The impact of stress on students


Good emotional health is critical for teenagers and stress can play a seriously detrimental role in their academic performance. Karen Sullivan explains

Mr Gove is back in the headlines again and this time his reforms and new policies to overhaul the national curriculum and exams have raised the ire of the literary and academic elite. Nearly 200 people, including children’s laureate Malorie Blackman said they are “gravely concerned”, and have signed an open letter, published in The Times.

They wrote: “Competition between children through incessant testing and labelling results is a public sense of failure for the vast majority. The drive towards ever-higher attainment in national tests leads inevitably to teaching to the test, which narrows the range of learning experiences. Harmful stress is put on young people, their parents and their teachers.”

I couldn’t agree more. In my last column (Great expectations, SecEd 359, September 26, 2013) you will have read about my experience watching teaching artist and author Lois Walden “unleash” the emotions and creativity of a group of inner-city 15-year-olds. 

In a relaxed, tolerant, supportive and inspirational environment, the students were not just stimulated to learn, but produced what the school’s English teacher called “probably their best ever work”. 

The students were encouraged to meditate, which they said helped them to “think outside the box”, and clearly removed a layer of overwhelming anxiety, fear, frustration and competition that defined much of their waking hours.

Stress is not just hugely debilitating on a physical level, but it has a dramatic impact on emotional health, as the authors of the letter claim. 

They add: “These damaging developments must stop. If they go ahead there will be devastating consequences for children’s mental health, for future opportunities and, most importantly, for the quality of childhood itself.”

Emotional health is critical in the formative adolescent years, and stress can play a seriously detrimental role. For example, one study found that the brain grows and develops differently when children are under stress, leading to reduced higher-level thinking and empathy, as well as overly sensitive emotions. 

Children under pressure have a predisposition to impulsive, aggressive behaviours and depression. Similarly, stress lowers serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for relaxation and wellbeing.

Research has found that stress is responsible for problems with impulse control, reasoning, judgement, decision-making, planning and problem-solving – what’s more, teens under pressure are much more likely to engage in unhealthy, risky behaviours. Information-processing capabilities are greatly reduced, too.

And what about learning? For one thing, the heart rate changes in conditions of chronic stress, speeding up and slowing down in a chaotic pattern that produces non-coherent patterns in the brain. In a nutshell, this means that the brain is less able to recognise patterns, problem-solve and learn.

Stress also encourages an imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to anxiety, defensiveness, poor motivation, withdrawal and, at the opposite extreme, obsessions and overly perfectionist behaviours. Both short and long-term memory are also inhibited.

Is this what we want for our children? Is this conducive to learning and emotional and physical wellbeing? The answer is clearly no. While no adolescence is free from angst and some degree of emotional turmoil, there should not be external pressures hampering development. School should be a sanctuary in which we can learn, develop as individuals, and reach our own potential – and not be disabled by someone else’s ill-conceived idea of success.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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