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Brains Need to Be Calm to Be "Reason-Able"

November 10, 2016
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It’s a stressful time of year for kids.  It’s a stressful time of year for parents. Everything seems high-stakes.  There’s not a moment to spare!

So, it was not surprising to me to receive a missive with this concern: “It’s not the tutor’s job to make my son feel better.  I am paying you teach him strategies and don’t want you wasting his time.”

I understand and sympathize with this parent’s sense of urgency.  But, let me be clear: stressed brains don’t learn well. Sufficiently stressed, brains effectively cannot learn at all. 

My more than 40,000 hours of working one-on-one with kids has helped me learn, and volumes of scientific literature support the fact that, people can, effectively, be stressed out of their minds.  When brains are stressed, thinking is not clear, leaving kids far from an optimal learning mode.

Have you ever tried to reason with someone who is hysterical? As former President Bush (or Dana Carvey) might have said, “Not gonna happen.  Wouldn’t be prudent.”

Brains need to be calm to be “reason-able.”  During a stress response, the amygdala (which initiates the freeze, fight, or flight response) is activated, and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning, organizing, problem-solving, motivation, and impulse control) is effectively shut down.  Which brain system would you want to have engaged on a test or in a learning situation that mattered to you?  So, a few minutes of attending to anyone’s distress can serve to destress them.  If kids are upset, some time to help them feel better can help them learn better.

“With all due respect, I could not disagree with you more strenuously,” was my response to this anxious parent.  It has been my unequivocal experience that taking a few minutes to talk to kids about their days, to show interest in them (and not just their grades or scores), to make them feel I am on their side and that it’s safe to relax, at least for this hour together, will lead not only to a happier and less stressed kid, but also a better learner. It was a point the parent hadn’t considered, responding, “Like a teaspoon of sugar?”  Exactly. As with parents it is with tutors: a few words of concern and interest go a long way.

If you yourself feel more anxious than you wish to be, take a walk around the block, be genuinely happy to see your kids when they walk in the door, give them and a hug (if you’re a parent/fist-bump if you’re a tutor), and let your first few questions be about things non-academic.  It will be better for your relationship and for their learning

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