5 Emotions That Can Block Learning

Kick-start your anxious, angry, or frustrated child's readiness and ability to learn.




The fact that emotions trump reasoning isn't new. What is new is knowing why this happens. Thanks to advances in brain science and imaging techniques, researchers are uncovering the biological links between our emotions and our ability to learn, remember, make wise decisions, and think clearly. They know, for instance, which parts of the brain are responsible for memory and language and how they fire up, or lie dormant, when we're excited, happy, sad, or depressed. Parents who know how to tap into a child's emotions can help those who are angry, overwhelmed, or just plain bored not only learn better, but actually enjoy it.

Recognizing the emotions that may be holding your child back is the first step to harnessing their energy for the purpose of learning. The following strategies can help:

1. If your child is anxious: set reasonable expectations. When kids are tense or irritable, when they have trouble sleeping or concentrating, their minds close down. Nothing is more exhilarating than success, and children, like all of us, learn more when they're successful. So create ways for them to feel good about their accomplishments. Cut back on extracurricular activities so they have time just to play.

Of course, kids also watch the way you behave in difficult situations and model their actions accordingly. Do you fall apart because your computer deleted an important file? It's fine to be upset in front of your kids, but they also need to see and hear you work through tough issues. You might say: "I'm upset that my file was lost. From now on, I'll post a note on my computer reminding me to save my work." Don't forget to talk about the things that go well in your life too.

2. If your child is angry: find out why he's upset, without minimizing those feelings when you do. Anger is a signal that something, somewhere, in a child's life is not going well. But it's not always bad: handled effectively, anger can help solve problems that sparked the ire in the first place. For example, when a child is angry at not making the travel soccer team, he may be motivated to practice more and try again. The child who is furious about his parents' divorce alerts others that he's hurting. Yet while anger may be understandable, not all ways of expressing it are appropriate or acceptable. And the kid who doesn't know how to handle it effectively goes through life shattering relationships and shooting himself in the foot.

3. If your child is pessimistic: show her how to catch life's curveballs. People with a can-do attitude are healthier and more productive. Parents play a crucial role in modeling perseverance and resilience. Remind your child that anything worth doing takes time to master, whether she's learning to write a five-paragraph essay or skate backwards.

So help her recognize, then dispute, self-defeating thoughts. "I didn't do well on the science quiz because I didn't spend enough time studying" leaves room to change and improve. "I didn't do well because I'm dumb" stifles any motivation that might be left. Show her, too, that mistakes are opportunities to ask questions. Instead of "I can't," teach her to say, "I can, if I get help." Or, "I can try it another way." You might say: "What's going on in math? Maybe we can talk through the hard parts together." 

4. If your child is insecure: raise his social IQ. In the social crucible of late elementary and middle school, kids who are teased or rejected by classmates may need prepping in basic social skills to feel more comfortable with others. Social competence is linked to academic success, and while most kids learn these skills naturally, some need coaching to skillfully gauge facial expressions and tone of voice, think about what they say and how to say it, listen and pay attention to the feelings of others, as well as work cooperatively. Ask the school psychologist or your child's teacher for suggestions, or check out self-help books aimed specifically at students. Meanwhile, find other outlets for him to meet friends in shared activities — gymnastics class, swim team, summer camp — so he's less preoccupied in school with being popular.

5. If your child is frustrated: nurture his strengths. Perfectionism often shows up in school-age kids as procrastination. When everything is a competition, your child may feel so overwhelmed by a project that she delays beginning it and loses confidence. Don't ignore the fact that she has trouble in math, but be sure she has time to build that dollhouse, draw cartoon characters, or shoot baskets if that's her passion. You could also ask her to describe the problem that stumps her and talk it out. A recent study at Vanderbilt University found that kids learn best when they explain their reasoning to a parent or other interested person. Instead of having a parent swoop in with the right answer, the process of explaining allows a child to figure it out for herself and apply what she's learned the next time she faces a high hurdle.

Social & Emotional Skills
Age 10
Age 9
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Feelings and Emotions
Social and Emotional Development