The Challenge of Learning in the Face of Anxiety

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In my last article, I shared some of my reflections from The Lutheran Schools Partnership’s summer teacher development event with Dr. Kim Marxhausen. Dr. Marxhausen shared with us on the topic of anxiety in the classroom. I reflected on what we learned about some of the ways we might see anxiety reflected in classroom behaviors, how we as educators help students to communicate about their feelings and how important it is for us to infuse the Gospel into our response to inappropriate classroom behaviors. You can find that article here.

Dr. Marxhausen also shared with us how much complexity anxiety can add to the process of learning. She used the Atkinson-Schiffrin memory model to illustrate how the brain learns, and how chronic anxiety, such as that due to issues surrounding COVID-19, can negatively impact that process. Thankfully, she also shared some of what we can do to bolster student learning when chronic anxiety gets in the way.

The Atkinson-Schiffrin Memory Model basically states that memory has three stores: the sensory register, the short-term (working) memory, and the long-term memory. Dr. Marxhausen referred to these three areas as the sensory gatekeeper, the learning workbench, and storage. The sensory gatekeeper decides which information gets in and goes to the workbench, the learning workbench takes new information and combines it with old (from storage) to create new learning, which then moves to long-term storage.

When students are experiencing chronic anxiety, the brain can hijack the sensory gatekeeper to allow more information in that it usually would. Distractions that might normally be avoidable can seem overwhelming. Too much information gets in and moves to the learning workbench, which gets full. When that workbench is full, the information needed from long-term storage can’t come over, and learning is impacted. The less developed the brain, the less the workbench can hold. When that part of the brain is full of “extra stuff” due to anxiety, the impact is great.

As an adult with a fully developed brain, I notice this effect in myself! I have found that my attention span has been reduced since March. Distractions are frequent, and I have to work especially hard to focus on tasks that are detailed. As an adult, this is frustrating. For children who do not have fully developed brains, it can seem an insurmountable challenge.

The question is, how do we help? Dr. Marxhausen suggests focusing on learning slowly, but surely, this year. Instead of putting out large amounts of new information, we should consider focusing on a deeper understanding of less material. We also must also look for ways to help students to keep their learning workbench free of worry, and to develop good life-long coping skills. Future articles will talk more about this, and how teaching the faith helps us accomplish this in our Lutheran classrooms. 

As the Psalmist says in 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Our brains are amazing tools and gifts of God. Learning to recognize how they work best so that we can better support our students, especially as they face the challenges of COVID, is a worthy goal for all of us!