A co-educational private school for Preschool–Grade Eight

Emotion and Cognition

Emotion and Cognition

A little under three years ago, Far Hills started on our Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) journey when two faculty members attended the inaugural Science of Teaching and Learning Academy at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). Since then, we have had the opportunity to explore how MBE looks in a classroom. We have collaborated with experts in the field of MBE, such as Glenn Whitman, the director of the CTTL. We have also continued to attend the summer program at the CTTL. At this point, we have had over half of our faculty attend the immersive experience at the Academy. 

Early in our journey, one of the first things we did was engage with some of the neuromyths that have slowly crept into education over the years. The CTTL designed a deck of cards with a series of statements that provoke thought and conversation about different beliefs surrounding the brain. 

The CTTL designed a deck of cards with a series of statements that provoke thought and conversation. 

From here, we identified these statements as either a "neuromyth" or a "neurotruth." All the hot topic issues were addressed from homework to right-brain/left-brained and more. However, the one that I found to have resonated the most with me read:

"The emotional and cognitive areas of the brain are highly interlinked, so emotional factors like stress, anxiety, happiness, motivation, and positive relationships need to be considered when thinking about ways to improve learning." 

It's no secret that the world we live in today has seen an increase in people becoming more stressed and anxious, and our students are not immune to this! Speaking from personal experience, I have long held the opinion that you work best in a place that you are happy, whether that be in a place of work or learning environment. However, I was intrigued by the idea that your emotional state, specifically factors like stress and anxiety, could directly impair your ability to process information and learn from it.


"I love your Amygdala!"

Every moment of every day, our brains are bombarded by sensory inputs, so many that we can't even process all of them. These inputs need to be filtered before information can reach areas like the prefrontal cortex, which is the home of executive functioning skills. The amygdala, a crucial part of the limbic system, is a set of neurons which processes and filters our emotions. When the brain is stressed, the amygdala processes these intakes to the part of our brain where the "fight, flight, or freeze" response resides, and instinct kicks in. What does this mean in the classroom?

Learning is an emotional process. I'm sure we can all think back to a time in our educational career that we think of fondly. This could be a teacher that you had a great relationship with, or achieving a good grade on a quiz that you studied hard for. Similarly, I'm betting that we can all look back and remember a time that we were disengaged from our learning. Perhaps the stress of a college application caused feelings of anger or created a desire to give, or perhaps you stopped you dead in your tracks! This, as Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher refer to in Neuroteach, is called "downshifting." 

"Negative emotions or stress can cause us to lose focus on higher-order thinking, and instead process in our brain's emotional center." 

In a typical setting, student brains will process sensory inputs and direct the information to the relevant part of the brain. For example, a teacher gives a homework assignment with a due date. The student processes this information, directs it to the prefrontal cortex, and begins to plan how and when this assignment will be done. But what if we add in that the students know that they have five other assignments, as well as soccer practice and a game right after school. Suddenly, these additional sensory inputs begin to cause stress. It is at this point that the amygdala filters this information, and the "fight, flight, or freeze" response comes out to play. At that moment, it isn't that the student is choosing to be angry or seeking to avoid, or even becoming non-responsive. It's that the amygdala has interpreted these emotions, and the automatic response kicks in. By reducing the stress, the amygdala will instead direct sensory intakes to the prefrontal cortex. 

We must understand the role that stress plays in learning. High levels of stress will invoke the "fight, flight or freeze" response and essentially shut down the function of learning in students' brains. However, we must also be mindful that the brain is a muscle, and it responds to its experience. We have to provide opportunities for the limbic system to have episodic moments of stress so that students can "flex" its stress response system. 


Stress Reduction

When it comes to understanding emotion and helping students balance stress levels, we must understand the role that dopamine plays in this process. Dopamine is a chemical that is released by neurons in the brain and plays a fundamental role in mood and regulating emotional responses. Dopamine levels typically spike when you are experiencing feelings of happiness, such as eating junk food (perhaps a buffalo chicken pizza) after a long day, or posting pictures on social media and receiving likes and comments that affirm positive feelings, or even getting a hug from a friend when you are feeling down. Our brains are changed and rewired according to the experiences around us. Dopamine is not exempt from this. Dopamine levels fluctuate in the brain at different points throughout the day, depending on experiences. Low levels of dopamine can cause a lack of motivation or interest in that subject. Sustained periods of low dopamine levels can lead to mental issues such as depression

Dr. Judy Willis coined the phrase "dopamine boosters" as factors that increase dopamine levels and help send sensory inputs to the parts of the brain associated with cognition. Teachers must create these dopamine bursts in their classrooms, too. Whitman and Kelleher compile a list of strategies that any teacher can use to reduce stress and redirect the learning, such as incorporating choice, creating novelty at the beginning of a class, storytelling, or just good ol' laughter! 


Student Voice

When I thought about how I could become more conscious of student emotion and learning, I turned to one of my favorite venues—Twitter. Twitter is a unique tool for teachers, as it presents an opportunity to see what other educators are doing with their students. Pooja Agarwal is a cognitive scientist and Assistant Professor at Berklee College. It was Pooja who gave me the idea that I started using below. 

Teachers build relationships with students; it's what we do. These relationships allow us to understand when to push students to achieve their best, when to pull back, when to give that hug, or when to offer words of encouragement. Relationships take time to develop, and the trust that goes along with them isn't inherent. So what do we do in the interim while those relationships are being built? I wanted to get a sense of how my students feel as soon as they walk through the door. I wanted to get an insight into how they were feeling right from the get-go, to help me incorporate those "dopamine boosters" and balance their stress!

I had my students complete a quick questionnaire when they arrived in the morning. It was a simple five-question questionnaire that asked them about how they slept, how things are going in class, as well as a section for any additional comments or thoughts that they wanted me to know. I was then able to collate these answers, gain a sense of the group as a whole, and then pinpoint specific things to consider as we went about our day. 



What else would you like me to know?

I have to admit; I wasn't quite sure how this would work. Pooja is a college professor teaching adults, and I teach students half their age. I wasn't sure if I would get what I was looking for. What I discovered was a game changer! These are three responses that came from 14 different students with a variety of responses. This small and seemingly insignificant questionnaire was hugely important to me. In September, October, and even November, I had a tool that I could use to give me an insight into how that student was feeling at that moment. And importantly, I could have this information in my hand at 8:15 and begin to plan accordingly by 8:16. 

In the comments section, some students wanted me to know that they were tired. It was 8:15 on a chilly morning in October, and their overwhelming emotion at that point was that they were tired. Some students felt so strongly about their tiredness that they asked if we could incorporate nap time into the schedule.  

I'm tired.


Others wanted to let me know that they were still flying high from watching their favorite football team win Sunday afternoon.

Go Giants


And some didn't have anything to report. Sure they were a little tired, but they had a great breakfast and were excited for the day to begin. 



To this point, I have gathered the information, but what did I do? 

Well, for the student who had nothing to tell me, I still checked in. I asked how the weekend was or if anything exciting happened. 

For my tired student, unfortunately, I couldn't grant the wish for nap time, but I could support them with a slower start to the day and adjusting the speed or intensity of the workload. 

And for my student who wanted to tell me about the New York Giants, I gave them a dopamine burst by high fiving him on a great Giants win!

None of these actions are particularly groundbreaking, nor are they going to help solve mental health challenges around the world. But they give me an essential insight into the lives of my students. Not every student is going to share every emotion that they are having. But if I can use the Giants' win on Sunday afternoon to bring some novelty to a task, then why would I not? If I know that a student is particularly tired and finding it difficult to get started, why shouldn't I use this information and incorporate choice into assignments. How about the student who had nothing to report? Why not have a check-in with her about her weekend and make her feel connected with a positive interaction?



A reasonable conclusion should always refer to the original point, so here it is.

"The emotional and cognitive areas of the brain are highly interlinked, so emotional factors like stress, anxiety, happiness, motivation, and positive relationships need to be considered when thinking about ways to improve learning." 

This statement may be one of the most important neurotruths that exists, and yet, I'm willing to bet that some still believe students can learn despite experiencing stress or anxiety or that laughter and happiness don't have a place in the classroom. It is as simple as this: emotion is not something that can be ignored when considering student outcomes. Students need to feel loved, safe, supported, and, most importantly, feel like they belong. Without these feelings, students will never be able to reach the true potential that they have. 

I'm proud to be part of a team that not only knows and understands the role of emotion in learning but also puts it front and center in their classroom every day.

About the Author

Peter McBride

Peter McBride, 
Grade 4 teacher at Far Hills Country Day School