

Stress is a part of life, but when a cut turns into a bleed it’s up to us to stop the arterial hemorrhage. The hemorrhage of intellect is one that can be controlled, but we must be aware that the danger is real and present in our classroom—for our students and ourselves.

Suggested reading
Lavie N. Distracted and confused? Selective attention under load. Trends Cogn Sci. 2005;9(2):75–82.
Mani A, Mullainathan S, Shafir E, et al. Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science. 2013;341(6149):976–980.

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