Body to Brain Learning Professional Development Series | Integrating Thinking

Anxiety and Academic Learning: "Calm Down & Carry On" Doesn't Work.

anxiety braindevelopment learning at school protection brain Feb 01, 2022
Integrating Thinking
Anxiety and Academic Learning: "Calm Down & Carry On" Doesn't Work.

Learning happens best when we feel safe but challenged enough to be curious and interested in what we're learning about or what we are being taught.

It can be exciting, challenging and rewarding as we learn new things.

Neurophysiologically, it means we're using the top part of our brain, and that part of the brain controls our behavioural response to learning academically. The thinking part, the academic learning part, of our brain is in action.

It means the rest of the brain, the automatic, more primitive parts of the brain, are humming along doing what they do without screaming for attention and excess energy. They're keeping us going and keeping the body system engines running (our breathing, our postural control, our body systems etc.) 

To learn successfully academically, we need to have well-developed mature systems that help keep the body running along well and that control the activities of the lower parts of the brain. We aren't aware or conscious of their function.

When we get anxious, the more primitive parts of our brain become more active. They are more attention-seeking. And they consume more brain energy because they move into protection mode.

What does that mean for learning?

It means the spotlight has moved from curiosity, inquiry and learning about our world and what's currently on offer, to a sense of concern about our safety in that world, in that situation. Our energy is transferred to the part of the brain that puts us into an alert state. Our brain and body get ready for potential action to preserve us and improve our sense of safety and comfort where we are. 

The more primitive, lower parts of the brain and the associated control of our nervous systems and the messages that control and activate our body start to go on alert. And they can go on high alert if we feel particularly threatened. The spotlight that's on our learning part of the brain moves dramatically to the backstage characters or the lower parts of the brain, which keep us operating and safe.

It's kind of like tyres in our cars. How?  Well, the tyres take us places in our vehicles, and often we don't even know that they're there until we get a flat tyre. That tends to stop us in our tracks. We need to take action and fix the situation before we can continue our journey.

If someone feels threatened, that's what happens (metaphorically speaking of course!)  Our attention is drawn to that aspect of our functioning ability. The bottom part of the brain jumps up and down and says, "Pay attention here". "We need to get some safety happening here." "I'm extremely uncomfortable!"  "NOW!"

Remember, our brain and functional systems operate in response to the world and the environment we find ourselves in. Children know innately when parents or caregivers are anxious. They pick up on that energy and their brain does a quick check to see if they are in danger. If it receives a slightly positive answer to that inquiry, then it moves into protection mode, and protection energy is activated. Focus and attention will drift from the curious, safe place of learning and inquiry to a place of high alert. Our neurophysiology can take us into our fight, flight, or freeze responses and behaviour.

Those reactionary states (fight, flight, freeze or 'just checking and getting ready for this response') look different for different people and are expressed through various behaviours. Expression of the fight, flight and freeze responses are highly dependent on each person's previous experience and ways of being. Be aware,  though, that no matter what it looks like to us, learning at the academic level loses priority and brain function changes for all of these children, no matter how it is expressed.

 So, why am I telling you this?

Because as school starts here in Australia, no matter what year level, there is often a higher level of alertness around the start of school year experience and what to expect. And, it's not just our early first year and prep students; it's students at any year level.

Add to that mix the complexity inherent in adult policies around pandemic management, some administrative confusion within the systems and anxiety around what this all looks like for teachers in schools, for parents, and families etc. and the students may find that they're actually experiencing higher levels of hypervigilance, alertness, and questions around their safety that they can't articulate. It's a feeling and a response that may not have words. But, the response will probably be evident in their behaviour. It may not be obvious but rather subtle in its presentation. (The tolerance levels for triggering the innate safety-seeking responses in each individual are likely to be different.)

This current schooling situation has the possibility of taking our students out of their optimum learning part of their brain and into that security seeking part of their brains. As I said, we can all react differently. Our students will react differently. Likewise, our teachers will react differently.

Just telling someone to calm down and carry on, isn't likely to actually calm them down. Telling them not to worry, may not actually help them 'not worry'.

We need to understand and be aware of different tolerance levels for stress around us.  We need to understand that sometimes the behaviour we see is a result of a more primitive brain and central nervous and autonomic nervous system response to seek safety and security. That part of the brain decides whether we need to fly, fight, freeze, or carry on because we're safe.

These are neurophysiological reactions, and for children, they cannot be easily controlled or inhibited by higher-order thinking and executive functions. Those brain activities happen in the top parts of the brain that haven't fully matured. A child's brain has not developed or matured to that level of function. It's still learning about those processes. That learning process takes time (up to 25 years) to mature.

If we have immature lower brain functions that predominate and control our brain functions and activity, then those inhibition processes, that executive thinking, that regulation and control that we often talk about, has to work extremely hard.

Calming the body is hard if you just try to think about "calming it". It's not a thinking-based activity. We have a natural reflexive way that we respond when we're in an anxious state. So how do we calm our response? Through calming the body and using our physiological reactions so that our parasympathetic nervous system, that's our fight, flight and freeze system, can be calm. There are various techniques to do that, including deep breathing. But I won't go into those here.

My point today is that as we go back to school, the most important thing we can do to help our learners learn, particularly those who are anxious, is to help them feel safe.

A safe body and brain are required for a learning brain.

In these next few weeks, as all school students, teachers and families are acclimatizing to the changes that are happening in our school systems, remember that the brain will operate to be safe first. Once it's safe, then it will be able to learn.  

Understanding and applying the Body to Brain Learning process helps students and teachers attain better academic learning outcomes. It impacts wellbeing at school and can help support neurodiverse students and those who work with them. It also assists those who are underachieving academically and are experiencing learning challenges because of neuromotor and sensory immaturity.  


If you would like to learn more about the Body to Brain Learning process and join in the conversation, then sign up for regular updates, training information and other 'neuro-nerd' learning facts using the button in the section below.  

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Dr Christine Payard (PhD) is a Neurodevelopmental Educator, founder of the "Body to Brain Learning Professional Development Series", Director of "Integrating Thinking" and the INPP Australia Principal.  

She is an experienced teacher, a passionate educator who could talk all day about learning, how we learn, the body, the brain, and a functional and developmental approach to learning.

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