The prefrontal cortex houses the higher order thinking skills referred to as executive functioning skills. These skills allow people to problem solve, store information in working memory, make inferences, strategize, organize, plan, inhibit and control emotions… among many other major functions that separate humans from many other mammals. However, the development of these skills does not override basic instincts which protect people from dangerous or life-threatening situations. The human body is wired with the flight, fright or freeze mechanisms rooted in the hypothalamus. When the fight, flight or freeze response is activated, coritsol is released. Essentially, cortisol inhibits the functioning of executive functioning skills so only essential areas of the brain are activated in order to save energy and ultimately attempt to save one’s life. However, the brain cannot determine the difference between a true life or death situation and environmental stress or even worse chronic environmental stress. The same hormones are released, the same shutdown of the executive functioning takes place.
Today our students more than ever are living in chronic states of environmental stress. This essentially means their pre-frontal cores play little to no part in their action and reaction process.
However, there are ways to combat stress for children. If applied with consistency will create new habit loops to decrease stress and hopefully regulate cortisol levels in young minds. Here are a few examples: