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June 14, 2018
Vol. 13
No. 19

How to Support the Emotional Link to Learning

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      Emotions are central for cognition: "We feel, therefore we learn" (Immordino-Yang, 2008). When there is damage to emotion networks of the brain, even simple decisions such as what to wear in the morning can become impossible (Damasio, 1994). For educators who have dozens of students in their classrooms each day, it can feel overwhelming to support the range of students' emotional needs, in addition to their different learning needs. Educators may not feel equipped with tools to support emotional learning. There is also concern that there is not time to address emotions in addition to the cognitive content that has to be covered; an 8th grade teacher I spoke with noted, "I cannot take time each day to talk about how each student feels."
      However, we cannot ignore the central role of emotions for learning. Emotions drive our attention and are essential for cognitive skills such as memory and executive function. Emotions even influence basic perception (Zadra, 2011). If we are not addressing emotions in our classrooms, then we are not addressing how students learn.
      There are a few strategies educators can design into their environments and lessons to support emotions for learning. Note that ideally these strategies are proactively integrated into the learning environment so that any student can access them, whether it is a student who is just having a bad day or one who may have greater emotional challenges.
      Co-construct a common language to help recognize, discuss, and reflect on emotions, using a tool such as the Mood Meter, part of the RULER approach for integrating social and emotional learning into schools developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (2013). (RULER is an acronym for emotional intelligence skills associated with recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion.) The Mood Meter has four quadrants to identify to how positive/negative and active/de-active you feel in a moment. The quadrants can be named in various ways, such as with colors, characters, or words:
      • positive/active ("yellow, Elmo, happy and energized")
      • positive/de-active ("green, Pooh bear, good and calm")
      • negative/active ("red, Oscar the Grouch, bad and stressed")
      • negative/de-active ("blue, Eeyore, bad and depressed")
      Deepen the language you use about learning using a resource such as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. It aligns three learning networks of the brain with instructional strategies.
      • Recognition networks are involved in how learners perceive, build language, and comprehend. Instructional strategies include providing options in how we present materials (written, verbal, digital), support vocabulary, and highlight key information.
      • Strategic networks are involved in how learners show what they know. Instructional strategies include providing options for expression, communication, and ways to monitor progress.
      • Affective networks are involved in how students engage, including how they recruit interest, sustain effort and persistence, and self-regulate. Instructional strategies include providing authentic, relevant examples; choice for collaboration; and frequent formative feedback.
      Together, the Mood Meter and the UDL guidelines offer a common language that students of any age and context can develop and use to gain deeper insights into their own emotions and strategies that support learning. For example, a student may note how an option for collaboration on a reading task helped her move from a negative/active ("stress") state to a more positive/de-active ("alert") state that helped her reading.
      Highlight and clarify learning goals during a lesson so that students know what they are working to achieve. Goals can include standards, skills, or behaviors and should be manageable within the timeframe available. For example, a goal for a 45-minute class period may be for students to write a comparative essay. Anticipate that there will always be a range of emotions and backgrounds for each goal: some will enjoy writing, have a strong skillset, and feel comfortable in your class. Others may feel anxious about writing or lack fundamental skills, or they may be affected by something unrelated to the classroom task, such as feeling agitated after having a fight with a friend. Before starting work towards the goal, ask students to reflect how they currently feel using the Mood Meter. You can model and share where you currently assess yourself.
      • Have flexible tools and resources available in the environment for students to choose as they work towards the intended goal. For example, with the goal of writing a comparative essay, there may be a quiet space in the classroom where students can wear headphones and sit comfortably as they write . There may be graphic organizers, a model example, and sentence starters available. There may be an active area of the room with the option to collaborate with peers or the teacher to generate ideas or proofread using a rubric. Students may type, write, or record their essay. In addition, they may choose the topics they want to compare. These options are like a "learning buffet" that all students can use as they progress towards the goal. The "buffet" will be unique for each lesson depending on the goal and will be unique for each classroom depending on materials and resources available. Importantly, this "learning buffet" provides options to work towards the goal in ways that align with the emotional needs of that day for each individual. If a student needs quiet space and few supports, those options are available. If they feel they need to be more active or need lots of support, they are empowered to choose those options. This design shifts the ownership of the learning to the students, which deepens engagement, agency, and metacognition.
      • Offer time for students to reflect on how the various tools and strategies helped their learning. What strategies will they use again? How might they make different learning choices next time? How did the options leverage their emotions for learning?
      Neurologically, the affective networks of the brain are interconnected with strategic and perceptual networks. We cannot separate emotion from cognition. To get to high-level learning, we must recognize that emotions matter. Through developing common communication tools for emotions and learning, clarifying the learning goal, providing a flexible "buffet" of options that align with the intended goal, and offering time for reflection, we will value the range of emotions and learning experiences of our learners in our classrooms.
      Note: There may be more extreme emotional situations that may require additional interventions.

      CAST. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines, version 2.2. Available at http://udlguidelines.cast.org

      Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

      Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn (pp. 183–198). The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

      Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence. (2013). Mood meter. Available at http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/the-anchor-tools/

      Zadra, J. R., & Clore, G. L. (2011). Emotion and perception: The role of affective information. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews: cognitive science, 2(6), 676–685. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

      Allison Posey is a curriculum and design specialist at CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology. Before her work at CAST, she was a life science teacher in middle school, high school, and community college settings, teaching genetics, anatomy, physiology, biology, neuroscience, and psychology. Posey received a degree in Mind, Brain, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning That Taps into the Power of Emotion.

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