Childhood can be a stressful period in a person’s life. Although stress is a natural and necessary part of growth, it can have significant negative effects on the development of a child’s brain. When a person experiences stress, his or her body produces cortisol, a hormone that controls the fight, freeze, or flight response. Minor stress helps a child learn and adapt to the surrounding world. With more stressful events, an adult’s help can be needed to prevent lasting trauma and turn it into a learning and growth experience. Therefore, it is the teacher’s role to understand what risk factors can cause a child to be stressed and work to prevent or compensate for this stress.
How Stress Affects Brain Development
A child’s brain develops in response to its surroundings and the events he or she experiences. In response to a threatening or frightening situation, a person’s body releases the hormone cortisol, preparing him or her to fight or run (Kaiser and Rasminsky 55). However, once the situation passes, the hormone levels return to normal. If stressful events happen too often and there is no adult to protect the child, his or her body can change so that it becomes easier to release cortisol, but harder to return to normal (Kaiser and Rasminsky 55). This is called toxic stress, as the high amounts of cortisol it produces can damage the brain permanently (Kaiser and Rasminsky 55). This damage specifically affects the development of executive functions, which are necessary throughout a person’s life (Kaiser and Rasminsky 55). Therefore, toxic stress must be avoided whenever possible.
How Risk Factors Cause Stress
Risk factors are conditions that can lead to increased stressful situations or cause challenging behavior in a child. They can be biological, affecting his or her executive function or learning ability even before birth (Kaiser and Rasminsky 19-31). Alternatively, risk factors can be environmental, related to the child’s family, surroundings, or neighborhood, or events such as violence or disaster (Kaiser and Rasminsky 31-41). This group includes things such as poverty, neglect, and conflict between parents (Kaiser and Rasminsky 32). Difficulties with learning can leave a child feeling frustrated with failing tasks that are easy for their peers, becoming stressed (Kaiser and Rasminsky 28). A child that has social problems can experience stress from being rejected or ignored by their classmates (Kaiser and Rasminsky 29). Furthermore, both can lead to challenging behavior, which can, in turn, stress the child’s peers (Kaiser and Rasminsky 29-31). Thus, noticing, understanding, and, if possible, compensating for these risk factors can significantly help a child’s development.
How This Knowledge Helps Teachers
Understanding the links between the processes of a child’s brain development, challenging behavior, and risk factors allows a teacher to predict problems that the child can face and help to solve them. It is important to know that many of these factors, especially the biological and heavier environmental factors, such as abuse or disasters, are outside of a child’s control. Because of it, he or she may not have had the opportunity to develop the skills or executive facilities expected at his or her age. However, with effort, patience, and care, a teacher can help the child overcome these difficulties, practice the skills he or she is missing, and form stronger relationships with his or her peers.
Stress is an unavoidable and important part of any child’s life. Depending on how significant it is, how often it occurs, and whether an adult can help him or her cope with it, it can have a positive or negative effect on the child’s development. A teacher is in a unique position that allows him or her to notice these risk factors, understand how they can affect a child’s behavior, and compensate. Therefore, the teacher’s involvement is critical for helping a child develop skills he or she may be missing, as well as positive attitudes in life.
Kaiser, Barbara, and Judy Skylar Rasminsky. Challenging Behavior in Young Children. Understanding, Preventing, and Responding Effectively. 4th ed., Pearson, 2017.