Friday, March 2, 2012

The Role of Emotions in Learning and Why It Matters So Much That We Understand Well

Happy Children Playing KidsHappy Children Playing Kids (Photo credit: Sarah Major, M.Ed., on Home Educators Resource Directory:

Too often adults behave as though we (subconsciously, not intentionally) believe that all learning happens in the thinking, rational brain, and that if a child is not performing well with reading or math, their rational, thinking brain is somehow at fault, i.e. disabled.

For years, my passion has been to learn the reasons why some children who are bright fail in school and what I can do about that as a parent, educator, and product designer, so I focus on learning from these children.

Lately my focus has gone beyond “the child is obviously bright, so why is he failing?” to “the brain is wired to learn naturally, so no matter how bright or not bright the child appears, what is preventing learning?”

1. The clash between learning and teaching styles

What I have come to believe is that one of the biggest obstacles to learning has to do with a mismatch between teaching style and learning style. It is as though we speak Swahili to children whose native tongue is Tagalog.

We can talk slowly, more loudly, repeat ourselves, have them try and write what we say, have them drill with flashcards, cut the required work in half, lower expectations for them … but as long as we’re speaking Swahili and their ears are trained to hear Tagalog, nothing good will come from the exercise.

The results of the clash

Children are naturally wired to scan the faces of adults who care for them - parents, teachers, or anyone who is important to them - and to read body language. They want to please, they want to belong, and they need our approval. They need to see our faces light up with love and approval when we look at them.

Unfortunately, when we are busily chattering away in Swahili, what registers on our faces and in our body language is frustration, perplexity, maybe a sense of helplessness, or exhaustion. The child will absorb all that, and in the habit of children, will sense that he is failing us … and that the fault is his.

The child will not understand that he should be spoken to in Tagalog; he will berate himself for not understanding our steady stream of Swahili.

Negative emotional connections

The next thing that will happen is that the child will begin to make negative emotional connections with anything that reminds him of the unpleasant experience he had with trying to learn in a Swahili classroom. The chair, desk, pencils, papers and books will all remind him of his failure to learn. At this point, there is the child’s failure, yes, but other things are happening as well.

Shut down

The more a child associates negative emotions with learning, the more his brain will shut down. He will be immersed completely in his emotions which are urging him to avoid the danger he is in. I have seen children who get to this stage in their life check out, act out, display bravado, drop out, become behavior problems so they will not have to be faced with their failure yet again. And of course learning does not happen.

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Sarah Major, CEO of Child1st Publications, grew up on the mission field with her four siblings, all of whom her mother homeschooled. As an adult, Sarah homeschooled a small group of children in collaboration with their parents, and has taught from preschool age to adult. Sarah has been the Title 1 director and program developer for grades K-7, an ESOL teacher, and a classroom teacher. As an undergraduate student, Sarah attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. and then received her M.Ed. from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. In 2006 Sarah resigned from fulltime teaching in order to devote more time to Child1st, publisher of the best-selling SnapWords™ stylized sight word cards. In her spare time Sarah enjoys gardening, cooking, pottery, quilting, and spending time with her family.

Child1st Publications, LLC
3302 S New Hope Rd
Suite 300B
Gastonia, NC 28056
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