7 Tips to Support Students Feeling Overwhelmed

“Our emotions, not cognition, govern key aspects of learning such as attention, focus, and memory.” —Marc Brackett

Under the weight of cognitive tasks, students may trigger their survival responses (fight, flight, or shut down), hindering access to the prefrontal cortex, crucial for executive functions. Activation of this brain region depends on feeling emotionally secure and connected, along with a sense of competence regarding one’s learning style and academic performance appraisal.

Executive functions encompass a range of cognitive abilities enabling problem-solving, decision-making, planning, emotional regulation, attention maintenance, and working memory access. Overwhelm from assignments and academic responsibilities can lead to anxiety, frustration, and behavior shutdowns, often misconstrued as apathy, disrespect, or lack of motivation.

The challenges neurodivergent learners face in classrooms often stem from cognitive overload. Their unique brain functioning manifests in distinct processing methods, attention management, self-initiation, and organization strategies, demanding a shift away from traditional teaching methods towards more interactive, personalized approaches, including physical movement, storytelling, hands-on activities, technology integration, and guidance and support from a trusted adult.

Impact on Neurodivergent Learners

Behavioral issues in neurodivergent learners can trace back to cognitive overwhelm, necessitating alternative approaches acknowledging their diverse learning profiles and needs, steering clear of sensory overload, social anxiety triggers, and academic exhaustion. Co-regulation during cognitive tasks emerges as a reassuring and empowering strategy to navigate such challenges, fostering a conducive learning environment.

7 Ways to Support Students Through Co-regulation

1. Regular Check-ins: Ensure frequent, predictable interactions to cultivate a collaborative, supportive classroom environment that appreciates individual differences and efforts through gestures, verbal affirmations, and a sense of united progress.

2. Focus on Complex Tasks: Empower students to tackle challenging assignments by modeling effective highlighting techniques and providing personalized support to navigate through difficult sections, fostering active engagement and comprehension.

3. Task Chunking: Break down assignments into manageable segments to alleviate overwhelm, enabling students to focus on smaller components before progressing, enhancing learning retention and confidence.

4. Collaborative Assessments: Engage students in designing summative assessments collaboratively to encourage deeper understanding, leveraging their insights, preferences, and contributions for a more inclusive and reflective learning experience.

Encourage students to reflect on key concepts, share ideas for assessment methods, and co-create fair evaluation criteria based on their learning experiences and challenges.

5. Writing Role-play: Foster a supportive environment by assuming the role of a scribe, guiding students through the initial stages of writing assignments, encouraging them to voice their ideas without fear or hesitation, promoting a seamless transition from thoughts to written expression.

By assisting students in articulating their thoughts and capturing ideas, the anxiety of starting a writing task is alleviated, allowing for a smooth and collaborative writing process.

6. Planning Visualization: Collaboratively chart out timelines for daily, weekly, or monthly assignments, incorporating visual aids such as colors, symbols, and shapes to monitor progress and enhance task completion, providing a structured and motivating approach to learning.

7. Relatable Learning: Personalize learning experiences by integrating students’ interests, hobbies, and passions into the curriculum, making concepts relevant and engaging through connections to familiar topics such as sports, games, storytelling, or cultural references, fostering a deeper understanding and retention of content.

Establishing emotional connections through co-regulation facilitates the development of the nervous system, enabling students to access higher cognitive functions essential for learning and reasoning, shaping a conducive learning environment.

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