As your child gets in the swing of the new school year, there are many emotions they will experience: perhaps excitement of being with their friends or getting to know their teacher, motivation to do well, curiosity about what they are going to learn, and apprehension about being ready to meet the requirements. While these emotions may seem to be separate from the learning and attention skills necessary for the academic tasks of school, like reading, solving math equations, or following a lab experiment, emotions actually underlie every one of the thinking and reasoning skills required in school.
For a long time, emotions and cognition were thought of as separate entities — emotions were actually a distraction from the logical, cognitive reasoning processes. However, current neuroscience shows that in every moment, our emotion networks are actively interconnected with our attention, perception, and memory systems. It is our emotion networks that activate our physiology, help us predict whether a situation is good or bad for us, and motivate us to take action. Emotion networks play a critical role in your child participating in a lesson in school, persisting through challenges, or disengaging from a situation.
From the moment your child walks into the classroom, their emotional networks are activated and drive their attention, engagement, decisions, and behaviors. Their learning is always tied to their emotions. Imagine that your child’s lesson in class today is to read a passage and answer the questions that follow. His emotion networks immediately begin to anticipate: is this situation good or bad for me? The level of physiological activation can influence his heart rate and cortisol hormone levels. Too much activation (stress) or too little activation (boredom) can influence his thinking skills, including problem solving, reasoning and executive functions. If he feels safe, part of the community, that the task is somehow relevant to him, or that there are resources to meet the demands of a task, his emotional appraisal will likely lead to him engaging in the learning task.
Over the course of the school day, there are so many kinds of activities and different situations students must navigate. For each, there will be an emotional appraisal that influences the learning. Gym class will be different from social studies class. And one social studies class will activate his physiology in a unique way from the next social studies class.
One of the skills you and your child can work on is to build her own “toolkit” of resources and strategies to do her best learning. For example, in the reading task mentioned, if your child knows she has the option to work on her own or with a partner, or that she can use a read-aloud version of the text, these options can influence her emotional assessment and learning in that situation. When your child perceives that there are resources to help her meet the demands of a lesson, she will be in a more productive emotional space for learning. [Note: this can also be a point for conversation with your child’s teacher.]
Here are a few tips to help your child understand how to support her emotions for learning in school. This is a metacognitive skill for your child to learn about her own learning:
- Encourage your child to make sure that she understands the learning goal (or objective) for any part of a lesson or activity. When she knows the goal and what she needs to achieve, then she can better understand steps to take to meet that goal.
- Help your child get to know some of the tools, strategies and resources available in the classroom or lesson. This can empower your child to troubleshoot and navigate her own learning, even when she gets stuck or frustrated. For example, in the reading task described earlier, your child may know that having a graphic organizer or using Post It note annotations helps her understand the passage. Often simple strategies can help your child’s emotional appraisal of the learning task and ability to take steps toward the goal.
- Remind your child that even if she feels like a learning task is too stressful, frustrating, or is a task she “does not like,” she needs to figure out how to get herself into an emotional space where she can engage in the work. An important part of school is to learn what strategies best help you in all different situations –and this can build coping skills for life! Taking deep breaths or utilizing mindfulness practices (research on mindfulness practices) can help, in addition to finding the tools and strategies that best help them to meet the demands of the different school tasks.
Know that each child will each show their emotions in unique ways. For example, two students may look like they are paying attention to the teacher, but one may be deep in thought and the other daydreaming! In addition, there is not one emotion that is “better” for school than another. Some students may prefer to be more active in a task, such as standing or working with a partner, while others may prefer to be more calm and independent. The preferences may change from lesson to lesson. Frustration and mistakes are often part of their learning and can provide valuable opportunity for metacognitive discussion and strategy development.
Because emotions are so critical for learning, you can start to ask your child how he feels during different learning tasks in school and ask him what helps him do his best learning. Build a shared language about emotions to deepen understanding of the full range of emotions. You can share how you feel when you are learning new things and what strategies you use at your work or at home. This will help your child learn how to recognize his emotions and know what to do to regulate the emotions in different situations. [For a tool to try, see the Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence Mood Meter App that includes a description of a many different emotions.]
Finally, remember that not all children will want to share about their emotions in the same way. For some, talking about emotions might be overwhelming or even seem threatening. You can be flexible in how you and your child share. For example, your child may prefer to write, draw, use the Mood Meter App, or even text about how they feel. Encourage your child to brainstorm what resources and strategies might be useful to help her engage productively in the lesson.
Most importantly, recognize that emotions are central to learning. We must not minimize emotions they are critical to every part of your child’s school day and academic success.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education, 1(1), 3-10.
Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. T. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.
Yale Mood Meter, retrieved September 1, 2019 from http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/ruler-overview/