How Stress Affects Executive Function in Children—What Teachers Need to Know

Teaching stressed students and those with executive function deficits and anxiety disorders places additional demands and challenges on teachers. By equipping teachers with information and strategies to decrease classroom stress and boost executive function, teachers have an awesome opportunity to shape students’ brains in the best possible ways.

Stress was once a topic associated with adults, but with the spike in anxiety among children, stress levels are increasing in the classroom, making it more challenging for teachers to teach and students to learn. More and more kids are acting out or zoning out in class, causing their stress response to activate and executive function skills to go offline.

First, let’s clarify what executive function is. Think of it as your brain’s GPS system, a set of self-directed cognitive, social and emotional skills that tells the brain what, where and how to do something. This “system” cues and coordinates skills such as:

  • Task initiation (i.e. getting started on an assignment and knowing how to organize/prioritize)

Executive function is regulated in the prefrontal cortex and continues to develop throughout life. Since the brain is not fully developed at birth, children are not born with these skills needed for success in school and life but have the capacity to build them. Without executive function, the system (a.k.a. your brain) doesn’t run well or solve problems efficiently.

And there is an added obstacle many students encounter in the classroom that undermines these skills. That’s stress.

Stress is how the body and mind respond to anxiety-provoking triggers, which in school may include learning challenges, school demands and academic performance. Children experience stress in a multitude of ways — anxiety, anger, frustration, boredom or lack of personal relevance to a task or situation.

Today, many students in classrooms across the country find themselves in at least one of these negative emotional states on a chronic basis, which can cause the amygdala, the brain’s personal watchdog for potential threats, to activate the stress response. When this happens, students are not receptive to learning and are unable to intake, process or retrieve information — never mind think about it critically — as their executive function skills are blocked in these moments.

Translation: When kids experience flight, fight or freeze, they won’t remember what they were just taught.

In order to avoid this, we must first identify what Fight, Flight or Freeze looks like in real-time in classrooms. Teachers and administrators might notice students exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Fight Mode: break a pencil, say something nasty or throw something

What may look like uncooperative, lazy or reluctant learners, may actually be the stress response just doing its job.

Designed for our survival, the stress response is on alert to protect us from danger. Stress chemicals release in preparation for an emergency, which in turn produces a virtual stop sign in the brain that not only inhibits learning but allows the emotional part of the brain to hijack the “reflective, thinking” part. Since the brain does not discern between “real” or perceived threats, it can interpret situations such as not remembering the steps to a math problem or not knowing how to start a writing assignment as life-threatening.

That’s what teachers are up against.

Surprisingly, teacher preparation programs at the undergraduate level do not typically include training on executive function, the impact of stress or the neuroscience of learning — how the brain best learns and responds. Additionally, there is not enough Professional Learning available to inform teachers on how to adjust their instructional practices and lesson designs to promote executive function and combat classroom stress.

Consequently, all teachers need to develop “brain literacy” to gain an advantage in the classroom and be equipped with key information and quick, practical applications that decrease stress and build executive function, without taking up too much instruction time. The quality and frequency of these types of classroom experiences and interactions will be factors in how strongly these skills emerge in students.

As Judy Willis, neurologist turned teacher, confirms, “When teachers know about the brain’s reactions to the stressors that promote the low brain control state of involuntary, reactive behavior, they become more aware of how much they can influence students’ successful brain processing.”

So where can teachers begin?

To get started, teachers can implement these simple and quick neuroeducational instructional approaches:

1. Cultivate safe, welcoming and respectful learning environments — smiles, enthusiasm and getting to know your students go a long way in promoting academic risk-taking and a sense of community.

2. Be intentional and transparent — Intentional means you know why you’re using a particular strategy or template. Transparent means students know why they’re using it and can express this on their own.

3. Cue students how to do vs. tell them what to do — provide visuals of behavior expectations (i.e. how to transition or keep a desk tidy, etc.) and use problem-solving prompts or questions. Instead of saying, “Put your backpack away,” ask students to follow the steps of a visual or ask, “Where does your backpack go?”

4. Embed purposeful student collaborations/interactions and movement — some ideas include Gallery Walks, Think/Pair/Shares (which can periodically be turned into Walk and Talks) and Meaningful Movement where students are paired to add movement to a concept (i.e. rise overrun)

5. Reduce cognitive overload — say/show just one direction or step at a time, provide sentence frames or word boxes. Ask students to repeat directions or steps back to you and have a written copy to reference.

Teachers who implement brain-friendly strategies to remove stressful barriers to learning will empower themselves and students, sparking an increase in attention, memory, processing, engagement, collaboration, critical thinking, and executive function.

Teachers may be understandably concerned about the time needed to learn and incorporate these instructional practices into their lessons. From my firsthand experience and observations of teachers, doing so boosts content learning and decreases re-teaching and repeating directions/steps multiple times, returning a surplus of time as a result of learning these practices.

Teaching stressed students and those with executive function deficits and anxiety disorders places additional demands and challenges on teachers. By taking advantage of proven neuroscience and equipping teachers with information and strategies to decrease classroom stress and boost executive function, teachers will have an awesome opportunity to shape students’ brains in the best possible ways — and that will make everyone stress less and learn more.

Neuroeducational Consultant Noel Foy, commonly known as Neuro Noel, is a former classroom teacher and Learning Specialist. She is the founder of AMMPE and Author of A.B.C. Worry Free, a children’s book that provides an actionable approach to managing anxiety and includes tips for educators and parents. Join Neuro Noel’s email list and be sure to engage on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram.

Neuro Noel


Neuroeducational Consultant empowering teachers, parents, students, athletes and coaches.

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