The Science of Learning: Emotions Matter

By Kathryn Gomes | March 22, 2017 | Featured News, The Science of Learning
Science of Learning: Emotions Matter

Pause for a moment and recall a time filled with intense emotion such as anger or grief. Did you have trouble focusing? Most people struggle to learn something new when they are stressed or angry. It is not your imagination, these emotions block our ability to make connections and learn new things.

This can easily develop a vicious cycle in your homeschool. Imagine this scenario—a common one I am afraid.

Sophia consistently struggles with math. It has never come easily for her and now she’s holding on by a thread in pre-algebra. Math is typically put off to the end of the day and is a daily point of contention between Sophia and her mom. Math lessons are started begrudgingly with conviction that she won’t understand it or be successful.

There are many layers to this scenario and I could offer multiple suggestions (and have here and here.) But first, consider just the role emotions play. Because Sophia failed in the past she brings the emotions of fear and possibly anger to each math lesson. On top of a weak background in the subject, she now has added a cognitive burden to her future learning. The cards are completely stacked against her.

We all want to avoid a scenario like this for our kids, but how? Here are some suggestions.

Have fun. Setting aside time to do projects or play a game that is both fun and education can be well worth the time. If your kids are laughing while learning, they are making positive emotional associations with the subject. Those positive emotions will aid them in more mundane learning tasks.

Avoid intensity in elementary. My mom has written extensively about this. If you bring in stress and rigor prematurely and unnecessarily, you risk your kids creating negative emotional responses to learning. At times the experience of learning for young ones may be more important than the content.

Take a step back. When emotions are boiling it is time for a brain break. If a student reaches a certain level of anxiety or stress his or her brain won’t function properly anyway. When kids are young we can help cue them that they need to take a brief break and calm down. In middle school and high school, however, it is important that our kids become self-aware and can initiate their own emotional de-escalation. Some sunshine or a switch to another subject might be in order.