Over the past couple of years, it has grown more and more apparent just how important mental wellbeing is. It has an impact on pretty much every aspect of our lives; from our physical health and cognitive ability to our relationships with other people and ourselves. So, it makes sense that our mental health plays an important role in education, too! In today’s article, we’re going to be exploring the various ways in which emotion and education are intertwined, in the hopes that educators will become more mindful of this whilst teaching children. Keep reading to find out more!

Avoidance Behavior

We all avoid doing the things we don’t enjoy as much as possible. Cleaning the dishes, calling up the doctor, working through admin - just to name a few. Children are much the same. This is perhaps most prevalent in the context of education. It’s not unheard of for teenagers to skip lessons or for younger kids to outright refuse to do their work. And we shouldn’t necessarily blame them for this or call them lazy and irresponsible, either. In fact, it’s a natural response to avoid something if we have come to associate it with negative emotions.

Think back to when you were in school. Why did you dislike a certain subject? Why couldn’t you stand a specific teacher? Likely, the answer will be because they conjured up a lot of unpleasant emotions for you. You might have felt not very smart for being unable to figure out an equation or ashamed because the teacher yelled at you. As such, you learned to associate that lesson with negative feelings. When this happens, we often engage in avoidance behavior. This includes things like skipping lessons, faking illness, or simply refusing to do the work.

Teachers need to be very mindful of this. If a student is avoiding school, instead of getting angry, consider why they might be behaving this way. Could it come from a fear of failure or peer humiliation following on from past experiences? Next, consider how you can mitigate their negative associations with school. Focus on creating a nurturing classroom environment by being kind, calm and understanding. Never resort to shouting or shaming. Make it clear that questions and mistakes aren’t a sign of failure, but an essential part of learning.

This should help to prevent children from making negative associations with school - even for the subjects they struggle with most! As a result, you might find that your students are avoiding work less and engaging with lessons more.

 

Importance of mental health
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Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is incredibly important when it comes to motivating children to learn. But what exactly is positive reinforcement? Essentially, if we experience pleasant emotions or sensations from carrying out a certain activity, we are much more likely to do it again because our brains have learnt to associate it with positive feelings. A good example of this is giving your dog lots of strokes and praise after it has been well behaved so he/she feels motivated to continue behaving!

Now, let’s apply this principle to an educational context. If children are rewarded for their efforts in school (this could be via praise or a feeling of accomplishment), they often become more engaged and motivated during lessons. This is typically why we enjoy the subjects we’re good at in school - because we gain a lot more praise and satisfaction from them.

It’s a teacher or TA’s job to inspire positive emotions in their students - regardless of their capabilities in a subject. But how exactly does one accomplish this? Well, complimenting your students’ work is a good place to start! Creating displays to showcase their work can also help them to feel proud of themselves.

Ideally, though, you don’t want pupils to only gain motivation through external factors. Instead, try to foster something called ‘intrinsic motivation’ in your students! This is essentially about making the act of learning enjoyable enough in itself that children don’t need external rewards to be engaged/motivated. Some tips for promoting intrinsic motivation in children include; active listening, acknowledging students’ experiences, exploring their unique perspectives, and celebrating their breakthroughs.

 

Education support
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Mental Health

Now we’ve discussed how emotions can affect children’s motivation and what they associate school with, let’s dive into mental health and its impact on learning. According to the CDC, more than one third of high school students had persistent feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness in 2019. So, it’s more than likely that teachers will have at least one student in their classroom who is struggling with their mental wellbeing.

Poor mental health can impact a student’s capacity to learn in a number of ways. For starters, it can make it a lot more difficult to concentrate. Pupils who suffer from anxiety, for instance, might struggle to focus during lessons because they are all-consumed by their anxious thoughts. People with poor mental health also tend to get ‘brain fog’, which results in decreased alertness, memory retrieval, focus and concentration.

In addition to this, students with poor mental health are usually chronically fatigued. With little energy to spare, they often struggle to engage with lesson material and may even fail to attend in the first place. Alongside fatigue comes a lack of motivation, which - as discussed above - is critical to education. One of the main symptoms of depression is losing interest in almost everything because it all feels pointless or fails to engage you anymore. It’s quite common for students to avoid school when they’re feeling like this.

So, what can teachers do to support students suffering from poor mental health? Firstly, it’s important to start conversations about wellbeing in the classroom. Normalize having struggles with mental health, so the children don’t feel quite so alone or like something is wrong with them. It’s also essential to be empathetic and an active listener. As an influential figure in children’s lives, teachers should try to model good habits to their students, too.

Social Development
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Social and Emotional Development

School goes beyond teaching English, math and science. It’s also crucial to children’s social and emotional development! This includes things like; their ability to identify and manage their feelings, have self-control, be self-aware, resolve conflict, establish and navigate relationships, build self-esteem, and eventually become well-rounded adults.

It’s up to parents and teachers to equip children with these vital social-emotional skills. A good place to start is with their emotional vocabulary. This is all about helping children to identify and then articulate what they are feeling. For example, parents could say things like “it sounds like you’re really angry” or “are you excited about going to the park?” to help their child put a name to what they’re feeling.

At school, children tend to have their first experiences with relationships. They learn how to establish bonds with other people, how to communicate effectively, and how to navigate conflict. These are social-emotional skills that they carry into adulthood. It’s important that teachers nudge them in the right direction with this.

So, be a good role model to the kids! Treat them with the same respect you would show adults. You wouldn’t shout at one of your co-workers - so you shouldn’t shout at your students. Otherwise, you’re implicitly telling them that this is an acceptable way to communicate with other people.

 

Conclusion

Teaching can’t just be about relaying information to children anymore. We have to consider students’ emotions as much as we do their actual education.

That’s why it’s crucial to always approach learning with empathy. If students are skipping lessons, not paying attention, or behaving obstinately, take the time to consider what might be going on for them beneath the surface. Could their behavior stem from a fear of failure or peer humiliation? Perhaps they are suffering from poor mental health?

From here, think about how you might be able to support them or reduce their anxiety. Start giving them reasons to feel positive about learning; actively listen and provide encouragement wherever you can. Remember that you’re a role model to them - so demonstrate how you personally might go about expressing emotions and navigating conflict.

 

These are the kinds of lessons they’ll remember forever.

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Laura