With the seemingly endless uncertainties and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all awash in stress. Because of that stress, we are becoming less able to process information accurately and effectively, which can lead to more insecurity – and more stress. This has been particularly harmful to those with learning disabilities.

Recent Stress Differs From Acute or Chronic Stress

As difficult as these times are for most of us adults, the challenges are greater for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, or mood disorders who are attempting to “do school” right now. Their job – all day long – is to learn new information, retain it, and apply it to novel situations. This process, while usually demanding, has become much more difficult throughout the pandemic.

Could this be the effects of chronic stress? Of acute stress? Perhaps. But current research suggests another form called recent stress, which is defined as “stress within the last two weeks.”1

A few years back, Grant S. Shields and a group of cognitive scientists at UC Davis described the devastating effects that recent stress can have on working memory, retrieval of learned material, and learning new information.1 To address research gaps on how recent or current stress affects cognition, they assessed 142 healthy young adults over a 2-week period using the Stress and Adversity Inventory for Daily Stress (Daily STRAIN), which looks at the frequency of relatively common stressful life events and difficulties.

Participants completed long-term and working memory tasks and self-reported any memory problems. The team found that “greater recent life stress exposure was associated with worse performance on measures of long-term and working memory, as well as more self-reported memory problems.”1

What Does “Recent Stress” Look Like in the Educational Setting?

As a learning specialist who works with students who have working memory problems resulting from conditions like ADHD, anxiety/depression, auditory processing disorder (APD), and unknown sources, I have recently found some students more “stuck” than usual. Although their challenges vary, in some cases, their procrastination has become insurmountable. Unable to initiate work, make plans for moving forward, or deal with increasing depression at their lack of progress – their schoolwork has come to an abrupt stop.

I find myself having to virtually “hold their hand” and walk them through their daily tasks. One body of work calls this “acedia” (more on this below), but regardless of the cognitive model used to describe their state, our task as clinicians is to help clients find a path through. Having worked in special education for more than 30 years, I have always believed that progress is possible but recently, I have wondered whether slowing progress and independence to an almost imperceivable level, or pausing progress altogether, might be the right course of action.

Festina Lente: Make Haste Slowly

Clinically speaking, intentionally pausing progress is typically not considered unless a student is recovering from a concussion or severe illness. In these cases, I’ve always altered the approach, reframed the challenge, and/or looked for smaller signs of progress instead. But I, as well as some of my fellow clinicians, are finding that pressing these students to pursue progress during the pandemic has only intensified their problems (eg, acting out or retreating) or created more complex challenges (eg, additional organizational problems, new problems with attention, and increased anxiety). Why is this and what do we do next?

Sample Student Scenario: Stress Overload and Work Cessation

One of my college-aged clients* struggles with anxiety, depression, and executive functioning. The student has trouble with planning, organizing, initiating, and staying on task – all implicated with impaired working memory. This semester, the stress of moving into a dorm, taking safety precautions to avoid contracting COVID, and trying to live up to parental expectations, has slowed the student’s work all the way to a complete stop.

Even though our sessions have continued and self-reflection on obstacles has been top-notch, it took the student 3 weeks to formulate a weekly plan for classes, study breaks, and extracurriculars. When that plan was finally in place, the student did not complete the work even though more than capable of doing so. By the end of the semester, the student was unable to formulate a new plan other than “I just need to try harder.” The only work completed was that done with me virtually. It felt like an unusual use of our coaching time but was clearly necessary. A colleague encountered a similar experience with a student of nearly the same identical profile. “It looks like we just need to hold their hands through this semester,” we agreed.

I should mention that this particular student was a novice with utilizing effective routines like planner use, monitoring grades, or contacting instructors when needed. These novel learning strategies drew entirely on the student’s working memory while also cognitively juggling new coursework, instructor expectations, and online platforms. Other students who had had these routines cemented in their long-term procedural memory did not suffer from the same overload.

Stress-Proofed: A Reminder About Working Memory and Procedural Knowledge

Until I began research for this article, I had forgotten that developed working memory routines do turn into long-term procedural knowledge with practice. I often think of this as “automaticity” but I have been reminded that, in many cases, this process is simply another word for an embedded long-term script.

Because of their earlier work and practice, my student clients with more experience had become a bit more “stress-proofed” as their basic working memory challenges had already been turned into long-term procedural knowledge. They seemed less prone to the effects of working memory and stress. This was an “Aha!” moment for me.

Essentially, the novice learner with executive functioning deficits and no procedural scripts to sustain them in their study skill may be in need of much greater assistance, or even a pause in instruction, until repetitive recent stressors subside.

Acedia, Agency, and the Need to Pause

Australian Research Fellow Jonathan L. Zecher wrote in 2020 about the ancient Greek word Acedia, which might be used to describe the feeling the pandemic has brought on for so many.2  The term was originally discussed by the monk John Cassian in the 5th century as:

 …such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting…2

This new devastating emotion has descended on us, or perhaps, revisited us. Either way, Zecher suggests we explore it, noting:

Learning to express new or previously unrecognised constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.

“Agency” is a keyword here and I propose that we also explore agency in terms of understanding and discernment. Uncovering such layers may help our student clients through the recent stress of the pandemic, political environment, or any new stressor.  Rather than looking for progress as usual, it is perhaps a better time to pull back, slow down, and examine procedural knowledge, cognitive load on working memory, and naming emotions. Which skills have become second-nature, reliable, and procedural? Which working memory needs are required for the task at hand, and Is the student able to engage in them?

More important, is our job as learning specialists and coaches to simply assist in more basic ways, or should we allow students to pause, with the aim of coming out more than ready on the other side?

*Identifying details have been changed.

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Last Updated: Jan 26, 2021