How does stress affect a child’s development and academic potential? | Pamela Cantor


We’re mammals. And as mammals the majority of the growth
of our brains happens after we’re born. So this is a very, very crucial thing to understand. The majority of the growth of the human brain
happens after birth. And we know that it takes a long time for
the human brain to develop. There are critical periods like zero to five
and there are new critical periods of great sensitivity that are being discovered. The newest of them is actually adolescence. But a human baby has what’s called experience
dependent growth. Their brains are astonishingly malleable and
they grow in response to the experiences and relationships that we expose them to. So one of the first principles of human development
and brain development is this astonishing feature of the human brain because it’s
made up of tissue that is the most susceptible to change from experience of any tissue in
the human body. There are three things to remember about brain
development. One is astonishing malleability, experience
dependent growth and the role of context. But I still haven’t told you how context
actually gets under the skin and into the brain. And in order to do that I need to tell you
about the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain
that responds to things like emotion, attention, concentration, memory and it consists of three
structures. There’s the prefrontal cortex which involves
focus and attention. There’s the hippocampus which has many functions
in memory. And then there’s the amygdala which is the
emotion center of the human brain. These three structures develop together. They’re intimately connected and cross wired. The limbic system is the learning center of
the brain. But to talk about how context gets inside
I want to give you two examples. And the two examples are the systems that
govern stress and the systems that govern love and trust. The first is our stress response system and
this system is mediated by the hormone cortisol. So when we experience stress we get that fight-flight-freeze
feeling where our heart starts to pound and the hair goes up on the back of our neck and
that stress response is actually a good thing. It’s adaptive. It helps us focus. It helps us prepare for something like a recital
or a performance. When this system is triggered over and over
again by unrelenting stress it can get locked in the on position. And when that happens to children because
of overwhelming stress, stress that is not buffered by the presence of an adult this
kind of stress can produce damage and consequence to the developing structures of the limbic
system. In fact, what can happen is the amygdala,
they emotion center of the brain can grow disproportionately to the development of the
other two structures. And those other two structures, the prefrontal
cortex and the hippocampus are vital for learning. So adversity doesn’t just happen to children,
it happens inside their brains and bodies through the biologic mechanism of stress. So that’s an example of how context can
get inside our bodies and our brains. But fortunately there’s an upside to this
story in the hormone system that’s mediated by the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as our love-trust hormone. And interestingly that hormone has the same
target in the brain as cortisol, the structures of the limbic system. Because the limbic system is covered with
receptors for these two hormonal systems. So when a person has the experience of a human
relationship that can buffer stress what happens is that oxytocin not only helps children manage
stress and prevent the damage from cortisol but the release of this hormone can create
resilience to future stress. So when we talk about the human relationship
we’re not just talking about being nice to a child. We’re talking about forming a relationship
that is sufficiently powerful and trustful to trigger the release of this hormone. And that’s actually the biologic basis of
resilience. So just as stress has it’s correlate in
cortisol, resilience has its biologic correlate in oxytocin. One of the things that’s incredibly interesting
to think about around brain growth is the role of mild to moderate amounts of stress
and challenge. That when things are hard, when children have
to fail or be disappointed these kinds of experiences are actually a stimulus in the
positive sense to brain growth. So removing challenge, removing stress if
such a thing were even possible really doesn’t sere the developmental needs of kids. So there might be a view that if we protect
children enough, if we reduce the stress in their lives that they will be healthier and
they will be equally productive. I think really what is true about the developing
brain is it responds in positive ways to calibrated challenge, calibrated stress and sometimes
has the resilience to handle things that even go beyond those bounds. So if you want to apply this to the role of
parent or teacher we know that really great teachers are looking for how much an individual
child can and should stretch themselves to reach a goal. If a teacher doesn’t do that then the same
level of growth won’t happen. So we want that. That’s what the upper end of a child’s
developmental brain – that’s what the upper end of a child’s developmental range
is all about. And when kids get into that zone called the
zone of proximal development they’re often nervous. They’re a little worried about what might
happen. But the role of a good teacher, the role of
a good parent is to make them feel safe enough to try and strong enough to weather a disappointment.

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