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Classroom challenge: Stress affects students’ ability to learn

Tanya McCoss Yerigan speaks about toxic stress in children during a Jan. 16 presentation to educators attending a Minnesota River Valley Education District event at the Lac qui Parle Valley School in rural Madison. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune)1 / 2
Melissa Hoffman Bodin spoke about toxic stress in children during a presentation to educators attending a Minnesota River Valley Educators event Jan. 16 at the Lac qui Parle Valley School in rural Madison. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune)2 / 2

LAC QUI PARLE VALLEY — Teachers might be asking the wrong question when trying to help their struggling students.

Instead of asking "what is wrong with the student," the appropriate question might be "what has happened to the student?"

That's a message from Melissa Hoffman Bodin, an adviser with the DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar and formerly with the MACCRAY Schools. She has learned the answer to the second question. All too often, the students who struggle to learn are the victims of toxic stress.

In some cases it's poverty. These are students who come to school wondering if they will have a home or meal waiting at day's end.

Many others have the similar misfortune of being born into homes with parents who fight, drink too much or use drugs, or cause any other manner of stress that adversely affects their lives.

What is known now is that chronic stress that rises to these levels directly affects a person's ability to learn, according to Dr. Tanya McCoss Yerigan, a professor of education with Southwest Minnesota State University, Marshall.

Research shows that toxic stress affects everything from gene expression to brain development. In young children it will reduce the number of neurons that develop in key learning centers of the brain, Yerigan said.

No matter a person's age, the "fight or flight'' mechanism triggered by toxic stress makes it difficult to learn and can even affect the ability to perform intellectual tasks previously mastered.

Yerigan and Bodin spoke separately to audiences of educators from the Minnesota River Valley Education District on Jan. 16 at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School in rural Madison. Over 600 educators from nine school districts took on topics ranging from how to make science fun to how to recognize depression in students.

Yerigan and Bodin attracted sizable audiences to their presentations on a topic that Yerigan said has too often been dismissed as "social worker fluff.''

She and Bodin know better from their own, firsthand experiences with toxic stress. Yerigan lost her son, Clint, just shy of his 16th birthday in a 2006 firearm incident. Bodin lost her mother, sister-in-law and niece when a drunk driver crossed a center line in 2012.

Yerigan said she immediately experienced the consequences of toxic stress in the aftermath of her son's death. She struggled with what were once routine activities. She authored a book on her ordeal, and continues to research the toll that toxic stress takes.

The harm of toxic stress can be long-lasting. Yerigan said there's recent research showing that a stressful upbringing can even change a person's genes in ways that are passed onto subsequent generations.

Yet Bodin and Yerigan emphasized that there are solutions. "The solutions are simple," Yerigan said. "It's understanding that matters because a lot of people don't want to believe it's real.''

There are many ways to manage toxic stress, according to Yerigan. Physical exercise, getting involved in hobbies, doing things outdoors, performing or enjoying music, and meditation are among the effective therapies that she cited.

Unfortunately the problems are not always addressed in the right way, she explained. What do we do to students who "act up?" she asked. Too often we take away their recess or physical activities, the opposite of what they need.

Bodin offered instructors a number of strategies to employ to help students manage toxic stress, but emphasized that there is one that matters most. "Take care of yourself first,'' she told the educators.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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