Taking the Stress out of Learning

My Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon colleague’s daughter will be heading to Greenland next month for the Arctic Winter Games. She is competing in snowshoe biathlon, an event that requires athletes to snowshoe as fast as they can, then stop and shoot at a small target far off in the distance. With increased heart and breathing rates, it can be challenging for biathletes to settle themselves into the stillness necessary for accurate shooting.

This same challenge exists when we’re in a stressful learning situation. For children and youth, this might look like a classroom setting where there are too many sensory distractions. For adults, it could be completing important workplace training in spite of feeling upset by an argument with family the night before. In his book, Calm, Alert and Learning, Toronto researcher and professor Stuart Shanker explains that the best condition for learning is to be both calm and alert. How can learners get into this state when under stress? Here are four actions that can support self-regulation and create a good mindset for learning:


When stress starts to take over the body and mind, using the breath can bring a learner back to that calm and alert state. Short exercises like repeating a simple breathing sequence of inhaling for four counts, holding for seven counts, and exhaling for eight counts can help to calm the fight-or-flight response that takes over during a time of stress. Training the brain to do this through regular practice of mindfulness meditation can, as local mindfulness meditation facilitator Ruth Lera says, “strengthen the muscle of mindfulness.”

Notice and Name:

Awareness of feeling dysregulated (being overwhelmed by stress) is an important part of getting back to being calm and alert. If learners can identify and communicate what is getting in the way of their learning, whether through a journal, worry box or talking with a friend, teacher or colleague, they may find the stress is lessened.


Stress can create a hypoactive state – where learners need to  “up-regulate.” Those who feel withdrawn and lethargic may benefit from active movement, like a brisk walk or jumping jacks. For others, stress can create a hyperactive state – with a need to “down-regulate.” Learners that are fidgety and distracted may benefit from a task (something heavy like carrying boxes or shoveling snow) or a wiggle cushion.

The Big Three:

Healthy diet, exercise, adequate sleep. To keep a car in good running condition, you need to put in the right fuel. The same is true for learners. We may not go to the gym, make a home cooked dinner and get 8+ hours of sleep every day, but making these key “fuels” a priority as often as possible will help to keep a learner’s body and mind in good running condition.

At the Arctic Winter Games in Greenland, when the young biathletes miss their shot, they’ll have to snowshoe penalty laps, adding time to their race. When we, as learners, allow stress to rule our mind and body, we miss out on learning opportunities. Using self-regulation strategies to remain calm and alert in the face of stress helps to maximize our learning potential.

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