As educators, we know that testing can be a stressful experience for our students. However, did you know that the way a student’s nervous system is regulated can have a significant impact on their ability to stay focused and calm during testing, as well as their ability to access the thinking part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex?
So, what does it mean to have a regulated nervous system? It means that a student is in a state of physiological balance where they are not too alert or too relaxed. This state allows them to respond appropriately to the demands of the situation without being overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.
When a student is overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, it can have detrimental effects on their ability to learn and recall information. These internal states cause the primitive, protective parts of the brain to dominate, pushing the student into fight, flight or freeze responses. When this happens, the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not as easily accessed, and the student can’t think clearly or make rational decisions.
Research has shown that students who are in a calm and relaxed state are better able to engage in critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. On the other hand, students who are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed have difficulty focusing, processing information, and recalling what they’ve learned.
As educators, it’s essential that we help our students shift their nervous systems into a regulated state to support their learning and performance during testing. We can do this by incorporating tools and techniques for self-awareness, self-management, and nervous system regulation into the classroom.
Breathing practices which we teach in our Educate 2B and Everyday Mindfulness Manuals are perfect for introducing in the classroom when a “quick, calming shift” is needed.
Here are three evidence-based ways that breathing practices can help the nervous system shift into a calm state:
- Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System: Mindful breathing practices can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body and decreasing physiological arousal. The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system because it slows down heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, promoting a state of relaxation. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that mindfulness-based interventions can lead to increased parasympathetic activity and decreased sympathetic nervous system activity, which is associated with increased stress. Kim, S. H., & Schneider, S. M. (2019). Mind–body practices for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Investigative Medicine, 67(5), 820-826. doi: 10.1136/jim-2018-000911
- Reducing Cortisol Levels: Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress and is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” High levels of cortisol can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other health problems. Mindful breathing practices have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the body. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that participants who practiced mindful breathing had lower cortisol levels than those who did not. Prathikanti, S., Rivera, R., Cochran, A., Tungol, J. G., & Fayazmanesh, N. (2017). Treating major depression with yoga: A prospective, randomized, controlled pilot trial. PloS One, 12(3), e0173869. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173869
- Increasing Heart Rate Variability: Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. Higher HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health and increased resilience to stress. Mindful breathing practices have been shown to increase HRV. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who practiced mindful breathing had higher HRV compared to those who did not. Sakakibara, M., Takebe, N., Seki, T., & Fukumoto, Y. (2016). Effects of mindfulness meditation training on self-reported and heart rate variability measures of relaxation in a young adult sample: A pilot study. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23(3), 355-363. doi: 10.1007/s12529-015-9508-3
At Zensational Kids, we offer free resources, manuals and workshops to help educators support their students in achieving a regulated state. Our website features a range of resources, including mindfulness exercises, breathing techniques, and sensory activities, all of which can be used prior to testing to help students calm their nervous systems and access the thinking part of their brain.
So, as we approach test taking season, let’s prioritize the importance of nervous system regulation for everyone in your classroom. By helping yourself and your students achieve a calm and relaxed state, we can support their ability to stay focused and calm during testing and have the best opportunity to access the thinking part of their brain.
- Kohn, C. S., & Frazer, N. L. (2018). The effect of stress on learning and performance. International Anesthesiology Clinics, 56(3), 38-48. https://doi.org/10.1097/AIA.0000000000000186
- Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2639
- Liu, Y., Huang, H., McGinnis-Deweese, M., Keil, A., & Ding, M. (2015). Neural substrate of the late positive potential in emotional processing. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(50), 2151-2160. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2884-14.2015
Visit https://zensationalkids.com/product-category/resources/ for free resources to help support your students’ nervous system regulation.