George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

7 Strategies to Help Overwhelmed Students 

Some students develop anxiety about assignments, but there are ways teachers can help them cope with these feelings.

April 19, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

“The three most important aspects of learning—attention, focus, and memory—are all controlled by our emotions, not cognition.” —Marc Brackett

When students are overwhelmed by cognitive tasks, their stress response systems will move into survival states (fight, flight, or shut down) where they are literally unable to access the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain where our executive functions live and can be activated.

These executive functions are a set of cognitive or mental tasks that allow us to problem-solve, make decisions, plan, prepare, emotionally regulate, hold strong attention, and access working memory. This region is activated when we are feeling emotionally safe and connected in our environment, but we also need to feel competent or capable in how our unique style of learning or academic performance is being seen, understood, and evaluated.

When assignments, projects, and academic tasks feel overwhelming, this can create anxiety, frustration, angry outbursts, or a shutdown in behavior where assignments are not even attempted alongside behaviors that we often label as apathetic, unmotivated, disrespectful, oppositional, or entitled.

Impact on Neurodivergent Learners

Many of the behavioral challenges we encounter in our classrooms are rooted in cognitive overload. This is especially true for our neurodivergent learners whose brain functioning is different. These differences show up in how we process information, pay attention, self-start, or organize. These are not deficits, but distinct differences in learning profiles. Many of our neurodivergent learners cannot learn well through traditional teaching practices. They need to move, share stories, use hands-on strategies, or use technology, and at times they require the direction, pacing, chunking of assignments, and transitions with a trusted adult.

Co-regulation through cognitive tasks is a supportive, affirming, and validating practice that can ease the dysregulation of assessments, writing assignments, and longer projects that may activate sensory overload, social anxiety, and academic burnout. Below are some ideas to integrate into our teaching practices mitigating the survival states that prohibit access to the prefrontal cortex where learning occurs.

7 Ways to Support Students Through Co-regulation

1. Check in frequently and predictably. When we share a hand on the shoulder, a warm smile, quick questions such as “What do you need? How can we work through this together?” or even intentional proximity and a tone of voice that says, “I am here, and we will get through this together,” we are providing a classroom culture that validates collaboration, celebrates effort and differences, and shares our presence through a strength-based lens.

2. Highlight confusing or difficult assignments. This practice has been a game changer in my classroom teaching. I will distribute personal highlighters, and when students observe my personal highlighter and how I am reading through difficult sections of an assignment and focus on concepts that I do not understand well, they are more likely to pick up their highlighter and begin doing this with me. I also will sit beside students who need more support and suggestions as we scan different parts of the learning that might create a clearer path with color.

3. Chunk assignments. Chunking is taking small sections or steps of learning and only focusing on these segments. It might be an opening paragraph, the first two or three pages of a text, three vocabulary reads, or the first two steps of a long-division equation. We rework through these chunks until the students feel more comfortable to move on. It’s an empowering practice that encodes new learning with more ease.

4. Create summative assessments together. This is one of my favorite practices for deeper learning and student input or voice. At the end of a segment of learning, I will invite students to share their ideas for assessments. We have created a sign-up sheet for this practice because it has been popular in the past.

I have given prompts for this co-regulatory activity such as these: What do you think is important to remember from this chapter? Which concepts will you need to remember in the future? What would be a just way we could help each other with the steps we have learned? What types of prompts seem helpful? What was hard for you to remember? How could we create a fair assessment from what we have learned and need to remember?

5. Role-play “I am the administrator.” In this practice, I am the taker of thoughts or notes. This is a wonderful way to invite students to begin a writing assignment when they are staring at a blank sheet of paper. In this practice, I tell the students that they have all these brilliant ideas and thoughts in their head, and maybe we can work together to place these on paper or in our Chromebooks.

I begin with the writing as students tell me what they want to write about. I will type or write out their thoughts as they dictate to me. This lessens the fear and anxiety of staring at a blank Microsoft Word or Google document or sheet of paper. I remind them that I am only the recorder of their thoughts.

6. Map it out. Through a daily, weekly, or monthly timeline, the students and I can decide which parts of assignments and tasks we should be focusing upon. We can create this timeline with colors, symbols, and shapes as we check off the times of day or days of the week as we are nearing completion or completion.

7. Make it relatable. Most of us learn best when taught through ways that emphasize our unique interests. We can understand a concept if it is related to sports, video games, shopping, holidays, storytelling, movies, or our passions and hobbies. When we learn about our students’ interests and observe how they integrate the learning, we can incorporate those interests into what feels familiar and relatable to the students. I love this article that shares how math is taught in different cultures.

Connection drives nervous system development. When we provide the felt safety through co-regulation that our brains require in order to access the thinking and reasoning (executive function) areas of the brain, we are an active participant in our students’ learning.

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Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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