“Honk,” says my 9th grade French teacher on the first day of school. “En français, your name is ‘Honk’.”
“Excuse me,” I bleat in front of 35 classmates. “My name is Hank.”
“Non, incorrect,” she replied. “En français, and in this class, your name se prononce ‘Honk’.”
For two wretched years, I was called Honk by this cruel teacher and snickering students. Five times weekly, I entered the classroom twitching with fear, rage, and shame. The ordeal crippled my self-esteem and GPA. My grade lurked between C- and D because I refused to study for my persecutor. I hated the teacher (mutilating her face in my yearbook), and I subsequently hated the language.
My negative emotions destroyed my learning ability.
Research indicates my pitiful French performance was a predictable response. Monstrously bad feelings like I experienced can overwhelm a student’s ability to pay attention, memorize, and process information. Negative emotions like anxiety, rage, sadness, and shame often become mental roadblocks to success.
But not always. Research on how feelings affect learning shows that challenging emotions aren’t always impediments to doing well academically. Moderately negative feelings in emotionally resilient students can, almost surprisingly, be motivating.
While feeling stressed that they might not get an “A” on a math test can paralyze one student with anxiety, it could inspire another to study harder. A book report marked “lazy and incoherent” can freeze a shamed student with writer’s block. But it could stimulate another child to try harder next time. Weeping about World War II atrocities or climate change disasters can push a student into existential apathy and despair. Or it can cement crucial information and galvanize someone to bring about positive change in the world.
Why do negative emotions block some students from learning and inspire others? “How a certain emotion affects learning is a function of both the person and the emotion,” explains Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University and director of the Emotional Brain Institute. “Stress, fear, anxiety can be positive motivators and can help performance and learning. But if the person is easily overwhelmed in such situations, they may be negatively affected.”
Experts on emotion and learning agree that children who get the right kind of support and guidance from adults in their lives will fare far better in the face of challenging emotions. The following offer snapshots of the different ways each emotion impacts learning and how to help children navigate their feelings.
Sadness is a basic “negative” emotion that can both benefit and impair learning. A 2014 Australian study by Joseph P. Forgas found that sadness can “improve memory performance, reduce judgmental errors, improve motivation, and result in more effective interpersonal strategies.” How does this happen? In an explanatory article, Forgas claims sadness increases “detailed and attentive thinking” that enhances perseverance and persuasive communication styles. Sadness, suggests Forgas, is a “mild alarm signal” that challenges people to “exert effort to change their unpleasant state.” However, sadness can also negatively affect students. According to the American Psychology Association, sadness in high schoolers can lead to “declining academic performance and achievement” as well as substance misuse, low energy, and social withdrawal — all of which can be detrimental to learning.
What you can do: Help your child articulate, understand, and gain control over their feelings of sadness. Enable your child to see how sadness empowers them to feel empathy towards others and themselves. On the other hand, if it seems like your child is frequently expressing sadness that is persistent or overwhelming, you may need to seek support from a school counselor or therapist. (See depression and grief.)
Depression, not to be confused with sadness, is defined by Mayo Clinic as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” Among U.S. teens today, depression is the most common mental health disorder, with 10 to 15 percent of teenagers experiencing symptoms at any one time. According to a survey on depression in high schoolers, 64.1 percent of Hispanic respondents, 71.6 percent of white students, and 66.3 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row during the 12 months before the survey. A recent study on the effects of depression on learning found that depressed students “are at risk of poor academic results and resistance to school-related activities.” Typical behaviors include little to no classroom interaction, difficult relationships with peers and instructors, and a loss of interest in pursuing interests or goals. Depression impairs working memory and impedes a student’s ability to learn since typical symptoms include trouble concentrating, thinking clearly, and remembering things. Studies indicate depressed U.S. adolescents have a “reduced likelihood of graduating from high school.”
What you can do: If your child shows signs of depression (here is a list of symptoms), seek help from a mental health professional. School counselors should also be informed if a child is experiencing depression. Be supportive, encouraging, and clearly communicate your willingness to both listen nonjudgmentally and problem solve.
Grief is a paralyzing emotion of overwhelming sadness when, for example, a beloved family member dies. Although grief has a critical purpose in helping us process loss, grief is “cognitively preoccupying,” and therefore can easily take priority over concentration and academic performance. According to David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, “grief can have a profound effect on learning and school performance. Typically [children] experience difficulty with concentration. Distractions abound. Schoolwork may seem puzzling or pointless. Good students may be discouraged to see their grades slip. Students already struggling with school may see their learning problems worsen.”
What you can do: Provide comfort, listen carefully, answer questions directly, and help your child process the experience with rituals. Instead of “fixing” their grief, give them the time they need to heal. Here’s a comprehensive guide providing helpful advice.
Fear and anxiety in traumatic or chronic doses can cripple learning. Although we may think of each of these emotions as distinct, psychologists note that each describes a response to danger. Fear is our reaction to imminent danger, whereas anxiety is the feeling of anticipating danger. Both emotions create stress responses in our bodies, such as raised cortisol levels, shortness of breath, and stress, which can impact learning in multiple ways. A 2016 study published in Nature called, “Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom,” by cognitive psychologists Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe concluded that “exposure to prolonged or repeated stress, as well as stress during critical periods of brain development” may have substantial adverse effects on learning and memory in children. Studies on a variety of common childhood stressors have found that stress has profound impacts on school performance. One study in the Journal of Early Adolescence found victims of bullying suffered a 1.5 point decrease in their grade point average or GPA. A study by a German think tank found that children experiencing family violence, dating violence, physical assault, or witnessing adult violence can suffer “observable deficits in… learning, memory, and attention capacities.” But all stress isn’t harmful for kids. Some research asserts that stress can actually boost learning as long as the task at hand can be attained with hard work and is framed as a “challenge or learning expectation.”
What you can do: Parents who model healthy stress management in their own behavior can help alleviate their children’s stress. They can also help by sympathetically listening to their children’s worries and reducing the demands on them that add to their tension. Finally, experts agree that regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
Anger is a primal emotion that increases our heart rate, sharpens our senses, and infuses our bodies with energy. It can harm a child’s learning ability if it is uncontrollable. For example, students can’t digest new math concepts if they are furiously daydreaming about “taking revenge.” Anger and frustration in a confused student unable to meet adult expectations can quickly lead to defiance, behavior problems, and zoning out. Anger can also have positive impacts on learning. A 2020 report recognized that anger could serve as a motivator in some academic settings. For example, anger at a rival in class might motivate a student to improve their test scores.
Shame and guilt are classified as “negative” emotions that we experience when we feel we have failed, either morally or in an important activity. An Italian study found that they often impair memory, but they also boost learning in manageable doses. Georgetown University research on second language learners found that guilt positively affected language acquisition by motivating students to study harder. Another study suggests that the human brain strives to learn from errors to avoid feeling shame and guilt. For example, a student might feel embarrassed if a teacher calls on them with an easy question that all their classmates know the answer to, but they don’t because they didn’t read the assignment. To avoid this in the future, the student does the required reading. A Harvard study analyzes 113 Chinese words for shame and claims Confucianism promotes the emotion to direct people “inward for self-examination” to motivate “desirable change.” The authors argue that shame and guilt carry more influence in “collectivist” cultures (like East Asia) compared to “individualist” societies (like the U.S.).
What you can do: Help your child develop a growth mindset so they understand that their school work is primarily a result of their effort and hard work. Instead of letting your child brood over past mistakes, encourage them to decide what they will do differently next time (yes, we can learn from our mistakes) and then, like an athlete or Taylor Swift, “Shake it off.”
Happiness is an emotion that activates numerous brain regions and multiple neurotransmitters. The Harvard Happiness study observed 435 students in a Washington D.C. K-12 school and concluded that “happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement.” Crucial elements that contributed to the children’s joy were “the culture of the school and the relationships that students form with their teachers and their peers…” Subsequent studies in Iran replicated the U.S. findings, as did a study from the United Arab Emirates that found, “The students’ happiness levels were found to be correlated to their academic success.” What makes kids happy at school? The Harvard Happiness study believes positive, supportive relationships with teachers and peers are the most essential requirement.
What can you do: When you choose a school for your child, consider their social and emotional well-being as well as the academic strengths of the school. In everyday interactions, help your child build character strengths such as gratitude, generosity, and purpose, all of which are associated with building positive relationships, which leads to happiness.
Gratitude is an undervalued emotion that’s extremely important in learning and life. Research has found that grateful children are more engaged in school, more satisfied with their lives, have higher grades, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic. Studies in China and the Philippines claim adolescents who felt gratitude towards their teachers had more motivation and cognitive engagement in their education. An Indiana University study suggests gratitude also improves “students’ ability to focus in class and remain resilient in the face of difficulties while learning.”
What you can do: Help your child develop a gratitude habit in small, everyday ways by talking about your feelings of gratitude and engaging in quick rituals, like naming three things you’re grateful for at bedtime.
Awe refers to “an amazing experience,” says emotion-and-learning expert Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “that can be very important in learning.” U.C. Berkeley researchers define awe as a “destabilizing emotion.. elicited by something vast.” What are our brains doing when we feel awe? An MRI study revealed brains experiencing awe were “deeply immersed” by the “captivating… attention-seeking” experience to the extent that there was a “reduced focus on self-reflective thought.” In other words, according to a white paper on awe by the Greater Good Science Center, we “shift our attention away from ourselves… [and] feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves.” People inspired by awesome experiences often enjoy profound benefits, and the emotion leads them to discover a purpose in life, which has a positive effect on how students experience — and perform in — school.
What you can do: Guide your child towards awe-filled moments by exposing them to a wide variety of stimuli, including nature exploration, art events, and travel adventures.