Take CHARGE Day 25: The power of emotions
Updated: Feb 10
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
You’ve all seen THAT kid. The one that screams like he’s being chased by a stranger in a scary clown mask in the middle of the grocery store. The child who drops his candy bar and then proceeds to roll around on the ground for eight minutes pounding his fists into the dirt. The girl who stubs her toe and then hobbles around like a Civil War amputee with an ill-fitting wooden limb. We shake our heads in embarrassment and tell ourselves, “I’m sure glad that isn’t my kid. I’d never let him act like that in public.”
The Mt. Everest of this type of behavior, though, is usually saved for those lucky individuals who have morning duty at elementary schools. God bless you, courageous souls. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will get these teachers out of morning duty. They have the privilege of seeing rude parents cut each other off in the parking lot while still in their pajamas. They help students out of backseats that are finishing off a bag of cheese puffs for breakfast.
And then come the screamers.
The screamers are the students who don’t want to come to school. Once the car turns into the school parking lot a banshee-like wail erupts from their vocal chords. Snot, tears, and blubbering lips all work together to try and talk mom into letting them stay home. They feel sick, they have a headache, they forgot their underwear, anything to get them out of their day in school. Trained morning duty teachers sometimes have to employ the Jaws of Life to get the kid out of the car.
Other parents cast sidelong glances at that strange child and comfort themselves in knowing that their child is walking in under her own power. What’s wrong with that child, they wonder? Or, is there something wrong with the parents? Is something going on at home that the school should be worried about?
Those are all questions I asked throughout the years as I served my time as a morning duty teacher. Like other parents, I congratulated myself on not having one of those kids. My wife and I felt pretty confident in our parenting abilities and, the longer I taught, the more secure I felt.
We had that kid
Then our second child, Drew, entered first grade. He had a great teacher whom he enjoyed seeing every day. She liked him a lot and did a great job personalizing instruction for him. Yet he didn’t want to go to school.
I never took him to school in the morning as I was myself teaching at an elementary school in a neighboring town. Instead, my wife took him and his older brother Dave to school every morning like hundreds of moms around us. It didn’t take long into the school year, however, for my son to develop an aversion to school. He started whimpering, screaming, and whining before they even got out our front door. The entire way to school he’d be telling my wife that he didn’t want to go that day.
Usually dragged out of the car, he’d trudge into the school building each day like a convicted murderer on his way to the gallows. Sometimes he’d resign himself but usually he’d still be crying. My wife vividly remembers weeks of driving away from the school in tears. Seeing Drew like that every morning almost broke her.
Yet we couldn’t figure out what was going on. He liked his teacher and she liked him. He wasn’t being picked on in school and no other red flags popped to give us any clue. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to go to school and we couldn’t figure out why. In all honesty, we never have figured it out. I asked him recently about the experience and he still remembers those first grade mornings. When I asked him why he got so upset, all he said was, “I just didn’t want to go to school.”
Emotions as a gateway
His school did a great job of handling his emotional state each morning. They didn’t trundle him off to class and expect him to learn. Instead, he sat in the office to collect himself whenever he needed some time. Sometimes the school counselor would talk with him and sometimes it would be one of the unofficial counselors (i.e., school secretary). When he had calmed down, something that happened anywhere from five to fifteen minutes after he got to school, he’d go to class and begin his day.
The reason that this response was so beneficial was that the school understood that emotions act as the gateway for cognition and learning. When in a heightened emotional state, all other educational considerations meant nothing to Drew. He couldn’t have cared less about addition sentences or consonant blends. He didn’t want to be there and until that resolved, learning would not happen.
Too often I have seen schools disregard the emotional states of distraught students. They somehow expect them to attend to learning when it is in fact impossible. I know that I myself have been guilty of this when I feel like the emotional trigger is minimal or unimportant. One thing to remember, however, is that what is insignificant to us might be very significant to the student. Whether we agree with their reasoning or not (honestly, how often does reasoning outweigh emotional reactions?), emotions have the power to completely unravel a child’s day. Until the emotions are right, learning isn’t even a consideration.
The research on emotions and learning
Neuroscience has shown that emotion, once thought to be separate from cognition, is in fact integral to all thought. To be succinct, there is no such thing as rational thought apart from emotion. This discovery first came about when scientists studied adults who suffered from early-onset prefrontal brain damage as children. These patients could logically discuss social norms and the best decisions to make in hypothetical situations. However, the patients’ decision-making abilities in their own lives were severely compromised. They were oblivious to the consequences of their actions, insensitive to others’ emotions, and unable to learn from their mistakes.
In addition to severe social deficits, they also showed serious difficulty making rational decisions. They performed poorly in their jobs even though they had the required skills. They made disadvantageous business decisions and chose partners that were not a beneficial match for them. With testing, researchers showed that these patients did not suffer from damage to their logical abilities or their knowledge base. The injury due to their brain damage instead affected their emotional capacity.
Both their social emotions such as compassion and guilt and emotional reactions had been compromised. These patients had lost the ability to evoke emotions tied to past associations as a guide for properly responding to present experiences. They never made any progress emotionally.
Emotions and cognition
Emotions, then, are the underlying support for all cognition. They are the glue, so to speak, that attaches knowledge together. Emotion makes experiences accessible for future recall as a reference for decision-making. Learning done without an emotional context is sterile and ineffective.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a prominent neurological scientist at the University of Southern California, puts it succinctly:
Real thinking is never divorced from emotion…Schools need to be rethought not as ivory towers of rationality but as community centers of emotional thinking.
Ultimately, we all want our students to grow and learn. Doing that apart from emotions, however, is futile. First, students must be in a neutral or positive emotional state to even be in the right frame of mind to learn. Ignoring or minimizing the emotional distress of students is like cutting off our nose to spite our face. The more we tell students to stop crying and pay attention, the less they will do it.
Also, positive emotions boost memory and recall. Classrooms should be fun, vibrant, and explosive environments of joy. The more that positive emotions are cultivated in the classroom, the easier it'll be for students to recall what they learned. To fully engage students, you have to reach not just their minds but their hearts as well. When students have fully committed to the joy of learning, why would they misbehave?
Action: Take a look at your lesson plans for next week. Find a spot (or three) to insert a short activity just for fun. Try to purposefully manufacture fun in your classroom to increase the level of positive emotions.
Reflection questions: Have you had a recent experience in which you minimized or ignored the emotional distress of a student? How did that impact the student's learning? Did the student simply suck it up and engage with your lesson? Or did he only mentally rejoin the class after he'd calmed down?
Immordino‐Yang, M. H. (2011). Implications of affective and social neuroscience for educational theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(1), 98-103.
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.
To read Day 26, click here.