Emotions & Education: Enhancing Learning in the Classroom

(Editor’s note: This article is from the past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

Emotions in the Classroom

In his article, “Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior,” published in the journal Science, neuroscientist Ray Dolan writes, “An emerging theme is the question of how emotions interact with and influence other domains of cognition, in particular attention, memory, and reasoning.” Learning is not a passive process, but instead involves a multitude of other factors impacting either the development of efficient learning skills or maladaptive behaviors that may continue to interfere with learning for a lifetime.

Chief among those factors enhancing learning are the emotions of both the learner and the teacher. In addition to the teacher, other students can help create a positive social context for learning through cooperative and collaborative experiences that develop altruistic values and behaviors. Peer relationships and socialization make important contributions to cognitive development. Learning, friendship and social development are the positive outcomes of working closely together, creating an affirming classroom culture that impacts motivation. Motivation is increased when students are engaged in social problem-solving by working together for a solution rather than operating individually.

When students are thinking more about how poorly they are feeling or why they are sensing fear and discomfort instead of focusing on the prescribed content, learning will seldom take place. All classrooms should operate on the basis of what I call the “SAI3L.” principles. Preceding the formal instruction should be:

  • Safety
  • Acceptance
  • Inclusion, Involvement, and Interactions (the interpersonal/social aspects of learning and memory formation) Once these requisite neurophysiological preconditions are met, then students are biologically ready to learn:
  • Learning (when students feel their environment is important enough to take risks, they will now began to explore and discover the joys of learning.)

The best ways to enhance learning through the most effective use of emotions in the classroom is by using humor, positive feedback, sincere smiles and high fives, along with the following:

  • Begin school with an opening-the-day-together ritual indicating to students that they can leave any personal problems (home-based trauma) behind when they enter this safe learning place where no one will hurt them emotionally or physically.
  • Regular shared excitement (celebrations) for in-class learning successes and out-of-school personal achievements.
  • No put-downs about anyone’s personal appearance or academic/athletic performance.
  • Clear expectations and rules applied equally to all.
  • Do not reprimand students publicly.
  • Get to know your students’ lives and interests outside of class.
  • Announce to your students that they may invite you to an extracurricular activity of theirs (one event per student per year).
  • Allow students to write letters of apology for any misbehavior. They should acknowledge their awareness of why what they did was wrong and create a list of “three different behaviors I can choose from next time I find myself in the same circumstances.”
  • An environment of mutual respect.
  • Physical pats on the back (not yellow “smiley face” stickers).
  • A grading system that reflects both effort and growth.
  • Mentorship relationships for struggling students.
  • Recognize positive behaviors more than negative behaviors.
  • Never make light of a student’s personal plight.
  • Make sure everyone feels valued as a contributor to learning in the classroom.
  • Only call on students when they have indicated they are ready and willing to answer a question. (Humiliation should never be part of learning.)
  • Once a week, have a here is something exciting to share time (learned optimism), where students focus on a positive aspect of why they like their homes, their school, a friend, a classmate’s talent, etc.
  • Call students by their name. (“No sound is sweeter than the sound of one’s own name.”)

Teaching self-efficacy in school and at home is one of our most fundamental responsibilities as parents and educators. Cultivating the emotional habits of positive self-esteem, self-control, self-regulation, self-motivation, self-management, persistence and the control of impulsivity are required to make self-efficacy a reality for today’s students. Those who have not developed confidence in these areas succumb easily to feelings of being academically inadequate and emotionally overwhelmed. In addition to being a risk factor for poor academic performance, low self-esteem is also associated with emotional/psychological imbalances, depression, teen pregnancy and suicide. This may partially explain why some exceptionally intelligent individuals flounder, while a C+ student is incredibly successful in life. Intelligence, ambition, confidence and motivation do not always appear in equal amounts within the same individual. The support systems we erect around them are often the deciding factors in determining success versus failure.

It is often said that “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” When students are convinced that you truly believe in them, in their strengths and high-performance potential, they strive for a new personal best in a safe environment.

When we set the stage for an emotionally supportive and positive learning environment, we reinforce the vital emotional self-beliefs for academic success. If we hope to instill in students a true passion for learning, we can never overstate the importance of students’ emotions, as we develop the next generation of confident learners, ready to be challenged, to explore and invent for a lifetime.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)


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