Successfully Facing Challenge

Having discussed previously the need for students to face challenge successfully in order to learn, this series about Effective Strategies and Tools for learning continues with how to overcome the hidden stress often caused by that sensation of feeling challenged! We are aiming for independent learners who have the resilience to take responsibility for their own learning, so feeling able to cope in the face of challenge is an important study skill.

When students work with me, they have previously visited the subject of the learning brain and have some awareness of the main areas involved. At this point however, we take a much closer look at how the limbic system which houses the emotional part of the brain, can interfere with the functioning of the frontal cortex where we reason and work stuff out! When the frontal cortex is busy with learning something new, it requires a good blood supply to maintain concentration and the ability to reason.

If the student perceives the work in hand as too difficult or more challenging, then they can have an emotional response which changes the blood flow through the brain. You know that feeling yourself, maybe being handed a page of algebra questions if Maths isn’t your thing, or being required to respond to the contents of a very detailed document if reading isn’t your thing, or being asked to sketch the accurate likeness of someone if drawing isn’t your thing. The stress is real and can produce a physical response!

An emotional response to the challenge means that some of that important blood supply to the frontal cortex, gets diverted to the limbic system instead.  Now the emotional response is stronger than the ability to think clearly, the student becomes stressed and is no longer able to meet the demands of the task. What this looks like to a teacher can range from; someone turning to chat with a partner, or stare out of the window, through throwing the pen or pencil down and refusing to work, to storming out of the room!

Being aware of what is happening inside their own heads at any stress point, puts the student in charge of the situation and helps them to realise that it is a natural and protective response to perceived threat. We all feel threatened by the unknown sometimes, and previous poor experiences with a similar challenge can add to the stress. As an educator, be aware that just because you love and are good at a particular aspect of the curriculum, even some of your peers would find it overwhelming if asked to prove themselves in that area. Children and young people are no different.

We previously spoke about how important it is for students to realise that they will not learn anything if they remain in their Comfort Zone. Learning is all about coming across something new and different, which takes us into the Challenging Zone to interact with that new idea, leading to new knowledge. So, facing challenge is vital in learning environment. Understanding this helps students to realise that not knowing something is ok and that facing the challenge to gain that knowledge is what learning is all about.

Once a student appreciates that feeling challenged is both natural and desirable, they are in a better position to cope with an emotional response to a particular aspect of the desired learning. Too many learners see it as a reflection on their worth as a person when something seems too hard for them, so it is really important to drive home that when they feel challenged, the response should be, ‘great, now I’m going to learn something’.

Once an emotional response has kicked in, we’ve already said that reasoning goes out of the window, so it can be difficult for the teacher or support staff to help a learner who has a strong physical response to a challenge, to calm down and think clearly again. This is why it’s important to give the student themselves the skills needed to calm down. In all the conversations I have had with young people who present as ‘difficult’ because of their strong or even violent response to stressful moments, they all agree that they don’t relish a future where people constantly have to restrain or control them in some way to protect them from themselves and others.

How much better, when the going is good, for students to learn self-help techniques that put them more in control of a stressful situation. Running away from learning has become a habit for quite a large number of students because they don’t know how to learn, and hate that feeling of not being good enough in their own eyes. There are some great, supportive teachers out there, but be aware of not making the situation worse by going along with that poor view that a learner has of themselves. It’s our job as educators to convince them otherwise, and helping them to take control is half the battle. Not having control over your own situation is the number one destruction trigger for mental health!

There are students who are silently feeling overwhelmed because they are not sure what to do in certain stressful situations, and they have never ‘let on’ that they struggle. Some students sail through the following situations, either oblivious or impervious, but others will be seriously affected to the point of not being able to think clearly by the following; having an argument with someone, having to compete, losing something, taking a test, or getting a test result, feeling left out, forgetting to do homework, arriving late, the regular teacher being absent, not having time to finish the work, being singled out in class, timetable changes etc. We can be aware of the difficulties faced by learners with autism or specific learning difficulties, but also make sure that you investigate poor results from other learners to find out if there are underlying challenges that have not yet been met!

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