George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Strategies to Prevent the Neurotoxic Impact of School Stress

October 2, 2013
Photo credit: Veer

Public high school students in large U.S. cities are more likely to drop out than ever before. Almost 80 percent of the students report that the main problem is boredom. When asked what bores them most, the most frequent responses were that the course material is neither interesting nor relevant to their lives.

Boredom Epidemic

One formal definition of boredom is "the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity."1 The researchers describe a mismatch between an individual's needed arousal and the availability of external stimulation. In a classroom overburdened by excessive curriculum, this mismatch is problematic as students' varied range of background knowledge and mastery cannot be engaged by uniform instruction.

Neurotoxic Boredom

The chronic stress of sustained or frequent boredom correlates with neurophysiologic changes that impact cognition, memory, social and emotional behavior -- changes that affect school success. Over time, high stress increases the risk for other medical conditions including heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Functional neuroimaging scans of the brain "in action" show how stressors influence which parts of the brain process incoming information and which regions direct behavioral responses. The stressed brain resides in a behavior-reactive state that has impaired learning and reasoning, instead of in a reflective state. Stressors that shift the brain into the reactive mode put the lower, emotional brain in charge and reduce input to and output from the higher cognitive executive function networks in the reflective prefrontal cortex. This shifts response control to the reactive lower, emotional brain.

Yale researcher Amy Arnsten and colleagues described the neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control as highly vulnerable to even mild stress. They reported that when these executive function circuits are blocked, "primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in."2 Additional neurochemical changes in norepinephrine levels and cortisol during stress can rapidly switch off the firing of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that forms long-term memory and directs executive functions.

Sustained or frequent boredom in humans is associated with increased levels of cortisol. Short bursts of cortisol are important stress responders in mammals to activate the fight-and-flight system. However, if cortisol is chronically elevated by sustained stressors as seen in sustained or frequent boredom, there are measurable consequences in cellular brain changes.

Chronic stress can alter the connections among neurons that allow us to communicate -- the basis of memory storage and retrieval -- and control emotional responses. John Morrison and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have shown in animal research how chronic stress increases the number of dendrite connections in the lower emotional centers of the brain while shriveling dendrite connections in the prefrontal cortex. They reported that the prefrontal cortex dendrites can regrow if the stress disappears, but this ability to rebound may be limited if the stress is especially severe or sustained.3

Classroom Interventions

Children often react with boredom to the overloaded or homogenized curriculum that dispenses facts to be memorized without providing time for discovery. The stress of boredom increases with the students' frustration of inadequate opportunities to connect to content through their curiosity, strengths and interests. The ultimate remedy will be revising excessive grade-level curriculum expectations by creating more opportunities for enduring understanding through discovery and student-centered learning. The most powerful boredom remedies we have now are:

  • Continued efforts to provide engaging and personally relevant learning experiences
  • Helping students build the executive functions of emotional self-control to give them strategies for stress reduction

Suggestions for Boosting Relevance

  1. Students are more invested in personally relevant learning. Information presented in the context of real-world events, cross-curricular study themes, and experiential learning will demonstrate that relevance is possible. (You can find videos showing the relevance of math and science on The Futures Channel.)
  2. Connect topics with current events at the school, community or global level.
  3. Before a lesson or unit, tell a narrative about the life of the author, scientist, historical figure or mathematician when he or she was the age of your students.
  4. Activate prior knowledge and personalize learning. Students have some previous knowledge or connection to most new information. Write yourself notes when you hear something from students about their lives and interests. For students who have the most difficulty engaging, extend your search for what does grab their interest -- from parents, previous teachers, and informal chats with the students. Use this information to update notecards about ways to help your students make connections.
  5. Performance tasks, inquiry and student-centered learning make learning relevant when students understand how they will use the new learning to achieve personally valued goals.
  6. Include opportunities for incorporating physical activities, drama, art, collaborative group work and project- and inquiry-based learning to be part of both the learning and assessment.

Mindfulness and Metacognition

When students have experiences that build their executive functions of emotional self-regulation, attentional focus and distraction inhibition, they have tools to resist the brain's involuntary switch to the reactive emotional control systems. The ability to self-calm and use strategies to sustain a state of relaxed alertness puts them in the driver's seat to manage their emotional responses and retain memories in the prefrontal cortex.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to describe mindfulness strategies. Edutopia has some excellent blogs on this, and I work with the Hawn Foundation's MindUp program where theory and strategies are also described.

In addition, teaching students about how the brain reacts to stress will increase their sense of control. Two open access articles I wrote about how to teach students about their brains are:

Metacognitive Strategies

Students who were able to identify and reappraise their own feelings of boredom had fewer bored episodes and higher academic achievement, according to the research of Ulrike Nett's group in Germany. In one of their studies, students in grades 5-10 were given a mathematics problem selected to be potentially boring and difficult. Some students "avoided" the task, either by studying a different subject or talking with friends. Others criticized it and asked for more interesting material or assignments.

The most successful group "reappraised" the situation for themselves, considering ways it could be relevant to them and how to combat their own boredom. Moreover, Dr. Nett found that students who identified their feelings of boredom and found ways to increase personal relevance had fewer bored episodes and averaged the highest scores.4

Using metacognition and strategy development skillsets, we can guide students through the experience of developing the executive function of their neural networks, which are most actively maturing during the school years, and help them recognize the benefits of metacognition. In short, we can build their abilities to master stressors such as boredom.

For example, set up an assembly line in the classroom representing the factory model during the Industrial Revolution. The students would each do the same mundane task over and over (i.e. placing or gluing a popsicle stick in the same position, ideally not seeing how the "line" constructs the four walls of a log cabin, or making the same fold to construct identical origami birds). After doing this for a time in silence (or playing machinery sounds loud enough to prevent audible conversation), students would stop for a class discussion. Introduce the strategy of using their imaginations to increase the task's personal relevance. Have them try it again using this strategy and subsequently share their strategies. The class would then resume the task with students trying one or several of strategies they learned from classmates.

Attentive Focus and Distraction Inhibition

The executive function of distraction inhibition can be developed to reduce the physiological state of boredom. This network, when strengthened over time by use and maturation, can override the young brain's "programming" that seeks immediate gratification.

With neuroimaging, researchers at George Mason University demonstrated that individuals who were able to filter out distractions remembered more of the required tasks demonstrated for them and showed greatest activation in their prefrontal cortex neural networks. Those who had lower capacity to filter distraction were slower, less accurate in the decision-making tasks, and had less activation in the prefrontal cortex. Their scans revealed more neuron activation in the emotional, reactive circuits of their lower brains.5

In previous blog posts, I've described strategies to help students increase the strength of these and other executive functions that build their "top-down" mastery for sustaining attention in challenging situations from boredom to test anxiety. You can also watch the second, third and fourth segments of my Big Thinkers interview.

When your students are discovering, thinking and questioning, they are building the neural networks of executive function, becoming interested, engaged, self-propelled learners who experience greater success and satisfaction. By creating engaging instruction and building students' skillsets to master stressors such as boredom, you'll be more than a great educator motivating their learning. You'll be saving their brains!


1Eastwood, J., Frischen, A., Fenske, M.J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The unengaged mind: Defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 482-495.
2Arnsten, A., Mazure, C., and Simha, R. (2012). Everyday Stress Can Shut Down the Brain's Chief Command Center. Scientific American, 48-49.
3Dumitriu, D, Berge, S., Hamo, C., Hara, Y., Bailey, M., Hamo, A., Grossman, Y., Janssen, W., and Morrison, J. (2012). Vamping: stereology-based automated quantification of fluorescent punctate size and density. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, Jul; 209(1).
4Nett, U., Hall, N., and Frenzel, A. (2012). Metacognitive Strategies and Test Performance: An Experience Sampling Analysis of Students’ Learning Behavior, Education Research International, Volume 2012. Article ID 958319.
5Parasuraman, R., Jiang, Y., (2011). Individual differences in cognition, affect, and performance: Behavioral, neuroimaging, and molecular genetic approaches, NeuroImage. 9(1):70-82.

Additional References

  • Cowan, N. and Morey, C. (2006). Visual working memory depends on attentional filtering. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(4): 1399-141.
  • Sparks, Sarah. 2013. Studies Link Students' Boredom to Stress. Education Week. February 27, 2013.

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