Kids are processing all of these changes, often unconsciously, while they make their way through the day. Does it seem like they have more trouble following directions or regulating their behavior? They are, because handling all of these stress factors increases the demands on their brains.
When people are stressed, their brains are managing that stress while trying to complete other tasks. Their ability to do those other tasks, like follow directions, is slowed and sometimes diminished. And the brains of people who experience chronic, or "toxic," stress suffer damage to neural connections, further impairing brain function.
In addition, stress takes the thinking part of the brain “off-line,” and gives priority to the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages the fight, flight, or freeze reflex that keeps us safe.
Here’s a great model of what happens in your brain when you are stressed.
- Your arm is your spinal cord.
- Your palm is your brain stem, which regulates basic life functions like breathing, circulation, and heart rate.
- Your thumb is the amygdala, or reptile brain. It’s the most primitive part of the brain whose purpose is survival. It regulates the fight, flight, or freeze impulse.
- The back of your hand is the back of your brain, and your fingers are the prefrontal cortex, or “The Wise Leader.” This part of the frontal lobe is the last to develop in the human brain (so a kid’s prefrontal cortex isn’t yet fully developed), and it is responsible for making reasoned decisions and anticipating and understanding consequences.
When you are calm, all the parts of your brain are integrated and communicating (feel your fingers wrapped around your thumb and touching your palm), and your prefrontal cortex is running the show. When you are stressed, you “flip your lid” (straighten out your fingers, leaving your thumb in your palm), and the prefrontal cortex gets upstaged by the amygdala trying to keep you safe. Communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala calls the shots. It is in close communication with your brain stem, making your heart rate go up and sending more blood to your limbs so you can run away, but it’s not communicating with the part of your brain that helps you make reasonable decisions based on consequences.
To get your Wise Leader back in charge, you need to reduce the cognitive load on your brain and, optimally, relax and work through some of the stressors. Imagine a kid at your Read-Aloud who isn't following directions. Instead of scolding him (increasing his anxiety and fueling his fight, flight, or freeze impulse),
- offer some humor,
- provide an opportunity to move,
- break down the task into smaller steps and only give one instruction at a time, and
- help him feel safe and welcome.
Before you know it, his developing prefrontal cortex will be back calling the shots, and Spring Fever will recede.
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