Monday, February 5, 2018

New Research on Emotional Regulation and Academic Achievement

A new study was recently published that broadens our understanding of how emotions relate to academic achievement. It’s old news that emotions play a role in students’ achievement and school functioning, but this study uses a different lens by looking specifically at emotional regulation rather than simply positive or negative feelings in students.

Here at The Yellin Center, we see a lot of students who are having trouble regulating their feelings and their behaviors. This incredibly complex skill is not often taught explicitly; rather, we learn it by observing others and experimenting with our actions over the years. Kwon, Hanrahan, and Kupzyk, the authors of the 2017 study, looked at how emotional expression and emotional regulation related to academic functioning. Emotional regulation is your ability to effectively process incoming emotions and modulate how you handle them and how you express them. It is very closely related to attention and behavioral regulation – your ability to inhibit or engage in certain behaviors. Not surprisingly, behavioral regulation is a common concern in classrooms, especially for students who have difficulty paying attention. The combination of attentional control, behavioral regulation, and emotional regulation can be called effortful control.

Prior research has already set the stage for the importance of effortful control and emotional regulation in younger students; the current study took it further by looking at older elementary students. Effortful control in our youngest students – preschoolers – is positively related to early literacy skills. In other words, young children who are more capable of processing their emotions and regulating themselves have higher literacy skills. Kindergartners with higher emotional regulation skills have higher literacy and math skills. Elementary students with better emotional regulation were more able to attend to academic tasks. This isn’t surprising, considering how easy it is for our emotions to take up a lot of our limited brain space, or attention, and distract us from tasks.

The newest data support the notion that emotional regulation affects academic engagement which, in turn, affects academic functioning (e.g., achievement on standardized tests, teacher ratings of engagement). The authors point out that our emotions affect how well we are able to “allocate and utilize cognitive resources and skills” including those necessary for learning. Poor regulation of emotions, wherein our feelings may flood our mind, could lead to avoidance of academic tasks.

There are two important implications of this research. First, it reminds us that just as negative emotions and poor emotional regulation might affect achievement in a negative way, positive emotions and effective regulation are actually related to higher achievement. This means that rather than always placing a focus on targeting students with poor emotionality and trying to decrease sadness or anger, we should also remember to invest some resources into increasing happiness and exuberance. Second, it may be beneficial to directly teach students the skills necessary for effective effortful control, including emotional regulation. While many students develop these skills independently, there are many others who experience significant difficulty in school because they are expected to be able to control their behaviors, attention, and emotional expression without ever having been explicitly taught how to do so, and without being given room to practice without facing negative consequences.

Kwon, K., Hanrahan, A.R., & Kupzyk, K.A. (2017). Emotional expressivity and emotion regulating: Relation to academic functioning among elementary school children. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(1), 75-88.

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