The Role Emotions Play in the Learning Process
"A first-class system of early childhood education is the hallmark of a caring and civilized society."
~ Andy Hargreaves
We are all aware of our emotions, but how do you describe your emotions? How can we box emotions into “happy”, “sad”, “angry” etc.? Do you think that feeling happy feels the same for all people? Do you think that everyone experiences the same reactions or thoughts when they are feeling happy?
No - we are all unique and therefore our emotions and reactions should be different. When we look at the developmental area - Personal Social and Emotional Development - we need to remember that when teaching young children we can at best assume what they are feeling, as young children will not be able to describe their feelings to us – their behaviour is the only indication as to what they are experiencing and/or feeling. As adults we will then box these behaviour into acceptable and unacceptable categories…
BUT I thought we said in the beginning of this article that we are unique; we are not all experiencing the same emotions or reactions when we are feeling “happy”??
I trust that I have got your attention now, and that you realise how important it is to not only judge a child on his/her behaviour and your assumption, but that you will look into the emotions that caused the child to behave in such a manner.
Emotions and Our Body
The role of emotions in the learning process and the effect it has on our body is greatly underestimated. When we are surrounded with negative emotions and a negative environment where people are constantly blaming or shaming us, this will cause not only depression but will result in poor health and an inability to explore and learn.
An emotion is a feeling that directs our behaviour, in other words we react to “how” we feel; our body takes over and directs our actions. All of this happens in the limbic system where all our emotions are processed in our brain. The limbic system is the seat of our emotions, however there is still a lot we don’t know, like exactly how this mysterious system operates and functions. What we do know is that it’s mainly associated with emotional experiences, eating behaviour, the learning process (more specifically memory) and motivation. The limbic system is responsible for our actions - in other words, what we do while we are experiencing an emotion because of its connection with other parts of the brain.
There are two specific operating systems in the brain – the one kicks in when the child is not experiencing any stress. When the child is feeling safe and secure - let’s call it “happy”. The child is ready to explore and take in new information. The child’s movements will be calm and therefore allow the child to use all the senses to gather information through playful experiences. Learning will take place.
When a child experiences a stressful situation or a situation where he or she feels unsafe like saying bye to mommy, or moving between an activity that he/she likes to an activity that he/she dislikes the brain will process this as a danger. When we are in danger the brain regulates the body – the brain decides what is important and what not. Survival mode falls back on past experiences and tells us to react in the same way, therefore behaviour does not change overnight. It takes time – time to build new experiences, new memories. Anger or tantrums are in other words the movement the body makes when “angry”.
The child will explore and discover all of these emotions between the ages of 15 months to 4 years. Dr. Carla Hannaford says in her book Smart Moves “Children who are allowed to naturally and responsibly express emotions are better able to constructively or creatively use them throughout life. Talking about feelings is of particular benefit as we engage thought and reasoning processes to comprehend and verbalise emotional experience. This helps to strengthen the important emotion-cognition link”.
If we do not allow children to explore and express their feelings and emotions, they will start to doubt their own value they will be taught to deny these feelings. In effect we will be teaching children to suppress part of their learning.
We all experience feelings in our unique way. It is a vital part of the learning process as this will help build the foundation of a clear thought process. For children to be able to learn they need to feel safe and secure. When children act out remember the part the brain plays in what you see. Don’t make assumptions on what you see - that’s the behaviour or result. Look for the reason why the child is experiencing such a negative emotion, why he/she is feeling so angry – why the body is behaving in such a “bad” manner.
Encouraging and providing a safe space for children to explore a variety of emotions and teaching children that emotions and feelings are unique will create a learning environment where it will be OK to celebrate joy and anger in an appropriate manner. Remember learning happens in the mind and body – our body reacts to how and what we feel.
Burden, A. Unsplash image. https://unsplash.com/photos/1zR3WNSTnvY.
Hannaford, Carla (1995). Smart Moves. United States of America: Great Ocean Publishers. 50-62.
Witthaus, Sonja (2015). Enhancing your child's development. South Africa: Pro-Active Publishing. 1-62.