Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Considering Emotions in the Classroom

It’s been almost 100 years since Pavlov, one of the earliest behavioral psychologists, set the precedent of linking learning with positive emotions. We learn better when we’re engaged and feeling good. It’s only in the last decade or two, however, that schools have started to take emotions seriously by implementing school-wide programs. There’s no shortage of research out there reminding us that unhappy kids are going to have a lot of trouble learning, but newer research has started focusing on positive emotions as well. Here at The Yellin Center, we see a lot of students who are feeling down or frustrated, often because they haven’t gotten the academic support they need in order to feel successful. Thankfully, lots of researchers have begun looking at how we can help students experience more positive emotions and, more importantly, learn how to identify, accept, and respond to the emotions they feel.

From kindergarten to college, we see a relationship between emotions or mood and grades or achievement. We also know that students with lower moods perceive themselves as less competent. It would be impossible to run a study looking at the directionality of these relationships, but it’s clear that negative moods, lower achievement, and feelings of incompetence are linked, regardless of what causes what. Parents and teachers want students to feel good about their work and to be engaged in the learning process. Feeling anxious, sad, or angry can get in the way of academic engagement. According to one theory, the “Broaden and Build Model” (Fredrickson, 2001), positive emotions broaden our mind, allow us to explore more of our environment and make us more aware of what’s going on. Negative emotions, on the other hand, have a narrowing effect; we are more likely to become fixated on a certain aspect of our environment and miss out on other details. Positive emotions might also increase our consciousness of potential solutions to problems – cognitive flexibility and strategy use, in other words. Way back in the early 1900’s, developmental psychologists already knew that feelings of joy lead to children’s desire to play and be creative – two very important mechanisms in the learning process, especially during early childhood (Vygotsky, 1978).

In our work, we know that before any academic interventions or strategies can be put in place, we need to focus on helping students feel their best so they’re ready to tackle whatever difficult learning comes their way. We’re especially happy to see researchers turning away from exploring negative emotions and towards testing out different school-based socioemotional interventions that can increase positive emotions, emotional regulation, and engagement. Two programs that have been gaining traction are socioemotional learning programs and mindfulness meditation. Socioemotional learning programs help students develop their emotional intelligence through a programmed sequence of lessons on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. There are a number of commercially available curriculums that schools have the option of buying as packages, but lots of teachers are implementing socioemotional learning into their classrooms on their own, as well. One of the most important lessons for students is learning how to identify their feelings, respond to them appropriately, and develop a toolbox of coping strategies for moving to a more positive state, if necessary. This is an important set of skills to start working on before children even step foot in a classroom; it helps young learners face challenges, conflicts, and failures appropriately. Parents and caregivers can start introducing children to a robust emotional vocabulary and coping toolbox as soon as a baby starts to attend to the people around her or him.

A second intervention steadily gaining popularity is mindfulness meditation. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founding figures in the field, mindfulness is focused on learning how to be with your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way and to selectively attend to them. It can help students recognize their emotions and learn how to cope with them effectively in order to make space for positivity and calm. Research looking into the effects of mindfulness meditation in the classroom has found increased self-regulation, attentional control, and prosocial behavior (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2010).

We’re excited to see over the next few years what research comes out about school-based interventions that take the whole child into account – that is, academics that also focus on helping students feel positively empowered to engage in learning by giving them the tools to not just solve math problems but also manage the wave of emotions within each of us. In the meantime, feel free to check out the resources listed below and talk to your child’s school about how your child is learning to be emotionally empowered.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151.

Resources and Further Reading

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are (10th ed.). New York, NY: Hachette.

Snel, E. (2013). Sitting still like a frog. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Blog: Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students 

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