Emotions: Why Your Child’s Internal “Stress Monitor” May Prevent Learning and Emotional Grounding
This article provides helpful information about your child’s emotions and limbic system that can advance or hinder learning in the classroom. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
There is a widely assumed notion that the frontal cortex of the brain is what makes us human. Recent research is suggesting this is not completely accurate.
What could explain human intelligence is the increasingly advanced networking of brain activation in multiple regions at a time. In addition, human intelligence is also activated through connections between all the neural areas and the constant back and forth with the limbic system (your child’s emotional control center of the brain). Human intelligence is too complex to be associated with just one brain region. This knowledge doesn’t negate the importance of the frontal lobes and the executive functions that are generated there. While plans and goals are important for learning, it’s emotions that drive our kids to achieve.
Where do emotions come from?
Emotions originate in a child’s brain. The region that controls emotions is the limbic system. The limbic system includes many structures, including the limbic lobe, hippocampal formation, amygdala, hypothalamus and the anterior nucleus of the thalamus. (The Well Balanced Child) Much of the limbic system is located just above the brainstem and below the cortex. The brainstem controls alertness and arousal and sends messages (sensory information) through the limbic system to arrive at the cortex. Much of your child’s higher level learning and thinking occurs in the cortex. Memory, which is imperative to learning, also involves the limbic system.
The Emotional Gate
Let me take you briefly back to the structure in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala acts like a stress monitor in the child’s brain. This is a major part of the limbic system. In today’s world, kids can be under a great deal of stress, especially at school. When the child is frustrated, threatened, uncomfortable or even frightened, the amygdala becomes active. It goes into a stressed out state and does not allow much information to pass from the brainstem or sensory regions of the brain to the higher levels of the brain. The cortex may be waiting for the information to process, but when your child is in a stressed state, learning doesn’t happen.
Remember, memory is vital for learning! When the child is in the midst of negative emotions, these create an active amygdala and your child’s memories cannot form, which is why they may struggle with short term and long-term memory. The other problem is when the information can’t get to the cortex, it is deflected to the lower regions of the brain and the child responds with the involuntary fight or flight reactions.
On the other hand, when the child is in a positive learning environment and engaged and finding the subject interesting, the amygdala is not active and it allows information to freely pass to the higher levels of the brain. Memories are formed and executive functions can occur. The amygdala is the emotional gate in the brain. Depending on stress levels, the gate can be open or closed. Whether your child has high stress or low stress, emotions will affect where information goes to their brain.
How do emotions drive learning?
First, let’s take a look at a child’s educational experiences. As with every encounter in a child’s daily life, their experiences in the classroom generate emotions. Every single experience creates a unique emotion that can be dismissed or remembered in a positive or negative light. According to Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert in the field of emotions, there are four core emotions that are derived from your child’s experiences. In Ekman’s book, Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, the four root emotions are fear, anger, enjoyment and sadness. There are many dimensions, variations and mingling of different emotions that create the many feelings that children experience when they are on their educational journey.
When the child experiences a specific emotion in the classroom, that emotion can change or interrupt the way the child processes information. (Teaching With The Brain In Mind) For example, the teacher creates a fun math fraction game that generates an enjoyment feeling in the child. The student has a mix of delight, amusement and curiosity. What follows these emotions are thoughts, opinions and decisions. Perhaps when another math assignment is given out, the same student that found enjoyment in the math game proceeds to have confidence in herself with fractions. She enjoys math lessons her entire 5th grade year. This experience will motivate her in numerous ways in her future education.
For a young child in school, experiences are more easily understood and remembered if they are linked with an emotional cue. How did that make the student feel? Does it make the child recall a funny memory? Sometimes it’s conscious and other times it’s not. The same is true for learning in a classroom. Learning in the classroom has higher potential when the child is able to tie positive emotions to the educational environment. For example, a study at the University of Haifa was coordinated to identify electrical activity in the brain that takes place during social memory. What researchers found was that emotions are not only the product of information processed by the brain, emotions directly influence the processes of learning and memory in the brain.
Learning takes a great amount of energy. When children can file multiple sensory experiences and images in their memory and have positive emotions to back them up, they will have a better opportunity to learn at a higher rate and retain the subject matter more easily. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, previously noted that when a child is in a predictable, comfortable and engaging environment, learning can be at its best.
Exercises for Emotional Grounding
To enhance emotional grounding and to strengthen your child’s limbic system, handwriting exercises can be used to improve attention, focus, behavior, and higher-level learning. Simple, yet effective handwriting activities can organize the brain and prepare children for positive learning experiences at home and in the classroom.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs