How Students’ Emotional Needs Impact Their Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

How Students’ Emotional Needs Impact Their LearningThink back to a time when you were forced to attend a professional development training or staff meeting. I bet you remember little about the content and a lot about how you felt during that time. That’s because, as Dr. Robert Sylwester stated, emotion drives attention, which drives learning. In other words, how you feel determines how well you learn. Feeling forced to be somewhere causes you to focus on your base survival needs; you were unable to think at a higher level at the training because you felt trapped.

Consider your students’ feelings. How many of them are feeling forced, trapped, scared, lonely, or manipulated because of the content or you? Evidence on how our brains function suggests that emotion (the automatic chemical reaction within our brains) is significantly intertwined in the learning process (Weiss, 2000). Feelings, the physical and mental response to emotion, are what can hamper or promote attention. And attention—or the ability to avoid distraction—is necessary for learning.

When our emotions are negative, they will “down-shift” energy from the prefrontal cortex to the reptilian brain and put us in fight or flight (survival) mode. That leaves little brain energy for the higher, more evolved prefrontal cortex—where reasoning, creativity, and higher levels of thinking reside. When our emotions are positive, they will “up-shift” brain energy to the frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex—allowing us to think clearly and at advanced levels.

We can help students up-shift in the classroom by giving them the tools of self-regulation to manage their emotional responses. I have framed a scaffolding of activities based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory and the stages of self-regulation that you can use to help your students develop stronger and more appropriate emotional responses.

Stage 1: Modeling and Observing. Students have little to no self-regulation; they need a strong sense of safety in the classroom.

Students need:

  • Predictability in the environment, such as knowing the daily schedule, lesson objectives, and consequences or rewards
  • A sense of security with the teacher and others in the classroom in order to take intellectual risks
  • Consistent mood and classroom management from the teacher and others; knowing how to expect adults to interact with children
  • A comfortable classroom, such as a room with places to sit, stand, or stretch; a learning space that is pleasant and joyful

Stage 2: Copying and Doing. Students are just beginning to develop self-regulating strategies but are still in need of a lot of support; they need to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom.

Students need:

  • To learn how to listen to others, such as through specific listening strategies
  • To understand others’ differences and how these differences make us all unique and important
  • To know how to express themselves in a way that is appropriate, respectful, and thoughtful
  • To know how to care for themselves and others, such as working productively in groups or by themselves

Stage 3: Practice and Refinement. Students are ready to try ideas and make those ideas their own; they need to foster their individual strengths.

Students need:

  • Assistance in building their self-esteem and confidence through finding and celebrating even small successes
  • To become aware of their own talents and put their talents to use in and outside the classroom
  • Strategies in maintaining a positive attitude, such as reflective practices and reframing difficult situations through positive self-talk
  • An understanding of all students’ individual significance, which may be gained through group work, passion projects, and student-led classroom discussions
  • To learn how to set a vision for the future by employing goal-setting practices that focus on the type of person they’d like to become (not necessarily what they’d like to do in the future)

Stage 4: Independence and Application. Students have demonstrated their abilities to maintain effective emotional management; they need to create their sense of autonomy.

Students need:

  • To reach for self-actualization or for becoming their best selves by committing to community service or taking on intellectual challenges to learn more about themselves
  • Assistance in refining talents by showcasing or promoting their talents through differentiated products
  • Strategies for increasing concentration and persistence, such as study strategies or long-term projects that require substantial planning
  • Opportunities to benefit others through caring initiatives, such as service learning projects, leadership development courses, or volunteering for worthy causes

Emotional responses, or the ways we manage our feelings, play a significant role in how we behave, make decisions, retain memories, and interact with others. Knowing what level of self-regulation your students possess can guide you to what they need to rise to the next level of effective emotional management.

References
Cash, R.M. Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2016.
Maslow, A.H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370–396.
Weiss, R.P. “Emotion and Learning.” Training & Development 54, no. 11 (2000): 45.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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