Brain Bites

Brain Bites

Why 83% of Students Are Academically Impaired Now: Science and Strategies

by Janet Zadina on 05/03/21

Research conducted since the pandemic started and published in June 2020 shows that 50% of college students had depression and/or anxiety.  We know these conditions impair learning. What is surprising, however, is that 83% said their mental health negatively impacted their academic performance.  It must be bad if they are aware of the impact. Perhaps the other 17% are not aware of the impact because they are under stress and this is a normal reaction.

We might assume that the rate of anxiety and depression are just as high in younger students, but the self-awareness of the impact may not be there.  The study did not look at that age group.

These are hard times for students and faculty.  Anxiety, high stress, and trauma diminish the effectiveness of the frontal lobe executive functions, the part of the brain we rely on for memory, attention, self-regulation, planning, organization, control of emotions, and higher-order thinking among other processes.  In order to learn effectively, this must be addressed.

I address this topic at length in my presentation The Hidden Learning Disability of Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma: Science and Strategies and aspects of it in blogs  In this brief newsletter, I would like to share one of the most important strategies you can do right now to help protect your students from the long-term effects of pandemic brain.

One early study of students after Hurricane Andrew found that one of the most important factors that predicted whether students would recover quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder or have long-term chronic issues with it was CSE, Coping Self-Efficacy.

Self-Efficacy is defined as the belief that one can influence things to some degree even in an unpredictable or apparently unchangeable situation. Self-efficacious individuals believe that they have strengths or the ability to overcome difficult or challenging situations and have good problem-solving skills.  Neuroimaging research indicates that people with high self-efficacy show changes in brain activation in the areas of the frontal lobe linked to emotional regulation, a key area related to educational and life outcomes.

While most people recover quickly from trauma, some do not.  According to Birgit Kleim at the University of Zurich, “self-efficacy is a key element of resilience.” Later research has supported the premise that self-efficacy protects against long-term effects of trauma.

Researchers at Yale and NUS in Singapore find that resilience skills can be taught.  Self-belief and trust in one’s abilities (self-efficacy) was one of the skills they suggest we can teach.

How do you teach this?  That is a big subject.  You may want to examine some of the basic research on self-efficacy.  I have included articles at the end.

In this brief piece, let me give you strategies to get you started and hopefully stimulate your interest into looking into this further. Keep in mind that what we are trying to do is to help the student feel competent and capable of handling what is being thrown at them.  It is not to deny that there are problems or challenges but rather to focus on the ability to handle those problems and challenges.

1.   Provide choice: A feeling of having a choice is highly protective.  Obviously, during a natural disaster or a pandemic, our choices become severely limited.  We feel as if we have no choice.  But we do have choice about many things so point those out.  Also, provide students a choice wherever possible.  Let them decide between doing problem set A or problem set B.  On a test, group questions and let them answer 4 out of 5 in a set.  You don’t have to offer choice for all questions, just some.  Offer a homework menu of options for firing and wiring what they are learning.

2.   Talk about it: Talk about how well they are coping.  Watch for evidence of how well they are handling the challenges and point that out. Remind them: “you have survived all the worst days of your life so far.”

3.   Reframe:  Watch for statements that are self-defeating and reframe them for students.  Instead of “I am stuck at home”, remind them it is more helpful to think “I am safe at home”.  If they say, “everything is too hard”, reply with a statement such as “yes, some things are hard right now and let’s work on that.” 

4.   Writing: An article in the journal Emotion by Schulz, Brown & Kleim supports the growing body of research showing that recalling memories of self-efficacy – times when one has handled a challenge – reduces the effects of trauma, including on emotional regulation and problem solving.  Ask students to recall in writing (that you do not read – journal writing) or aloud if the situation is conducive.  The researchers used prompts such as “having a successful conversation, passing a difficult exam, or giving a presentation.“ (University of Zurich. "Reflecting on your own capabilities boosts resilience." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 March 2021. <>.) This was found to “have a far greater impact than recalling a positive event” in boosting resilience.

5.   Imagery:  Research in student athletes has shown the effectiveness of mental imagery in increasing self-efficacy.  Visualization is a powerful force in the brain.  In fact, neuroimaging research has shown that even imagining a movement can strengthen the muscle or create change in the brain.  Have students take a moment and imagine how ta role model of theirs would handle a situation they are confronting.  Then have them imagine themselves handling it in a similar way.

6.   Helping others: Ryan and Deci who founded a motivational model called SDT (self-determination theory) propose that people have three basic psychological needs, with one of them being competence.  They define that as feeling effective – self efficacy.  The other basic needs are autonomy and relatedness.  They suggest that helping others incorporates all three of these needs. 

One way you can incorporate this is by having students teach each other. This practice is very brain-compatible in many ways and can activate the sense of helping or compassion. It also increases self-efficacy when a student enables another student to understand or realizes that they themselves understand a concept better by having explained it.

Another way to build self-efficacy is through service projects.  Look for ways that you can incorporate service to others as part of a learning experience.  Can your students work with younger students on reading or math?  Can struggling readers read to day care children or elderly at senior living homes?  Older students can engage in complex projects that also benefit the community.

Of course many more strategies are offered in my presentation.  

For information on this, reply to this email or go to

Here is some relevant information for delving deeper:

Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency.

The Critical Next Two Years You Must Prepare for Now

by Janet Zadina on 01/28/21

Hopefully, the pandemic will end soon, either due to a vaccine or a treatment. But our mental health, indeed, perhaps some lives, are still at risk afterwards. We must take steps now to protect our mental health for the future, as well as now.

After a natural disaster, some people recover quickly and some have post-traumatic growth. However, there are those who go on to long-term Post-Traumatic Disorder and worse. In my experience of going to areas after natural disaster to work with educators and to help them understand what is happening in their brain/mind and how to address the stress, I have found that the anxiety, stress, and trauma can even continue escalating after the disaster is over.

In this article, I address an area of even greater concern – suicide.

Statistics show increased deaths from heart attacks, stroke, and other causes in the years after a natural disaster. That was certainly true here in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. New research by Horney’s lab at the University of Delaware looked at suicide rates for 12 years after a disaster in 281 natural disasters. Overall, suicide rates were 23% higher. The first year rates were 18% and the second year 61% before declining to a baseline. These deaths might have been preventable if stress responses could be addressed both during, immediately after the trauma, and on an ongoing basis for those who are most vulnerable.

The researchers suggest that mental health and wellness interventions should continue even after the disaster has ended. Furthermore, they state that the goal shouldn’t be to return to their “normal” selves, but to a more resilient self. It is possible to attain post-traumatic growth if one has the right attitude and strategies, both of which can be learned.

The pandemic is a natural disaster of the worst sort, affecting everyone. There is no place to go, such as after a hurricane or fire. Even worse, many have experienced other disasters during the pandemic, such as fires, floods, and hurricanes. While most disasters end quickly, the pandemic just keeps going on and wearing people down. It is a mental health risk that cannot be ignored. Stress reduction practices need to begin during the pandemic and continue afterwards.

In my earlier blogs you have read about the effects of trauma on learning and on faculty performance. In my blogs and presentations you can find information about the factors that affect whether one may get a lifetime of mental and physical problems or not. You will find strategies for addressing this.

 It is time to also focus on our long-range plans. We do not want faculty to end the pandemic with long-term mental and physical problems, especially suicide. It is imperative to set up wellness activities and get faculty engaged to start participating now to reduce their allostatic load and increase their resilience so that when this is over, you have a faculty ready to move forward.

Here are some strategies other leaders are using to help their faculty:

Mindfulness Mondays. Principals offer a meditation or a meditation moment over the PA system or in an email or on their web page.

Wellness Wednesdays. Again, the school system or college offers advice or strategies once weekly for stress reduction.

Yoga or tai chi. Classes are offered for free in the courtyard at lunch or online now.

Interventions:  One small rural college did an amazing thing for faculty and staff. Faculty or staff members who had a hobby or skill that they could share offered to share their expertise. A list of about 10 options was provided for all faculty and staff. They signed up for one or more “classes” for 8 weeks. Research indicates that hobbies and exercise reduce the allostatic load (amount of stress carried by the body) and lead to reduced stress over time. Classes included photography, a walking group, bird-watching, yoga, and many more.

Book club:  I started an online Coping with Covid book club in which we read nonfiction books that help us change our attitudes from stress to happiness. We read books on happiness, living in flow, biology of belief, and more. If you want more information on starting your own club, contact me at

For workshops on stress reduction contact me

3 Critical Things You Must Do to Help Students Now!

by Janet Zadina on 09/14/20

A CDC study in June showed that 25% of young adults considered suicide in June. If you are teaching college, your students are at risk.  If you are teaching younger students, I think we can safely say that they are also seriously stressed. Their parents may be having some serious mental health issues as well.

Although it’s not appropriate for you to try to be a mental health professional, you may be a “first responder” for many of these students, as you are the one that may be having more contact with them.  Fortunately, some research indicates that perceived support is actually more effective for long-term mental health outcomes than received support.  In other words, while you may not be able to do much to personally help them with their issues, their knowing that you are “there for them” can make a significant difference.

Therefore, as I see it, it is important to do three important things:

1.     Explain what is happening to their brain and emotions – the effects of anxiety, stress, and trauma.

2.     Provide them with some simple strategies.

3.     Provide them (and/or their parents depending upon the age you teach) with information about mental health resources.

1. Explain what is happening.

The first thing to do, based on my understanding and experience with trauma survivors, is explaining that their symptoms are a normal response to an abnormal situation.  This does not mean that they do not necessarily need intervention by a professional.  It reassures them that they are not “losing their mind” or having a breakdown. 

Some theorists are suggesting that anxiety, depression, and PTSD are not mental illnesses. They are adaptive responses to a difficult situation. Anxiety may be an over-activation of the fight or flight system. PTSD and depression may actually result from when the freeze reaction is stuck. These mental states are meant to alert us to danger or to protect us in danger, but they are not helpful when functioning in ordinary life. However, the fear that one is having a mental illness, or losing one’s mind, or that there’s something wrong with them only makes the stress worse.

Talk to your students about fight, flight, or freeze and how stress is naturally affecting their frontal lobes and higher order thinking. This reassurance can take an enormous weight off their shoulders, especially for older students who may have more metacognition and awareness that their cognition and behavior has changed. If you’re careful you can speak to quite young children about this in very simple terms. You might ask a child if they feel like they’re getting angry or upset more easily? Then you might say “this may be because you’re very worried about what is going on in the world and worried about the pandemic and missing your friends at school. So we can use our brain to calm down our body and our body to calm down our brain do a few simple exercises. These are normal reactions.” You might say “I can see you’re having trouble concentrating today. That is typical of this pandemic (fires, hurricane, etc). So let’s get that under control before we begin our lesson.”

Providing this information also allows them to feel they are not alone.  If you are comfortable enough, share your experiences. You might mention that you have had trouble concentrating or your emotions feel stronger than usual or you have less motivation….but be sure to emphasize that you are using tools to fight back and you can teach them some of those tools.



I couldn’t find a video that simply explains the effects in terms of both science and classroom behaviors and learning in detail. As a former teacher and current neuroscientist, I have prepared a presentation that merges the science of what happens with the effects on classroom behavior and learning. (Want to get this remote presentation for your faculty? Submit a request.)

2. Give strategies.

The next step is to provide some quick and easy research-based strategies that will help them learn and may be very helpful for their mental state as well. 

One strategy for older students is to suggest that they take a walk. One advantage of this strategy is that it can accomplish many things. New research shows that it not only reduces stress, but that it contributes to better thinking by getting more oxygen (fuel) to the brain.  Another study of college students showed that it increases creativity.  Students can practice mindfulness when walking which can reduce stress, improve attention and focus, and improve emotional regulation.

It is important to begin class with stress reduction to improve learning during that time and to encourage students to do a breathing strategy or mindfulness strategy for a  few minutes before studying as well. I discussed this in an earlier post about how to set the stage for learning right when students walk into class, The First Five Minutes. Looking for more on this topic? Check the posts linked to the right or click "Older Entries" at the bottom of this page.  

3. Offer resources.

For seriously stressed, depressed, and suicidal students the first two steps may not be enough. Be sure that you are providing mental health information in your syllabus, on your webpage, anywhere that students can see it frequently and find it quickly. 

For those of you teaching younger children, providing mental health materials and resources to the parents is something that should be discussed with school leadership. I know of some school systems that are providing meditation and even tai chi classes online on the school website. Phone numbers for suicide hotlines and other resources should be readily available. For you personally or to get resources be sure to check out my new Coping with Covid page, my Butterfly Project page, and many, many resources on the resources tab.

Of course, since stress from faculty is contagious to students and since faculty also have trouble focusing and regulating emotions due to stress, you may want to consider a presentation on that topic.  If your school can’t bring me in, you can attend one of the presentations open to the public.  For more information, contact me anytime.

I hope you stay well in all ways!


NEW PRESENTATION: Improving the Brain’s Frontal Lobe Executive Functions for Higher Achievement: Science and Strategies

by Janet Zadina on 09/14/20

“Good frontal lobes, good life; bad frontal lobes, bad life” was something the neurologist head of our lab at Tulane University School of Medicine frequently said.  The frontal lobes are often referred to as the “executive brain” because they perform higher level functions.  Another apt metaphor is that the frontal lobes are the conductor of the brain’s orchestra.

As early as first grade, life outcomes can be predicted by the development or lack thereof of a critical frontal lobe skill. Frontal lobes are involved in working memory and attention – two critical skills that affect academic performance. Developing frontal lobe executive functions may be one of the most critical purposes of education from early childhood through college.

In this engaging and interactive presentation, attendees will learn the answers to the following questions:

1.     How do frontal lobe executive functions affect the following?

a.     Learning

b.     Behaviors

c.      Life Outcomes

2.     What are the executive functions performed by the frontal lobes?

3.     What does poor executive function look like in the classroom?

4.     How do the frontal lobes affect working memory and what strategies can remediate that?

5.     How do the frontal lobes affect attention and what is the number one strategy for improving that?

6.     How can frontal lobes be developed and improved?

7.     What are some strategies for developing them?

8.     What is a strategy for developing metacognition?

9.     What is cognitive load theory and how does it affect learning and performance?

10.  What are strategies for reducing cognitive load and enhancing learning?

11.  Can some people multitask better and what are the effects of multitasking?

12.  How do you help students develop critical thinking?

Do This Now to Prevent Learning Difficulties When School Starts

by Janet Zadina on 07/13/20

We must act now to address the mental health consequences coming from how the pandemic has changed the lives of our students. After an initial survival response that allows us to take action, trauma fatigue sets in, resulting in an increase in mental health issues.  In addition to mental fatigue from the ongoing stress, faculty and students are experiencing anxiety and trauma from the uncertainty of what will happen in the fall.

A college professor wrote me this week that in the last month one student committed suicide and two others entered a residential mental health facility.  Parents are telling me that their children are crying and distressed over what is going on and uncertainty about what will happen.  Faculty are missing their students but frightened about returning to in-person teaching.  The biggest health crisis from the virus may be the mental health effects.

These issues can also lead to lifelong health problems if not addressed.  With regard to education, it is well-established that mental health issues, such as anxiety, high stress, depression, and trauma, can impair learning and lower achievement. 

What are some things you can do for yourself now and advise your students to do before they return or immediately upon return if that is the first time you see them?  While this could be (and will be soon!!!) an entire book, let me share with you a few important conditions that have been shown in research after natural disasters to help prevent chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

First, let’s establish that you should already be using, and have taught students to use, quick strategies to immediately reduce the fight/flight/freeze chemicals, such as deep breaths and so forth. See my resources for Coping with COVID. ]]But that quick recovery is not enough.  We must also have an environment that creates resistance to stress, promotes resilience,  and leads to faster recovery over the long-term.  See if you can incorporate activities and discussions that will enhance these mental states:

1.      A sense of control:  When everything feels out of control, and certainly the pandemic feels out of control, stress rises.  Giving yourself and others a sense of control can reduce stress and create resilience.  While we cannot control what is happening in the world, we can have some sense of control over everyday things can help us feel less out of control. 

How can you give your students choices?  Can they have a choice of two assignments?  Can they have a choice of which day to do something?  This gives them a sense of control over their schoolwork.  Use words such as “your choice” or “you control which you choose”.

2.     A sense of self-efficacy:  Bandura (see references below) discusses the role of self-efficacy in education.  Later researchers found that a sense of self-efficacy protected against long-term post-traumatic-stress disorder after a natural disaster.  Self-efficacy is the feeling that you can cope.  It means you believe that you have the power to do something about the situation you are in.  While there is not much that someone can do during the pandemic about the situation in the world, we can do something about our situation in our home or school.  Ask students how they are taking care of themselves.  What are they doing to make themselves be safe? Draw attention to their accomplishments.  Bandura’s article below elaborates on how your can instill self-efficacy in students.

3.     A sense of connection:  Connection to others is well-established as a means of coping with anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma.  It is critical to human survival, so the brain rewards us with feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin when we connect with others.  Unfortunately, the pandemic has necessitated that we must isolate ourselves to be safe.  This may be one of the most harmful effects, although it is necessary.  However, I think we have all experienced the unique ways people have found to make connection, even when in quarantine.  There are online meet-ups for dinners, happy hours, coloring sessions, and book clubs.  People are reaching out to others and forming groups that would not have been formed otherwise.  How can you help your students stay connected?  Whether you are teaching online or in-person, how can you have them engage in some social interaction, perhaps more than you would have in the past during this period of recovery?  Zoom has breakout rooms so you can let friends get together online and have a chat and reconnect if they are not able to do that on their own at home.  Build in more social activities, even if you must find ways to physically distance.

4.     A sense of predictability:  Predictability and routine reduce stress. Novelty increases dopamine.  That sounds contradictory.  Routine doesn’t mean it has to be boring.  For example, if you start your class with a few minutes of meditation, that is routine and predictable.  But every class you have a different kind of meditation, such as a moving meditation or a guided imagery or even singing.  That is the novelty.  There is enough uncertainty now that we definitely do not want that in our teaching or daily lives.  Create a routine overall but with novelty within it.  So at home you may have a theme night dinner on Saturdays but every Saturday the theme is different.  Predictability and novelty. 

5.     Goals:  Goals give us a sense of control.  Goals should be small enough that they are achievable but challenging.  However, it is essential that the goals are within that individual’s control.  A goal of a higher grade is not under their control; a goal of studying 15 minutes more a day for a week is.  Talk about their goals and dreams for the future.  I have a file folder called After Covid into which I put information about places I want to travel or dine, things I want to accomplish, and projects I want to initiate.  Remind them that while you can’t do some things “for now” there is a future.

My heart goes out to all educators during these very difficult times when decisions that affect you personally, your health, your family life, and your students are being made or even more stressful, are in limbo.  Please seek mental health treatment if you need it and remind your students to talk to someone or seek mental health.  Remind them of whatever mental health resources are available to them and let them know that it is something anyone would benefit from (no stigma).  Please take care of yourselves.


Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency. American Psychologist, 37, No.2, pp. 122-147.

Benight, C. C. & Bandura, A. (2004). Social cognitive theory of posttraumatic recovery: the role of perceived self-efficacy. Behav.Res Ther., 42, pp. 1129-1148.


Benight, C.C. & Harper, M.L. (2002) Coping self-efficacy perceptions as a mediator between acute stress response and long-term distress following natural disasters. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 15, No. 3. pp. 177-186.


Benight, C,. C., Ironson, g., Durham, R.L. 1999) Psychometric properties of a hurricane coping self-efficacy measure.. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 12, No. 2, p. 379.

with Dr. Janet Zadina
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Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

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Urgent Action Needed to Protect Faculty

by Janet Zadina on 04/09/20