Some Teachers Raise Children’s Stress Levels
Recently I heard about a kindergarten teacher who sounded nothing like the kindergarten teacher I had way back when.
My kindergarten teacher was pretty, smiled all the time, and seemed to love every child in the class. She was soft-spoken, nurturing, and made every day enjoyable for every student.
Other kindergarten teachers I have known are cheerful, positive, engaging, and supportive. The activities they provide for the children are as much fun as they are educational. If a child is having a bad day, there is always time for a hug or a kind word. Children who are having problems with separation or sadness can always find a welcome lap, and they never have to worry that their troubles will be met with a cross word.
But that isn’t the teacher I just heard about. She is loud, sarcastic, and abrasive. She berates children who don’t live up to her expectations, and she frequently sends young children to the hallway or to the office by yelling, “Get out of my face! Just get out of here!”
Other favorite expressions of hers include: “Really!”, “Oh my god!”, and “You make me sick!” In the staff lounge she complains to other teachers that the children never listen to her and that her current crop of five-year-olds are “the worst behaved kids I’ve ever seen.”
While she busies herself at her desk, she expects the children in her room to put their heads down on their table or she turns on a video or movie to keep them engaged. As I listened to the horror stories about this teacher — who obviously should have retired or left the teaching profession a long time ago — I wondered what kind of damage she was doing to these children. What effect would a teacher like this have on the growth and development of young children?
While the most vulnerable kids may be turned off by school and possibly some may never recover, what about even the most resilient of the kids who have to put up with a teacher like this? What happens to them?
Certainly young children first entering school need frequent and close contact with a pleasant and supportive teacher. Furthermore, they need a learning environment that features appropriate stimulation, carefully planning, and supervision. The absence of these things will result in a less successful school environment and may result in some failures in brain development.
But then there is the matter of stress and stress hormones. The body produces chemicals called hormones that help regulate body functions and reactions to the environment. Cortisol is one of those hormones. Cortisol increases in response to stress and it contributes to the fight-or-flight reflexes that help the body respond to challenging situations.
Many things in a child’s daily life may increase their cortisol level. Such things as being hungry, hearing loud noises, being yelled at or criticized, being given unrealistic expectations, or being given a difficult problem to solve will all increase the cortisol level.
In moderate doses, cortisol increases can be a good thing. Moderate cortisol increases help the brain respond to stress and solve problems. However, too much cortisol production over an extended period of time is not good. The detrimental effect of this overproduction of cortisol can lead to memory problems as well as a decreased ability to exercise self-control.
In other words, being exposed to considerable stress on a daily basis will harm a child’s ability to remember important information while seriously damaging his or her ability to control negative emotions and impulsive behaviors. This is just the opposite of what should happen in the early grades of school.
Instead, the early classroom environment should be relatively stress-free. There should be an abundance of positive emotions, and the environment ought to promote learning and enhanced brain development, which can be provided by a teacher who is calm, supportive and positive.
Children exposed on a daily basis to a teacher who raises their cortisol levels are likely to be anxious, distressed, and inclined to social withdrawal. The teacher who constantly raises her student’s cortisol levels while viewing her students as disruptive and behaviorally disturbed is most likely to produce the kinds of kids who — in her mind –justifies her continued unprofessional behavior.