The Role of Emotions in Learning
Too often adults behave as though we (subconsciously, not intentionally) believe that all learning happens in the thinking, rational brain, and that if a child is not performing well with reading or math, their rational, thinking brain is somehow at fault, i.e. disabled. For years, my passion has been to learn the reasons why some children who are bright fail in school and what I can do about that as a parent, educator, and product designer, so I focus on learning from these children. Lately my focus has gone beyond “the child is obviously bright, so why is he failing?” to “the brain is wired to learn naturally, so no matter how bright or not bright the child appears, what is preventing learning?”
The clash between learning and teaching styles
What I have come to believe is that one of the biggest obstacles to learning has to do with a mismatch between teaching style and learning style. It is as though we speak Swahili to children whose native tongue is Tagalog. We can talk slowly, more loudly, repeat ourselves, have them try and write what we say, have them drill with flashcards, cut the required work in half, lower expectations for them… but as long as we’re speaking Swahili and their ears are trained to hear Tagalog, nothing good will come from the exercise.
The results of the clash
Children are naturally wired to scan the faces of adults who care for them – parents, teachers, or anyone who is important to them – and to read body language. They want to please, they want to belong, and they need our approval. They need to see our faces light up with love and approval when we look at them. Unfortunately, when we are busily chattering away in Swahili, what registers on our faces and in our body language is frustration, perplexity, maybe a sense of helplessness, or exhaustion. The child will absorb all that, and in the habit of children, will sense that he is failing us… and that the fault is his. The child will not understand that he should be spoken to in Tagalog; he will berate himself for not understanding our steady stream of Swahili.
Negative emotional connections
The next thing that will happen is that the child will begin to make negative emotional connections with anything that reminds him of the unpleasant experience he had with trying to learn in a Swahili classroom. The chair, desk, pencils, papers and books will all remind him of his failure to learn. At this point, there is the child’s failure, yes, but other things are happening as well.
The more a child associates negative emotions with learning, the more his brain will shut down. He will be immersed completely in his emotions which are urging him to avoid the danger he is in. I have seen children who get to this stage in their life check out, act out, display bravado, drop out, become behavior problems so they will not have to be faced with their failure yet again. And of course, learning does not happen.
The design of our educational system
Our traditional system of education (which includes curricula, teaching style, testing, philosophy, and really everything about it) is accepted nationally in spite of the fact that for all the research, money spent, and initiatives initiated, our children are failing in greater and greater numbers. What is hard to understand is that for the most part, the focus remains on the failure of students; not the failure of the system to reach the students.
What is hard to understand is that for the most part, the focus remains on the failure of students; not the failure of the system to reach the students.
Does research impact practice?
Our children don’t all learn the same way; we have known this for decades according to research conducted by the most expert of experts in educational and neurophysiologic fields, such as Carla Hannaford, PhD., educator and neurophysiologist. We know so much about how children learn, in theory, but what research reveals doesn't seem to effect change in our educational system. We have seen the system become more and more skilled at identification of learning disabilities, but PRACTICE has not changed universally. And until it changes, we will not see a change where it counts: with our failing children.
Chronic stress and its results
We as biological beings are wired for survival. When we perceive danger or think we do, our limbic system goes into full alert and we react to the “dangerous thing,” (fight or flight) even before we've had sufficient time to allow our thinking brain to process whether or not we truly are in danger, and to formulate a considered response to the incoming stimuli. Our thinking brain takes a bit longer to respond, which is why impulsive reactions are often not productive. Children in particular respond to perceived threat from within this emotional, reactionary place, and their responses are to fight or to flee. For many children, the one of the greatest threats they encounter is found in the classroom.
In her book Playing in the Unified Field Carla Hannaford writes, “In the 1950’s, Swiss researcher, Hans Selye discovered that people were exhibiting the survival response in a chronic way to non-life-threatening situations. He terms this incoherent state 'stress,' and claimed it was an aberrant, inefficient use of our survival mechanisms. Though very little if anything in our daily lives is truly life threatening, the body reacts as if it were whenever we become fearful, anxious, confused, frustrated, out of balance, or critical of others or ourselves.”
Dr. Hannaford also writes, “If we are stressed, these disturbances can cause a steep rise in adrenaline and cortisol and a decrease in brain function causing us to react rather than reason.” She already discussed the results to unborn children of stress in the expectant mother and what the surge in cortisol does to the infant. “If the pregnant mother is chronically stressed, the high levels of survival hormones will cross the placental barrier and cause the developing embryo and fetus to also be in survival mode. This early pattern of chronic stress can lead to poor development and incoherent patterns of response.”
Finally, Dr. Hannaford states, “Chronic stress that produces high levels of adrenaline and cortisol and greatly decreased levels of dopamine (possibly our most important learning chemical) on a regular basis is not natural.... Cortisol inhibits the immune system, uptake of protein for cellular growth, learning and memory, and increases the transport of fat molecules that can clog vessels going to the heart and other organs... Unfortunately, stress has become normal, being stimulated by common life situations, and setting the stage for the emotional, physical and social ailments in our lives, those of our children and of the world in general.
Chronic stress: contributes to depression, hyperactivity, memory loss, learning difficulties, allergies and diseases like AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Sources of stress
So we know chronic stress is at the least a detriment to learning, and at the worst physically damaging to humans. What I want to discuss here is the sources of stress for our children.
- As soon as a child realizes he is not living up to expectations and not pleasing his significant adults. This might be in a class setting or might be as sweeping as expectations for a career choice.
- Stress can come from tension in the home; problems faced by parents and how parents handle those problems is absorbed by the children. The stress in the adult is transferred to the child. Disharmony between parents, chronic rushing around, habitual impatience, lack of quality face time with the child, financial stressors, and more.
- Being expected to do things he’s just not gifted in, particularly in a school setting whether at home or school. We tend to expect our children to be a master of everything even as we adults recognize that each person is endowed with gifts and also with un-gifts. We expect every child to master reading, math, handwriting, spelling, science, public speaking, calculus, brain surgery... (ok, sorry, I got carried away). It is critical that we spend a lot of time making eye contact, watching, studying our children to help them discover their unique gifts and then FOCUS on those with the child. Of course we can help them find ways to strengthen areas in which they are not as gifted, but our primary focus must be on their gifts.
- The early involvement in competitive sports with the lose/win pressure attached. Reality is one team or person will always lose, and the chance that your child will lose is 50/50. I am not convinced the benefits of participation in the sport outweigh the effects of losing on a child who is too young to separate the inevitable loss from his self-worth.
- Anything that pushes our children into a stressful mode, and we can learn exactly what is stressful by observation.
What can we do?
- Learn your child, and it takes time and attention. Make it a priority to notice what is easy for him, what he gravitates towards, and encourage those things.
- Realize her brain wants to learn and embrace fully the knowledge that if conditions are right, she will learn.
- When she encounters something difficult for her in school, take the attitude that her brain is fine, but maybe the presentation is not fine and find an alternate approach to teaching that topic.
- Encourage exploration and creativity, whether it be outside play, construction projects that take up his whole bedroom floor, or making concoctions in the kitchen.
- Provide a model of serenity as you go through the day. Identify what is stressing and figure out if that thing should really be as stressful as it currently is, and if not, what can be done to change the stress level. Do I need to really have all these demands in my life? Can I prioritize them so that some are “must-dos” and some are “oh wells”?
- Limit demands on your child to those hills on which you are prepared to die. Honesty, obedience, responsibility… things that will help make your child into a responsible member of society – those are important. Evaluate honestly which expectations emerge from our own desire to look good because of our child’s performance. Which demands stem from a preconceived notion of what the child’s career path should be?
- Enjoy life to the utmost. Possibilities are endless once we release ourselves from unnecessary fears, constraints, expectations, and free ourselves to reach for the moon. Focus on relationships, friendships, creativity and what builds us up as people.
Sarah K Major
Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.