The Role of Emotions in Learning: How Parents Can Help

by The Growing Room

Almost a century ago renowned philosopher and educator, John Dewey, put forth an impassioned plea that educators place emphasis on educating the whole child. Dewey asserted teaching models that relied upon rote learning were not engaging the child in a meaningful way. Initiatives such as STEM and project-based learning are 21st-century responses to the active classroom participation that Dewey advocated. But, what of the whole child? While education pays lip service to the whole student, both parents and educators tend to focus on quantitative or measurable rational qualities when it comes to cognitive abilities. The intellectual aspect of learning is usually the focus; we measure ability in terms of test scores. Yet, this myopic focus on scores is not yielding the results educators had predicted. Recent worldwide studies show that, despite one of the strongest economies in the world, the United States doesn’t even crack the top ten in educational rankings.   With our obsession with scores, one would think the U.S. would be at the top of the pack. What is wrong?

Emotional Well-being

For years, Finland has been a leader in education. Their approach does not emphasize testing. Their students spend less time in class, less time on homework, and more time outdoors where the focus is on free-play and socializing. Could it be that while we measure spelling accuracy, countries like Finland are measuring emotional well-being?

We know emotion is important in education—it drives attention, which in turn drives learning and memory. Think about how the prospect of reading aloud in class or solving a math problem on the chalkboard is enough to paralyze some kids. Some perfectly competent students freeze during written tests. We see children whose intellectual energies are drained through a combination of fear and anxiety. Frightened students perform poorly; they do not learn or retain new information. Negative emotion is the enemy to memory. It also serves as the on/off switch for learning.

Emotion And The Limbic System

The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures located on both sides of the thalamus, right under the cerebrum. This is where the emotional value of incoming stimuli is interpreted. Depending on the limbic system’s interpretation of the stimuli, it either opens or closes access to the cortical function in the higher parts of the brain. Emotions such as fear, embarrassment, stress, frustration or depression can create barriers between a child and his ability to reason and recall information.

In short, the emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning and memory.

As our brain’s principal regulator of emotion, the limbic system plays an important role in processing. Extreme emotion can hijack the limbic system and will send sensitive students into a “fight or flight” mode making learning almost impossible.

Conversely, if the limbic system interprets stimuli as happy or danger-free, the brain opens up to knowledge and creativity allowing the student to process incoming information. A different set of chemicals flows into the synapses, enabling children to learn effectively and work efficiently. This is the “fight” reaction: the knowledge that the student can manage the task at hand.

What Parents Can Do

As of yet, students’ emotional systems are not being addressed in the classroom. Because we don’t know exactly how to regulate or even define them, strong emotions end up being defined as a form of misbehavior. Being too quick to label behaviors as misbehavior may rob parents of precious opportunities to offer support in meaningful ways. There are some simple attitudes to adopt at home that will help tremendously in bolstering your child’s emotional well-being.

Minimize Stress

Unfortunately, stress has become the norm for many of our children. The consequence: limbic systems are in a continual fight or flight mode. Though very little, if anything, is truly life threatening, our children’s bodies react as if it were. Avoiding criticism and creating a safe environment at home can help provide balance and a safe haven for an overanxious child. This also allows the child a measure of self-esteem as he feels a sense of control over his environment. Engage children in activities that emphasize social interaction. Games and physical activities that engage the entire body provide the most emotional support for children.

Promote a Growth Mindset

Parents can foster positive emotions in their children by focusing on improvement over perfection. This may require a shift in thinking for parents bent on high levels of academic success for their children; however, even those students who are top performers benefit from a change of focus from achievement to effort.

In countries where educators encourage a growth mindset by focusing on effort over achievement, their students flourish. In Japan and South Korea, students view failure as a natural part of the learning process and are more likely to embrace new challenges without anxiety.

In contrast, students with a fixed mindset view their intelligence as unchanging. If they view themselves as a good student, they are primarily concerned with maintaining that status. They tend to avoid situations where they believe they may fail or make mistakes. The emotional fear associated with mistakes can paralyze students. They shrink from hard subjects. Maintaining the status quo is accompanied by anxiety and stress, which adversely affects learning outcomes. Conversely, those who view themselves as poor students believe they are destined to struggle and face daily bouts of anxiety and embarrassment. Ultimately, they become discouraged and unmotivated. Praising effort, not intelligence, fosters the knowledge that mistakes are an integral part of the process and not something to be feared.

Help Motivate

Emotions can run amuck when a child is feeling overwhelmed. Helping your child break down new challenges into manageable components can help alleviate negative emotions that get in the way of motivation or exploration. Motivation comes from confidence, which, in turn, fosters competence. Whether it is riding a bike or learning a foreign language, helping your child chip away at tasks in small pieces can lead to positive emotional experiences.

Support a Positive Emotional State

As parents, we can stay positive and endorse optimism. A positive environment is one where mistakes are viewed as progress and effort is rewarded. Creating a stress-free, safe environment allows students to feel secure about their own abilities without the accompanying angst of a hijacked limbic system. It is important to remember, just as John Dewey posited so many decades ago, that our children’s ability to learn involves more than brain tissue, IQ scores, and other cognitive tests; honoring the whole child is to remember the crucial role that emotional well-being plays in a child’s education.


The Growing Room Academy’s collaborative partnership with Village Music School allows our students and San Ramon Valley families to participate in an exciting array of expanded music education classes. This alliance allows Village Music School to extend their successful studio music program from the Diablo Valley to the San Ramon Valley. Village Music School classes are held within the walls of Growing Room Academy and will be housed in two rooms solely dedicated as music studios. Classes are offered weekday afternoons and evenings, plus Saturdays.