Science is revealing how children’s feelings help and harm learning. Here’s how adults can support kids so they feel, and learn, better. “Honk,” says my 9th grade French teacher on the first day of school. “En français, your name is ‘Honk’.”
“Excuse me,” I bleat in front of 35 classmates. “My name is Hank.”
“Non, incorrect,” she replied. “En français, and in this class, your name se prononce ‘Honk’.”
For two wretched years, I was called Honk by this cruel teacher and snickering students. Five times weekly, I entered the classroom twitching with fear, rage, and shame. The ordeal crippled my self-esteem and GPA. My grade lurked between C- and D because I refused to study for my persecutor. I hated the teacher (mutilating her face in my yearbook), and I subsequently hated the language.
My negative emotions destroyed my learning ability.
Research indicates my pitiful French performance was a predictable response. Monstrously bad feelings like I experienced can overwhelm a student’s ability to pay attention, memorize, and process information. Negative emotions like anxiety, rage, sadness, and shame often become mental roadblocks to success.
But not always. Research on how feelings affect learning shows that challenging emotions aren’t always impediments to doing well academically. Moderately negative feelings in emotionally resilient students can, almost surprisingly, be motivating.
While feeling stressed that they might not get an “A” on a math test can paralyze one student with anxiety, it could inspire another to study harder. A book report marked “lazy and incoherent” can freeze a shamed student with writer’s block. But it could stimulate another child to try harder next time. Weeping about World War II atrocities or climate change disasters can push a student into existential apathy and despair. Or it can cement crucial information and galvanize someone to bring about positive change in the world.
Why do negative emotions block some students from learning and inspire others? “How a certain emotion affects learning is a function of both the person and the emotion,” explains Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University and director of the Emotional Brain Institute . “Stress, fear, anxiety can be positive motivators and can help performance and learning. But if the person is easily overwhelmed in such situations, they may be negatively affected.”
Experts on emotion and learning agree that children who get the right kind of support and guidance from adults in their lives will fare far better in the face of challenging emotions. The following offer snapshots of the different ways each emotion impacts learning and how to help children navigate their feelings.
Sadness is a basic “negative” emotion that can both benefit and impair learning. A 2014 Australian study by Joseph P. Forgas found that sadness can “improve memory performance, […]