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The Emotionality of Learning


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The Emotionality of Learning

Alice Mangan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Mangan is a clinical psychologist in NYC who works in both her own private practice and in schools to provide consultation, assessment, evaluation, and psychotherapy services. Alice's research focuses on the relationship between school and family and the influence of learning disabilities on the lives of child, parent, and family. She is also a part of the MyloWrites Advisory Board- read her full bio here.

The below post is Alice's reflection on the first of four installments in the MyloWrites Kids Panel, a new video series that explores children's thoughts and feelings surrounding learning and writing. We often hear from teachers and parents about the struggles that students have with the writing process. Now, we hear the student perspective about writing, expectations, and how they think the experience could be improved. Watch Part One of the Kids Panel here, or at the bottom of this blog!

“Oh no!” groans 16-year old Andrew, after being asked the question, “What thoughts come up when your teacher assigns a piece of writing?”  The feelings that underlie his automatic response are immediately apparent: dread, worry, even fear.  Just imagine if each time a teacher assigned you a piece of writing, that this moment, and all the moments that followed, were accompanied by these troubling, stomach-ache inducing feelings.  For many students for whom most writing assignments are grueling, these feelings are a constant companion in their process of writing.

We can easily forget, as the grown-ups in children’s and adolescents’ lives, that learning, while typically thought of as a set of cognitive processes, is also a fundamentally emotional endeavor.   Whatever affective experience is attached to that which we are attempting to learn has an intimate effect on the quality of our engagement and how we will experience the process and the product.  Whenever we are in a process of learning something new, or struggling through something that is not as yet automatic, we are, as Piaget theorized, in a state of disequilibrium.  This state is inherently uncomfortable, anxiety provoking, and ultimately taxing to self-regulatory processes.  Such feelings can be so intense that we might be moved to abandon or retreat from whatever learning we are attempting in an effort to regain a sense of equilibrium.  In this reestablished state of equilibrium, our anxiety reduces, our frustration dissipates, and once again we can have a “good-enough” sense of our own competence and potential.  Still, that which we have been assigned to learn is left unfinished and un-learned, giving rise to yet another set of uncomfortable feelings against which we must defend.

As teachers and parents, when we observe this retreat from engaging in difficult (or not-so-difficult) learning, we may be moved to feel frustrated by the child’s retreat, perceiving in the student a kind of “laziness” or disinterest, or even impertinence.  And yet, these adult perceptions of the child’s experience miss the mark and may further compound the child’s sense of inadequacy. 

Arguably all children want to learn.  Children want to experience the feeling of competence and success that comes with the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.  Not only is learning a way to make one’s life more interesting and complex, it also is a way to secure one’s self-esteem and sense of agency in one’s life. 

So, what do we do to support Andrew, and others like him, for whom many experiences of learning are filled with dread? What are the elements that support our students’ sustained engagement in the difficult process of learning? How can we help students experience success? Here are just a few ideas:

1. We continuously keep in mind that learning is an emotional and a cognitive endeavor, and we understand that how the learner feels in the context of the learning experience can influence engagement in the process and the ultimate outcome.

We are attuned to what children may be feeling as they engage in learning, and we respond to this affective experience sensitively, adjusting our approach to help reduce anxiety and frustration.  

2. We engage in ongoing assessment that guides the construction of differentiated learning experiences for students. 

When we engage in a process of fine-tuned observation of students’ responses to instruction, we are better able to provide learning experiences that are optimal.  If students are within their instructional zone, they are less likely to feel flooded by frustration, anxiety and dread, and more likely to actually be available to engage in the difficult process of learning. 

3. We supply appropriate scaffolding for students’ learning.        

Based on Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” scaffolding allows the learner to engage in material or processes that are within reach if given the appropriate supports.  Scaffolding learning may include teacher or peer modeling, breaking assignments down into component parts, collaborative learning, reciprocal teaching, and many more creative techniques.  As the learner develops competency and independence, the scaffolds employed become unnecessary, and thus are removed.  

4. We provide opportunities for students to make choices about their learning. 

Students are often more motivated to participate in the hard work of learning if they feel personally invested and engaged in the content and process.  Providing opportunities for students to make choices in their learning often secures this kind of investment. 

5. We make learning relevant and meaningful to students. 

When the knowledge and skills we teach are relevant to the lives and interests of students, learning feels more purposeful.  Purpose sustains engagement, even when the going gets tough. 

6. Above all, we remember that learning is often best done in the context of strong relationships and safe environments.  

We prioritize the building of healthy learning communities.  

We work hard to neutralize the negative charge frequently inherent in an environment that serves learners with a range of strengths, weaknesses and needs.  We help children to understand that difference is not pejorative, but merely descriptive.   

We model self-compassion and frustration tolerance, engage in a stance of curiosity when problems arise, and employ a flexible approach to problem solving.

And finally, we invest in our students, getting to know them, and building authentic connections based on an appreciation and respect for their individuality.