How Emotions Impact Learning

I found a great article today on emotions in learning. It was written by Candy Lawson, Ph.D., from the Center for Development and Learning.

“Priscilla Vail, an expert on learning, has described emotion as the "on-off switch to learning". According to Mrs. Vail, when the switch is off, the system is dormant and only the potential for learning is available. When the switch is on, the pathway to learning is open. When the limbic system interprets sensory information and dispatches it to the cortex for processing, it sets the emotional tone of the information before it reaches the cortex. If the limbic system interprets the information as positive, it dispatches a message of purpose and excitement and directs our behavior toward a goal. When this happens, we become motivated to act; thinking and learning are enhanced. When the interpretation is negative, the switch is turned off and thinking and learning are stifled.”

Emotions impact us - for better or for worse

Emotions, quite simply, envelop every experience we have. When I think about gardening, I remember vividly the pleasurable experiences I’ve had in the past – the sun warming my back, the fragrance of the flowers I planted last year now blooming, the humming of bees, the satisfaction of seeing the black earth turned over to welcome new plants, and the brilliance of color. I also relive the relief from stress which gardening gave me during some difficult times in my life. I have come to associate gardening with enough positives that when given the chance to repeat the experience, I’m ready to start!

Conversely, when experiences are unpleasant, we associate negative emotions with them. I remember being asked to do a training session for our staff during an in-service day. I prepared zealously for days! The day arrived in which I was to present. Everything went wrong! First of all, we all sat through four grueling hours of a different training session. As I sat through that session, I began to feel ill. I ached all over, and all I wanted to do was put my head down and cover myself up with a blanket. Lunch time came. Faculty was drained and ready to go home. But instead, they had to move to another room where they were to participate in yet another training. I stood up to begin the session, and all I can remember about it is how much I didn’t want to be there, how badly I wanted to lie down, how quickly I tried to cover the material, and how jaded everyone looked. I was happier than anyone when finally we called it quits for the day.

The next morning, however, my mortification set in. Why hadn’t I canceled and just gone home? The negative emotions I had attached to that experience made it difficult for me to agree to another in-service presentation when I was later asked again. All the mortification of that previous time flooded in to remind me of exactly why I did not want to ever repeat that experience. It didn’t matter if the place and time were different; the negative associations were that strong.

Imagine how the kids feel!

Again I quote:

 “Some children (and adults) have trouble managing negative emotions. In children, emotional problems are usually manifested as behavioral problems. Some children tend to externalize or under-control their emotions and behavior. They may act out their negative thoughts and feelings by being impulsive or aggressive. Anger is the core emotion associated with externalizing behaviors. Frustration often leads to anger. Frustration occurs when our wants, efforts and plans are blocked. We do not get what we want. Children who have a low tolerance for frustration believe that the world is "too hard" and they can't stand it. Children with learning differences are often easily frustrated because tasks, such as learning to read, are incredibly difficult for them. They try their best but don't succeed regardless of how hard they try. Children also respond with anger in situations that are perceived as threatening to their self-esteem. If a child is being picked on in school because he can't read, he might react with anger.”

All of us have worked with children who were disruptive and did not seem to be trying. What is hard to remember when we are in the middle of teaching these children is that there is most likely a well of negative experiences behind their unacceptable behavior. The child will not be able to verbalize, “The reason I don’t want to try again is because last time I did, I failed and the kids laughed at me. From now on, I am going to do anything in my power to avoid a repeat of that awful experience.”

My dream is to work at Burger King

I will never forget an eighth grade student who informed me that his goal in life was to work at Burger King, and this being so, he didn’t really see the need to do any of the school work demanded of him. I think someone in the office had asked me to talk to him, so I was sitting with Fritz (pretend name) trying to get to the root of what caused his behaviors.

I had just read that if we can discover what the child really wants deep down inside, we can use that to motivate him to work and perform. So I asked Fritz, “If you could pick anything in the world to do when you grow up, what would it be?” At first, he was adamant. He wanted to work at Burger King with an eye to management some day. It took work to get him beyond the realm of what he had come to believe was likely and into the realm of his secret dreams. Finally, Fritz told me that if anything were possible, he’d love to be in business in Asia in some field of technology. I could see Fritz come to life as he began to imagine his dream could become a reality. To make a long story short, once he believed his dream could become real, Fritz seemed to have no trouble digesting the fact that he not only would need to finish eighth grade, but would also need to go to high school and college.

Fritz said that he’d been tested and put into special education and he just gave up at that point. He was stupid, and he got mocked for his label.

We discussed strategies and goals for him, including a work ethic, all in light of getting him to his dream life. Several days later, I asked Fritz if he would mind mentoring a 5th grader, Scott, who was out of control and was repeatedly thrown out of class. I suggested he set up regular times to meet with Scott during the week and offered my break-out room for them to meet in. It was amazing to hear Fritz encouraging Scott not only with his math, but also with his goals in life. For both boys, negative behaviors nearly disappeared. Fritz had gone, in a very short time, from being the failing nobody to being a tutor and mentor and example to another student. That was powerful.

Discover their desires and follow them

Belief in oneself is paramount. But most children cannot arrive at this belief by themselves. If they have failed, it becomes even more difficult. Something radical needs to be done to rekindle their belief in themselves.

They need us to uncover their abilities, hidden behind their behaviors. They need us to believe in them, to help them write down strategies that will enable them. They need us to take the time to discover solutions for them when it is the norm and far easier to just test and label them.

If a child has been failing for years, find out what their dream is and help them follow it. The time taken to build positive emotions could impact the whole direction of a young life.

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