In my Intro to Educational Neuroscience class this evening we went over the effects stress has on the brain. I'd heard it before, but none the less, every time I hear it or read it I find it striking.
As one of my classmates put it, stress actually "eats" the hippocampus region of the brain where short-term memories are transferred into long term memories, and spacial navigation are located. Stress causes a decrease in the natural replacement of brain cells in the hippocampus, actually shrinking the size of the area over time if someone is exposed to chronic stress. The same thing happens in the amygdala as well- the region of the brain that plays a role in processing of memories and emotional regulation. Children under chronic stress have also been seen to have smaller corpus callosums, which is the fibers that connect the two halves of the brain. This can impact processing throughout the brain.
I can't help but hear this and see faces of little ones I've taught over the years- ones who worried whether or not mom would come home that night, whether or not dad would wake them up in the middle of the night on a drunken binge. Little ones abused with belts, denied food, or locked in closets. Little ones living place to place, never quite knowing where they'd spend the night. For some school seemed to be the last thing on their priority list. They seemed to love it inside the building, ate up attention from adults and loved playing with their friends, but academically we could all end up grinding our teeth to get through a guided reading lesson. Not all of them of course, but many.
I had trouble focusing on my statistics midterm yesterday because of a particularly rough afternoon when PJ and I weren't seeing eye to eye. We've always known what stress does to us, but to be able to see the physical brain changes when our little ones are under stress- in those moments their brains are not working as we'd like them to.
What do we do? All I can think is to create a safe environment where they know they are loved, welcomed, and free to take risks. Once we've let them know they are safe then we teach our hearts out, working on putting as much as we can into long-term memory to free up space in their working memory so they can process tasks quicker. Particularly since their working memories are most likely already full of non-school related information.