HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

The Role of Emotions in Learning

An expert explains how emotions affect your child's learning, memory, and performance in school.

By Priscilla L. Vail, M.A.T.

Priscilla Vail, M.A.T. has written a lot about the connection between children's emotions and learning. In this article, she describes the role emotions play in learning — both negative and positive.

I've been a teacher for over a quarter of a century, I've raised four kids and have six grandchildren. You'd think I'd know the alphabet by now. But hear this tale.

One evening I was sitting alone in my house in the woods. My husband was out of town at a meeting, our children were at their respective abodes, and I was reading a book. It wasn't even a murder mystery, just a story. I realized I had been hearing a knocking, thumping sound. I stopped, listened and it came again. Quite loud.

Although we live in a fairly safe area, there had been a series of recent break-ins. The noise came again. I hoped it was the steam heat and went back to my book. As I pretended to be reading, I remembered that we don't have steam heat in this house. More noises. I returned to my page, this time running my finger along the lines of print to keep my place. The noises intensified. I finally admitted to myself that the noises were coming from the basement and I had better get help.

Once I admitted to myself that I thought there were people in the basement coming my way, I went into full gear fear. I put down the book, hands trembling, mouth dry, and tiptoed to the telephone area. I got out the directory, listening to the increasingly loud sounds, and tried to find the listing for Benton Town Police. But I was so scared, I couldn't find the number. The noises got louder. Nearer too? I couldn't remember the alphabet. I couldn't make the telephone book work! So I called 911.

The squad car came quickly, strobe lights flashing, the guys jumped out, came to my door, hands on their guns, asking if I was OK. Putting my finger to my lips, I nodded that I was fine and gestured that the culprits were right down there. My saviors went to do their fearful duty and then I heard them laughing. "Wanna meet your criminals, Mrs. Vail?"

They had found a family of white tail deer, chewing off branches of my rhododendron and banging against my metal basement door. After the police left and I had stopped hyperventilating, I realized that fear had put a barrier between me and my own knowledge and information. I hadn't even been able to use the alphabet!

How Emotions Affect the Brain

As an adult, I can frame my problem in a funny story. But children in school don't have that luxury. Like me, their own knowledge often flies out of their grasp when they are scared. Faced with frustration, despair, worry, sadness, or shame, kids lose access to their own memory, reasoning, and the capacity to make connections.

The mere prospect of being asked to read aloud in class is enough to freeze some kids. Having to take a written test or exam, with its combined requirements for memory, reasoning, handwriting, planning and organization, can lock some kids' gears. The sight of a math word problem knocks some kids sideways. Scared kids perform poorly, and don't learn new information well. Anxiety is the enemy of memory. And, sadly, in many of today's classrooms, we see children whose intellectual energies and capacities are drained by negative emotional states. Emotion is the on / off switch for learning.

Sensitive people have been observing this for years, but now objective information from neurology substantiates our hunches.

The emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make novel connections.

A three-way view of the human brain would show it from side to side, back to front, and bottom to top.

On one side, the left hemisphere provides logic, sequence, time, and language. On the other side, the right hemisphere houses spatial organization, certain kinds of intuition, and math.

Looking from back to front, we could see the back as a repository of knowledge and experience, but we select, use, and orchestrate that information in our frontal lobes.

The third view moves from bottom to top like an elevator. At the bottom is the brain stem (the top of the spinal column and the base of the brain) which contains the mechanism for arousal. The next level is the limbic system whose job is to interpret the emotional value of incoming stimuli, deciding whether they are neutral, good, or deadly. The limbic system broadcasts its interpretation out over the whole body, and depending on its interpretation, either opens or closes access to higher cortical function, the top stop.

If the limbic system says "Trouble" (as it did when I head the noises), access shuts down. The elevator doesn't reach the higher level, as when I couldn't use the alphabet. Conversely, if the limbic system says "Great!", the elevator smoothly ascends to a penthouse of knowledge, imagination, and creativity. Emotion controls the elevator.

Comments from readers

"I agree with this article. Many people are the same way or maybe some are at times but maybe ok at other times. I definitely think there needs to be more research done about emotions. People are being misunderstood or considered emotional but what can we do to help? There's a little boy I know that when he gets upset about any little thing, he is unable to say what's wrong. He just cries and cries. Most children don't cry when the same thing happens to them or they cry but it's not as tense. He's unable to communicate his needs when he gets upset. I don't think this is normal because I don't see it in most children. I wish I knew more about this... "
"Just remember not to rob children of the opportunity to overcome fear and stress. Most people can learn to function properly while under the flight or fright syndrome, and thus be able to find the phone number for the police when there are intruders in the house."