Why stressed-out children are less likely to learn new things

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Stressed-out toddlers who are placed in uncomfortable and unfamiliar circumstances are more likely to fall back on their habits and less likely to try new things, research shows.

The ability of 15-month-olds to learn is damaged when they are placed in stressful yet everyday situations – such as their parents leaving the room, a stranger sitting next to them, or a robot dancing around to loud music – according to the study.

Psychologists at two German universities found that the infants produce more of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol when placed in such predicaments, leading to more conservative behaviour.

Toddlers were shown dancing robots to stress them out

Experts already knew that this happens in adults but the German study, published in the journal PNAS, is the first show the same thing happens to young children.

Dr Sabine Seehagen from Bochum and Prof Dr Norbert Zmyj from Dortmund studied 26 infants, all 15 months old, half of whom had been placed under stress.

The latter group was less likely to explore unfamiliar ways of playing during a learning exercise, which involved pushing illuminated buttons.

Dr Seehagen said: “If infants are repeatedly exposed to stress and therefore don’t try out alternative behaviours, this may have a negative impact on their knowledge acquisition.

“This effect should be investigated in further studies in more detail.”