I contend that my reactions are good because I avoided having any accidents, but the stress from worrying about my first near accident to my last was not good. In other words, I do not believe there is any such thing as “good stress.” It is important for us to look at this concept of good or bad stress because some people are saying that stress in the classroom is good. Instead, I want to show why stress in the classroom contributes to academic failure, especially reading failure.
What is stress?
Let’s stop and define the word stress. There are almost as many definitions for stress as there are situations that cause stress. One definition speaks directly to the school classroom. This is a classic definition from a well-established psychologist, Wayne Weiten, whose book, Psychology Applied to Modern Life, I used for many years when teaching college psychology courses:
Stress is “. . . circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and thereby tax ones coping abilities.”
Notice that the definition includes perceptions. Many people overlook the influence of perceptions on stress. Perceptions are a key factor in understanding and coping with stress, especially for students in the classroom. Yes, I can perceive that there is a problem, even when there is not one, but my perception that a problem exists creates stress and thereby creates a problem.
If I am sitting all week in class trying to read a passage that I simply do not understand, I become frustrated and stressed. If I have a test coming up on Friday, then, my stress is multiplied. My perceived fear of failure blocks my ability to read and learn. I am panicking, not studying. The more I try to study, the more I panic. No, anxiety over the exam does not improve my comprehension, especially if I perceive that I will fail the test. No, fear of failure does not encourage me or motivate me to work harder. In reality, it has the opposite effect. Stress often leads to failure, particularly reading failure. Yet, many educators actually believe that stress in the classroom improves attention, motivates students to work harder, and improves performance. Wrong. Stress does not help students learn. Stress blocks or destroys learning, especially if students perceive that it is not likely or even possible to pass the test on Friday.
“Cutting edge neuroimaging research reveals significant disturbances in the brain’s information processing circuits in stressful learning environments. Information communication is blocked in the stress states and new learning cannot pass into memory storage.”
This is why I contend that one of our major reasons for reading failure in 2019 was stress and our inability to understand stress in the classroom. There is no motivation from stress; there is only failure. Yes, stress is causing failure in the classroom.
What are the major sources of stress in the classroom?
Testing. Stress from trying to figure out the answers to multiple-choice questions. Yes, some multiple-choice test questions are so poorly written that they actually create stress for students taking the test. Many multiple-choice tests do not actually measure how well students know the subject matter; instead, they only measure how successful students are at taking multiple-choice tests. Research also shows that 25% of the variation between test scores is associated with the type of test being given—multiple-choice or constructed format (open ended). So, tests definitely contribute to stress.
Poor curriculum. Worksheets do not teach. Yet, many students spend the majority of their classroom time filling out worksheets. The quality of the worksheet is also important. Some worksheets are confusing and badly written; this contributes to student stress. Students must learn skills to succeed in the classroom. Worksheets do not teach skills; they merely practice what the student has already learned. If the student has not learned the concept or skill being taught, then the student cannot practice something they have not learned.
Read more: Worksheets Cause Reading Failure
Ineffective teaching methods. As I explained when I started this blog series describing 20 reasons for reading failure, the major reason so many children fail in reading in school is the method that we use to teach reading in the classroom. As long as we continue to teach children using whole language, phonics, and balanced literacy methods, children will continue to fail in reading. Failure definitely causes stress in the classroom.
Read More: Reason #1 That Reading Scores Have Dropped: Wrong Teaching Methods Are Being Used in the Classroom
Read More: Should We Pretend It's Okay to Go Ahead and Open the Schools?
Learning environment. Bullying and teasing contribute heavily to academic failure. Fear contributes to academic failure, particularly fear of social interactions. COVID-19 is certainly going to be a factor in this school year. Also, fear of failure is part of a learning environment that leads to stress. The classroom environment as well as the learning environment at home is going to be very important this year. As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and surgeon general for the state of California, stated:
“… the Covid-19 pandemic is a ‘perfect storm’ for this stress to negatively impact children’s mental and physical health and behavior…. the same stressor won’t elicit the same response in everyone…. We might assume our kids miss their friends, but they may appreciate having more time with us. And some who were dealing with bullying or social challenges at school may be relieved not to have to see other kids.”
Perceived failure. Perceptions can create stress. If I believe that I am going to fail, my perception that I cannot succeed will in effect keep me from succeeding. Why is perception so important when talking about stress? Let’s examine this concept of perception.
What is perception?
Perception is, according to Robert Feldman, the “sorting out, interpretation, analysis, and integration of stimuli involving the sense organs and brain.”
The student’s perception of their ability to pass a test directly influences their analysis of whether or not they can pass the test. A test on Friday may not be a major stress event for you, while a test on Friday, may be a major stress event for me as a student. Such stress does not encourage me to study harder because I perceive that I will fail and that nothing can be done to prevent my failure. No two students, not even identical twins, perceive or interpret situations or events that happen in the classroom in the same way. That is why perceptions play a major role in how we combat stress.
Yes, students bring stress from home and their neighborhood with them to school, but some of the most prevalent stressors that students face come from the school classroom. You might say that stress over the test on Friday is nothing more than a minor stressor or problem that causes stress, but minor stress is more directly related to mental health problems than major stressful events. Research shows that it is the minor difficulties, the routine problems, and the daily hassles that cause the most stress. Also, as Willis explains:
“Despite many changes in our education system over the past century, a significant disconnect remains between the comprehensive cognitive and emotional needs of students and what they actually learn and experience in school. Student levels of stress and depression have been climbing at an alarming rate, and science shows the negative effects of such states of mind and emotions on learning.”
To change a student’s perception, a teacher must rebuild the student’s self-efficacy or belief that he/she can pass the test. You can only rebuild self-efficacy by teaching skills. Positive words and positive interactions will not change self-efficacy.
What actually happens in the classroom?
Each time a student learns something new in the classroom, the process of learning changes the student’s brain. This is true for adults as well as children. The brain is constantly changing as we learn. Scientists call this neuroplasticity.
The ability to change the brain’s gray matter is critical in reading. Studies show that the brain’s gray matter changes when children learn to read successfully. Timothy Keller and Marcel Just from the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated through their research that 100 hours of remedial phonemic decoding training could turn poor readers into good readers.
This change is possible even for children who live in poverty. Poverty is not reading failure’s cause. As I have stated many times before, the method that we use to teach is the primary cause of reading failure, and the belief that stress in the classroom is “good” is part of that failed teaching method.
A nine-year-old student came to my reading clinic who had been retained a grade in school, was failing in reading, and read at the pre-kindergarten level even though he was in 3rd grade. The school said that he was not trying and decided to give him 2nd grade reading material to motivate him to work harder. What do you think happened in the classroom? He became a major discipline problem in class and was sent to the alternative school.
After joining my reading clinic, however, he began to read. Through vowel clustering, the teaching method that I use in my programs, I taught the student to read. Nevertheless, First I had to reduce his stress and change his perception that he would never be able to learn to read. I had to rebuild his self-efficacy, his belief that he could in fact learn to read. Or, as he told me, “I can’t read and never will.”
This is what stress in the classroom is doing to our students. Stress, combined with the lack of an effective teaching method, has created schoolrooms full of failure. As a matter of fact, the Nation’s Report Card shows that 65% of fourth graders could not read at the fourth-grade level by the end of fourth grade. Reading failure is a lifelong problem, that unless corrected, will change and alter the lives of those students across their lifespan.
Oh, you say, they’ll learn later; they’re just a little slow picking it up. The Nation’s Report Card also shows that 66% of eighth graders could not read at the eighth-grade level by the end of eighth grade. The National Center for Educational Statistics has documented that 78% of students who cannot read at grade level by the end of fourth grade never catch up to their grade level.
No, students are not learning to read later. They are failing, dropping out of school, and finding their way into crime and other problems. Approximately 85% of adolescents and youth in the juvenile court system are classified as “functionally illiterate.”
Yes, reading failure is a major problem in the United States today. So, what should we be doing about it?
First, we must realize that the students who are failing in reading can in fact be taught to read.
Data from my own research shows that:
- A student who failed for nine straight years in public school is now reading.
- A student diagnosed with ADHD and failing in reading moved up two grade levels in one year.
- A failing student diagnosed with dyslexia and whose parents tried everything, including expensive private one-on-one phonics tutoring, learned to read and moved up to beginning chapter books in one year.
- Six children who entered the program reading at the pre-K level ended the year reading at the 2nd grade reading level. Only one child in the group was a first grader.
- One student started at the pre-primer level (pre-K) and ended the year at the third-grade reading level while a second grader started the year reading below first grade and ended at the fourth-grade level.
- Three students moved up four grade levels in reading, four students moved up three grade levels in reading, and eight students moved up two grade levels in reading in one year.
- Two students moved up two grade levels in reading after only 48 hours of instruction.
Second, we must learn to work with the brain in teaching children to read.
Phonics, whole language, and balanced literacy do not work with the brain. They rely on memorization. The brain uses oral sounds, not a list of memorized words or rules.
With vowel clustering we work with the brain. We work to build new circuitry (the connections between brain cells or neurons). We build this circuitry by breaking words down into letter sounds or sound clusters and then teaching students to put those sounds back together and pronounce and spell the word. Connections between letter sounds and oral spoken sounds is how the brain processes information. This is how students learn. There are no rules to memorize, no sight words.
Yes, even with students who have failed for multiple years, the brain can be “rewired” and new connections can be built. Scientist call it neuroplasticity. The brain has the ability to reprogram itself, to learn, but we must be careful. If the brain encounters too much stress, as we stated earlier, learning is blocked. These new neural connections are not created, and it is these new neural connections that are responsible for learning. The brain has the potential to “reprogram” itself. The brain can also grow new brain cells. Scientists call this neurogenesis. These new brain cells are essential for learning new material, but these new brain cells are extremely sensitive to internal and external stimuli and stress. Negative perceptions lead to failure to learn.
If a student spends the day worried, frustrated, and stressed over not being able to read, then the student does not learn, the gray matter of the brain does not change, and reading failure results. As Jo Marchant, author of the book Cure, states,
“If you play violin for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the violin will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate.”
Third, we must use teaching methods that reduce stress in the classroom. Instead of trying to use stress as a motivator in the classroom, we need to try and remove as much stress as possible from any and all learning environments. Stressful classrooms are not conducive to learning.
So, how do we reduce stress and help students learn?
Many studies show that teaching relaxation techniques and/or even forms of meditation can be helpful in reducing stress. There is also research showing that teaching executive function skills makes a big difference in reducing stress in the classroom and improving learning.
At my reading clinic, I focus on the learning environment by creating a hands-on program that focuses on both teaching skills and counseling. I rebuild self-efficacy through vowel clustering. And I emphasize only intrinsic motivation. We will talk more about motivation in my next blog post.
For now, I want to emphasize that, as we start a new school year, regardless of whether you are returning to the classroom or if you are learning on-line from home, stress will be one of the chief determinants of whether your student learns or does not learn this year. There is no such thing as “good stress.” Stress leads to failure. Stress blocks learning. Stress can also lead to illness and even psychological problems. Reducing stress in the classroom should be one of our primary goals each and every year, but especially this year with the coronavirus plaguing the learning process.