Anna Grillo explains how stress can shut down the learning centres in a child's brain and gives some strategies to bring it back online.

child hiding on couch in pillows

By Anna Grillo|

"Right, pack up your stuff and leave the lecture theatre now!"

My friend and I darted eyes to one another - was he talking to us?

It was another day in our psychology class and the lecturer was glaring in our direction. As a young 17-year-old, I didn't have the confidence to speak out and ask who he was referring to. After an agonising two minutes, a couple of students behind me got up and left.

The lecture resumed... but the learning did not. My heart was beating fast, my mind was whirling, and it took a long time to wind down and focus on the lecture.

My story is an example of how fear, or the perception of it, can stop us in our tracks.

When we perceive fear, our survival instinct comes onboard to protect us at all cost. The body can become in a hyper state of stimulation, flooded with stress hormones in an effort to decide whether to fight, flee, or freeze.

Blood flow is moved to our limbs to support our larger muscles to run or fight, our breathing becomes shallow, and our eyes start to scan the horizon searching for danger… not an ideal situation if you are trying to focus on something right in front of you!

Learning - diagram of the brain

How does stress relate to learning?

When we perceive danger or a threatening situation, our reasoning and logical thinking processes go 'offline’. It doesn’t need to be a dangerous or traumatic experience either. Stress related to learning can show in a variety of situations, such as being called upon for a response when you don’t know the answer, being hungry or disturbed by an external stimulant, or a mismatch in learning styles between child and parent.

If we are too busy worrying about things that we perceive as a potential threat, then we become distracted and lose focus. As the saying goes, when emotions are high, intelligence is low. And this is not the type of setting in which invites learning. Communication is a two-way process - the message needs to be both transmitted and understood.

The key is becoming aware of ways you can create a safe and engaging learning environment. The following points outline some areas to consider if you think your child may have turned ‘offline’ throughout the day.

Learning - boy looking up at sky

Meeting basic needs

Has your child eaten properly and drank enough water? Have they had enough sleep? Are their surroundings calm and nurturing? Are they wearing the right clothes for the activity at hand? Are there any external factors such as artificial scents, too many people, or bright lights, etc, that may be interfering? Review the learning environment and see what adjustments you may need to make to prepare them appropriately.

Learning styles

There are so many learning styles, all of them valid. You may be aware of how your child prefers to experience the world around them, but in moments of learning related stress, it's good to remind ourselves so we can help our kids de-stress and reclaim their love of learning again.

Some children may need a quiet space and structure, while others prefer group learning situations with lots of movement and noise. Are they better at reading and absorbing information visually, or does listening or movement help them make the necessary connections of a concept? Do they prefer to pull out books later on in the day or at night, or does everything get completed before breakfast? There are many variables and we are all unique individuals.

Take some time to observe how your child naturally likes to learn and the activities they are drawn to.

Learning styles are different for each child

Movement matters

Does doodling or fiddling while listening help your child to retain information, or would a quick trip to the park to run out their energy before sitting down to a learning experience be a better way to start the day? Create opportunities for movement every day, as full body movement helps the brain to organise and coordinate itself too!

Look after yourself, too

Home educating is not for the faint hearted! Balancing the fine line between being parent and facilitator of their learning can be difficult. Considering that most communication is non-verbal (some sources say up to 90%!) and our tone and mood can convey a very different message to the words we are saying. It’s important that as a parent, you are well rested and fed, and have a supportive environment around you.

When things start to get chaotic, above all, remember why you chose to home educate in the first place. Bring the family together and understand the individual learning styles and ways you can all contribute to the learning experience. Connect often and find a way to move forward together. Happy learning!

Anna Grillo

Anna Grillo


Anna is a Kinesiologist & Wellness Educator who specialises in emotional intelligence and self awareness. She home educates her two children in Melbourne, Australia, and is passionate about helping people reconnect with their true selves. You'll most likely find her sipping tea and eating chocolate whilst researching wellness topics on any given day. Anna is on Instagram @annatrudagrillo

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