Friday, April 19, 2013

Stressed Out? Testing, Learning, & Your Brain


‎"When I hear somebody sigh, "Life is hard," I am always tempted to ask, "Compared to what?" "
-Sydney Harris

Testing season!
I’m in north Georgia, just an hour away from the Appalachian mountains. Spring is absolutely beautiful here, with a gorgeous explosion of colors. It really is marvelous…well all except for the pollen. And along with spring, another season is upon us…TESTING SEASON! To some, testing is absolutely horrifying, with a tragic explosion of worry and stress. It really is migraine inducing...well except for its actual purpose. I must admit that I actually enjoy testing. Why? Because I see the underlying purpose, and do my part to fulfill it’s ideal intention…to gain greater understanding of what a learner knows, so we can help them reach their potential. That is the good, and I just work on cutting out the bad.
The classic arguments against standardized testing are that teachers end up teaching the test or that the tests offered don’t take the individual learner into account. I totally agree! Unfortunately, while this is true enough, remember that the rest of your learner's life will not always provide them with the perfect assessment to match their strengths.

I’ve got some rain gear for riding my motorcycle in bad weather, but I still get caught in the rain without it all the time (soggy and miserable). When I do, I have to deal with it. Do I like it? No way! It's a miserable experience. So, while I champion measuring and promoting achievement in the most brain based way possible, we need to prepare our kids for the challenges that aren’t always going to be perfectly tailored for them. They need to understand about stress and how to confront it. Thankfully no one is better equipped than YOU, the parent, to offer this lesson to children.

I've taught most of my years in inner-city schools. I remember a boy in my third grade class who was the poster child for panic. To make matters worse (or more interesting the way I see it), he was also a constant trouble magnet, but I just loved this kid! Sure, squeezing work out of him was a challenge, but it was worth it (for us both). By the time he came to me he had zero confidence, a barrel full of excuses at the ready as to why he couldn't succeed, and the low grades and test scores to back it all up. Despite this, I saw more in him that he ever did in himself. I delighted in the flashes of potential he would show. I’d rejoice in how he would match (timidly mind you) the gifted students in my class with the quality of his responses (this kid had a SHARP wit), and the surprise on his face when I would point it out to him. But when it came time to take that standardized test, he would freeze. He would actually pretend to be deep in thought and act out testing strategies as we practiced. Notice I said act out. He would try to "look" like he was doing the right things to please me, in hopes that I would not notice how scared he was. I knew that just cramming facts and skills into him were not going to pay the big dividends I wanted for him. He needed to learn how to handle the stress so that he could show what he truly knows. Now if that resulted in a failing grade, I was good with it. I just wanted the best for him and accurate information that his future teachers could actually use. I wanted to prepare him in a way that would benefit him, regardless of the learning challenge, and not just help him over the obstacle of standardized testing. Thankfully he did pass to his surprise, but never to mine (I think about this kid ALL the time).

Stress unchecked!
Now as an adult, just consider how stress affects you. How many adults have a hard time dealing with stress? Just looking at it medically, approximately ¾ of all doctor visits are related to stress. Seriously, ask your doctor at your next visit. Let them share some first hand experience. Now just imagine children and consider that stress is a precursor to depression. When most people think of children and depression, they often wonder “what do you have to be depressed about?”  and I must admit that I’ve thought it myself as well. However, when you consider what stress can lead to, it makes a lot more sense. Studies by Harvard University suggest that about 23% of kids show symptoms of depression, and this number SKYROCKETS to 60-80% if they have learning disabilities. It's good to know these numbers (don't freak), so that you can take action. Everyone will experience difficulty, but understanding the effect of stress is critical in our prioritizing efforts to combat it. Pessimism in our learners only magnifies the effects of stress, but the good news is that we are not born pessimistic (we just sometimes practice it), and optimism can be learned.

So what happens to the brain?
So how about our kids? Kids under stress will often withdraw, need to constantly move/fidget, and become unable to effectively communicate verbally (I’ve seen my kids in tears unable to verbalize what they are feeling). They are also limited by processing through internal images and emotions (emotions are POWERFUL in regards to how the brain works). Does this seem familiar? I've seen it way too many times.

Let's dig deeper and get NERDY!!! Under high levels of stress, the non-dominant hemisphere literally powers down. The left side of your brain handles facts, rules, order, thoughts, language and logic. The right side of your noggin juggles impulses, feelings, creativity, intuition, and music. Each of your hemispheres works in concert by seamlessly communicating through the corpus callosum. This is when everything is working fine. When we are stressed, everything gets way harder for the brain. Both of my children with FASD struggle with this ALL the time because that part of the brain (the corpus callosum) is often damaged due to their disability. Their ability to think is impaired.

How about a more "vivid" (or fuzzy perhaps) example...drinking alcohol! When someone drinks, they literally shut down the left side of the brain by making this communication between the hemispheres less effective. In the meantime, the right side just keeps chugging away (sometimes literally). Feelings (woooo), creativity (look at what I can do), intuition (I don't have any facts, but this just "feels" right), and music (crank it up!) are all just having a good time without ol' left brain around to remind them of the logic, facts, and careful consideration. This is the neurological reason why so many people make REALLY BAD decisions that just seemed soooo good at time, but you often regret.


But that's not all. You’ve heard of the fight or flight response (I'm just guessing...let's roll with it). In addition to everything I've covered, blood is also literally moving away from the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions (complex thoughts) and it moves toward the portion responsible for primitive and instinctive brain function (reptilian brain). This manages the survival functions of flight, fight, freeze, and/or FREAK OUT! Imagine you run into a pot of honey…ohhh delicious. The color, the flavor, the consistency…so magical (yes, I like honey)! All of these complexities of thought are brought to you courtesy of the frontal lobe. Suddenly, you see a bear (who also loves honey). Your brain switches over to the survival mode (this is not a cuddly bear). Adrenalin production, increased heart rate, quicker physical response...this is all orchestrated by a different part of the brain. Two mental/physical states, meant to perform different jobs. One of these is obviously the more productive state for test taking, yet under stress, our kids inadvertently flip the switch.

I know a friend whose car broke down on the highway during rush hour. She had her one year old with her in the back seat. When she called for roadside assistance, they asked her one simple question...what is the make and model of the car. Despite driving it for six years, at that moment she drew a complete BLANK! It was not a matter of intelligence or education...she was just stressed! Now imagine your kids and the fight/flight/freeze response if overly stressing over a test. They can’t fight it (that would be silly and paper cuts hurt), they can’t run from it (well actually kids try that...think about it), but they certainly can freeze! Sound like a familiar reaction? Deer in the and the scantron....

Okay, what can I do to help?
#1 Failure-proof your child!
Here is a perfect way to help you prevent your kids from stressing over failure! Our brains are designed to learn through our trials. When things are hard, that means we are learning! Check out this previous post if you haven't already and teach them how to handle stress and difficultly:

How to Failure-Proof Your Child!

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” 
― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

#2 Put them in positions to practice handling/overcoming stress! 
In every learning environment possible, give them choices. Also offer them a measure of control (self-guided learning is ridiculously powerful) and let them experience “earned” success (and recognize their EFFORT). Nothing is more amazing than watching a kid pursue a passion, failures and all, and watch them doggedly continue despite the barriers straight to success! This will help create an empowered learner, rather than a helpless one.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” 
― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

#3 Do not ADD your stress to theirs!
Teachers and parents are sadly notorious for this around testing season. We don’t generally come out and openly say it, but you can often see OUR stress (especially when our kids are not "getting it”) plainly displayed on our faces, and trust me, kids pick up on it. My daughter with FASD struggles with math, however I can't stress over this. I just continue to cultivate, encourage, and expect her absolute best effort. My expectations are HIGH, but when I see that grade/test score, I’m a stone faced poker player. My first question is “did she do her best?” If the answer is yes and she is working to her fullest potential, then what else can I expect? If my son gets upset (he has severe emotional swings because of his disability), but manages to do his best and follow the calming strategies he has practiced, then THAT is a success. The other stuff I can handle. I’m a big boy. I don’t want to pile the stress of parenting/teaching a child with disabilities, along with all the worries of the future that go with that, on top of what they already have on their plate. Mind you, I don’t baby them, but they do not need a double helping. My stress is my own, not theirs. I celebrate that they've overcome what they could, while learning to succeed like they should (WHAT!!! TOTALLY TRADEMARKING THAT!).

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 
― Winston Churchill

In the end, just understanding the nature of this beast gives you, and the learners in your life, a huge leg up. Some stress is good. Sometimes we need a fire lit under our feet. What makes stress unmanageable (and unhealthy, and generally not fun) is if we feel that a challenge has stretched us too far beyond our capacity or is beyond the resources we "believe" are available within us. Luckily our resources (especially the noggin and YOU as parents) are SELDOM ever pushed to their limits, just steered in the wrong direction. You've got a lot more in you than you often think. =)