How Stress Affects Brain Development in Students

Stress is a condition in which an individual experiences challenges to physical or emotional well-being that overwhelm their coping capacity. While some experience with manageable stress is important for healthy development, prolonged, uninterrupted, overwhelming stress can have toxic effects. This type of toxic stress is often associated with childhood abuse and neglect.


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According to an article on the Ready Nation website, (sponsored by America’s Promise and Colin Powell), in the early years of life when the brain is developing rapidly it is particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Toxic early life stress (ELS) may induce persistent hyper- sensitivity to stressors and sensitization of neural circuits and other neurotransmitter systems which process threat information. These neurobiological sequelae of ELS may promote the development of short and long-term behavioural and emotional problems that may persist and increase the risk for psychopathology and physical health disorders into adulthood.

In laymen’s terms, there are three kinds of stress that kids experience. The first two represent stress that are typical and that can be overcome with healthy responses. The third, however, is chronic and toxic stress. It results from an on-going negative, destructive and unhealthy environment in a home. It will affect a student’s grades, attitudes and ultimately their performance.

Have You Noticed?

I’d like to hear from you. One observation I am making week after week is the level of stress that students experience and how little it takes to overwhelm them.  In other words, I believe students are more “stressed out” than at any time since I began working with students (in 1979), and it takes less and less to really stress them out—making a poor grade, breaking up with a boyfriend, not winning a soccer game, scoring low on a test, etc. None of these experiences are fun, but when compared to the stress kids faced in history, they pale in comparison.

If I am accurate in this observation, let me offer some reasons why this might be:

  1. We have not developed emotionally strong kids. Instead of learning to resolve conflict in relationships and read body language by interacting with various generations, we put them in front of a screen that requires little to no emotional intelligence.
  2. We have medicated their problems. Whether it’s physical pain or not getting what they want, we tend to provide a band aid rather than a cure. We take them shopping, or give them pain relievers—and naturally so. Unfortunately, they haven’t learn to live with pain.
  3. We nurture too much. While I totally understand the tendency to nurture (I am a dad), I think we have over-done it, leaving them without the tools they need to navigate life’s hardships. In the past, parents took pride in giving their children everything they needed; today, parents take pride in giving them everything they want.

Unfortunately, what kids want is what we all naturally gravitate toward—comfort, pleasure and entertainment. I want that just like anyone else does. However, my greatest seasons of growth were moments I did not enjoy, moments that weren’t pleasurable.

Here’s my challenge. Let’s be leaders who are intentional about building our strong and robust emotions into our students. This means having conversations, creating experiences and exposing them to people who will equip them, not merely medicate their problems.

Your thoughts?

How Stress Affects Brain Development in Students