By Orna Herr, Communications Officer at the British Science Association 


Anyone who has ever sat an exam or had homework due the next day will know the feeling of education-related stress. Although it’s not pleasant, the right amount of stress at the right time can be beneficial for learning. It can even be a motivator.

But when it’s overwhelming and sustained, particularly for children, stress can have a harmful impact. To mark Stress Awareness Day on 2 November, we have explored the different forms and causes of stress and how it can affect education opportunities and have lifelong repercussions.

When stress becomes toxic

There are three types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic.

As defined by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a positive stress response is “a normal and essential part of healthy development”, a reaction to things like receiving an injection.

A tolerable stress response “activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties... If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, [they] recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.”

Examples of events that can trigger a tolerable stress response include losing a loved one or a natural disaster - things that are sometimes, unfortunately, unavoidable.

Toxic stress, as the name suggests, is the most problematic of the three.

Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity…[this] can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

The Center on the Developing Child lists several examples of prolonged adversity, including “the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship”. Other academic studies also recognise socioeconomic status as a potentially stressful situation, which can impact a child’s chances of success in school and life.

It is easy to understand how financial worries and hardship can cause adults stress but children can be affected by it in their own ways. The Children’s Society explains that 'living in poor households can make children feel unequal to others.' Not being able to afford to socialise with friends, being bullied for having second-hand clothes or school supplies and being conscious of their parents’ stress levels all contribute to toxic stress.

‘May deter children from learning’

So children and young people growing up in economically disadvantaged households and communities, of which there are 2.9 million in the UK, are more likely to experience toxic stress as a result. How does this impact their chances to enjoy their education and gain the most from it?

Studies show that long-term stress ‘may deter children from learning’ and can cause behavioural problems which hinder school performance. Research by Columbia University found that this could be because toxic stress impacts a child’s brain development:

“repeated exposures to adverse childhood experiences remake the architecture of a child’s developing brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of…the hippocampus, which handles memories and learning”. 

An article published in scientific journal PNAS found that chronic toxic stress and socioeconomic adversity can result in “lasting neurobiological changes”, meaning that children who experience this may feel the effects into adulthood.

Children from low-income households are disadvantaged in terms of education opportunities in a lot of ways that we have covered in our blogs; we recently explored how deprivation correlates with low GCSE results and how the free school meals programme lets some children fall through the gaps.

The stress of growing up with the burden of family financial worries is yet another obstacle some children and young people face to having a fair shot at fulfilling their potential.

What can be done?

Society can only be a fair and just place when every child, regardless of background, grows up in an environment that allows them to flourish in education to the best of their abilities. Continuing to perpetuate a system where disadvantage begets more disadvantage will only widen the already profound attainment gap between our nation's most and least disadvantaged children and young people.

No child’s development should be hampered by toxic stress caused by a situation that can and should be, to some extent at least, alleviated by government policy.

The Government produced a White Paper (a set of proposals for future legislation) in February 2022 on ‘Levelling Up’ - a ‘moral, social and economic programme’ for distributing opportunity more equally across the UK. It is essential that this is followed through with to improve the social mobility of children living in poverty and provide them with the same opportunities to thrive as their more affluent peers.

There will always be different levels of wealth and privilege throughout the nation, but for children living in poverty, having their chances of future success reduced is unacceptable.

The STEM* workforce is, arguably necessarily, dominated by people who have higher education qualifications; this needs to be a viable option for every young person regardless of their background. (Read our blog on university entrant demographics to learn how this is not currently the case.) When people working in STEM have a diverse range of perspectives and experiences, including growing up in deprived or disadvantaged communities, it benefits us all.

If you’re concerned about a child’s stress levels and mental health, free support and resources are available:

*STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths