When Emotions Get In The Way of Learning

Behind this math book is a very angry boy.


When we posted this picture on our facebook page we asked what you do when your kids throw fits over schoolwork.  We got all kinds of responses – everything from mom or the kids taking a break to a physical activity as a distraction, or just plain telling them to get over it and get to work.  My mind raced for much of that day, pondering over the shared advice, contemplating my studies in child development, processing my own experiences, and trying to assimilate it all to decipher the best ways to help kids get over a grump.  After much thought, I offer these tidbits, which hopefully you can glean an idea or two from.

Emotions and Learning

When we have negative emotions, it is almost impossible to learn.  When we are sad, angry, lonely, or scared, those feelings monopolize our minds.  Negative emotions get in the way of learning.  They simply don’t leave much room for other thought processes.  In extreme trauma our minds even go as far as blocking out memories of experiences.  Negative emotions grind thinking to a screeching halt.  Our minds, instead, hover between focusing on the negative feeling itself and replaying over and over the thoughts that led to us feeling so crummy in the first place.

I’ve often thought it strange that our complex brains with their billions of neurons and seemingly limitless potential for knowledge are quickly hindered by tiny emotional upsets.  If our brains have so much potential, why don’t we use more of them?  I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that our emotions play a part in our brain function.  Have you ever tried to take a test when you’re upset?  No amount of study time can overcome it.

Positive emotions facilitate learning.  When we’re happy, peaceful, calm, and confident, intelligence and creativity are in gear.


Does That Mean I’m Stupid Because I Feel Bad?

Negative feelings inhibit clear thinking and block our brains from processing and recalling memories.  It doesn’t take away from the knowledge we have, but it inhibits our ability to access that knowledge.  Ignoring those feelings doesn’t work though.  In fact, negative feelings often lie right under the surface, so close that if anything triggers an unpleasant memory, we immediately live all those feelings over again.

When I was pregnant I often became very sick when I smelled certain foods cooking.  I still can’t eat or be around some of those foods because I immediately replay in my mind those negative emotions that are triggered by the smells, even though I’ve long-since overcome pregnancy nausea.  When my history teacher in 8th grade humiliated me in front of the whole class, it created within me a person who refuses to speak in class for fear of being wrong and embarrassed again.  Every time I sit in a classroom a little bit of that all comes back and hinders my intelligence.

Releasing Emotions and Freeing Up Brain Power

We can’t ignore our emotions, but we can RETRAIN our minds by working through them.  Long ago I learned that if my kids feel bad, they usually just need a sounding board.  When your kid is angry or sad, stop what you’re doing, come down to their level and look them in the eye, and validate what they’re feeling.

“Learning how to do fractions can be hard, huh?”

“It’s terrible to feel picked on, isn’t it?”

“It’s frustrating when you want to understand something and you can’t, isn’t it?”

“I have bad days sometimes too.”

“Sometimes schoolwork is boring, huh?  I bet you wish you could be doing something else.”

Then listen.  Don’t solve anything for them.  Don’t try to talk them out of it.  Just listen.

If it’s something more serious or if they still can’t let go, a release of emotions might be the ticket.  If they are angry, let them yell it out (not yell at someone, just yell into their pillow or into the air).  If they’re sad, let them cry.  If they’re lonely, give hugs until they aren’t lonely.  If they’re embarrassed, let them laugh.  Some people need to talk it out, sweat it out, yawn it out, or dance it out.  We all release differently, but we all need to release.

Three Warnings

1.  Releasing emotions is important, but controlling them is as well.  While helping kids find an outlet is important, they must also be taught that inappropriate public displays of emotions are not mature or helpful.  Raging in public or against another person is not okay.

2.  Dwelling on this stuff for an hour is not what I’m recommending.  If a kid is dealing with big issues, more might be in order, but when they are grouchy because they’d rather play video games than do math, this whole thing should only take a minute or two.  Don’t let it become another stall tactic or a daily routine, but also recognize that spending a few minutes to work through it is time better spent than the next two hours of fighting over getting the math done.

3.  If you are trying this with your kids for the first time, you need to keep in mind that one of the hardest emotions to overcome is HURT.  If they confide emotions in you, you must respect those emotions.  If your kiddo opens up and tells you what he’s feeling and then you say, “Stop being silly.  That’s ridiculous.  You shouldn’t feel that way,” then you just added to the problem tenfold.  Instead, respect them.

Now We’re All Emotional, But What Comes Next?

Next is the fun part.  You’ve released the emotions, but it’s time to get back to work.  The trouble is, sometimes we need a bit of a break or a reset or else our minds jump right back to that negative emotion when we sit down to work again.  Here are a few things you might need as a bumper in between:


  • Do some kind of quick physical activity – jumping jacks, a walk, a bike ride, some really deep breaths, or a few quick stretches or yoga poses.
  • Create a fun distraction – tell a joke, give a riddle, turn on a song and dance, share a fun memory you have of the kid.
  • Offer a choice – let them decide if they will start on the assignment right away, or complete something else and then go back to it afterwards.  You aren’t letting them off the hook, just letting them decide the order.
  • Sit By Them – Sometimes just another minute or two of close physical proximity will do the trick.  “Come on,  I’ll sit by you for the next few problems.”  Then sit right by them with your own piece of paper and pencil and solve them alongside the kiddo.
  • A Light At the End of the Tunnel – give them something to look forward to.  “Okay, let’s finish up math and then we’ll go get some cheese and crackers for a snack when you’re done.”
  • Put Aside The Written Work – This might mean doing something else for awhile, like making a project all together, reading aloud, or doing a science experiment before hitting the books again.  But it also might mean that instead of sitting at the table to do math, you could let them do the problems on a chalkboard or whiteboard, or outside on the sidewalk in with chalk.  A little change of scene can work miracles.


If Stalling Is The Real Culprit

Sometimes there isn’t genuine emotion behind the outbursts.  Sometimes it’s just a stall tactic.  When that’s the case and this is a routine problem, offer an incentive for completion.  Offer it without emotion or frustration.

“Wow, looks like you still have most of your assignment to do.  I know it’s a big one, but I also know you are one smart cookie.  In fact, I think you can finish it in the next 20 minutes, and if you do, you’ll get to _______________.”  Fill in the blank with something different depending on the kid.  You might have the cookies come out of the oven in 20 minutes, play a game with everyone who has finished their assignment in time, go out and jump on the trampoline or play PIG at the basketball hoop, pop some popcorn, or play a quick game of 20 Questions.  If they finish, invite them.  If they don’t, say nothing about it.  Just eat the cookies or play the game with those who did their work.  “Maybe next time!”

Hey, no matter how this plays out, at least you get a cookie!
Hey, no matter how this plays out, at least I get a cookie!

Punishment is a last resort.  If none of the work is getting done and you’ve exhausted everything else, that’s when I take away privileges.  It could be video games or tv, friends, fun plans.  I make clear to my kids that we all have responsibilities and must all pull our own weight.  We rarely get this far.  Even if you do, don’t let your emotions turn to yelling or lectures.  If they do, you’re setting yourself up for a lot more days just like that in the future as you create a scenario where your kids associate all those negative emotions with school work (just like my 8th grade history teacher!).

Change Takes Time & Praise

We don’t let go of all our emotional baggage at once and then escape it.  It takes time to learn how to deal with emotions and work through them.  As a parent, watch for every single praise opportunity you can find.  Instead of punishing and shaming and lecturing, find ways every day to tell your kid that he is talented, smart, handsome or beautiful, loveable, caring, and every other positive quality you see.  Even better, find exact accomplishments to praise.

“That sentence makes me laugh.  It’s awesome.  Who taught you to write anyway?” (wink, wink)

“Wow, you solved that in the blink of an eye.”

“You are A READER!”

“I wish I could draw a dog like that.  Since when did you become an artist?”

Kids rise up.  I often say that kids become exactly who we tell them they are, and I believe that.  Telling a kid he’s lazy will not make him less lazy; it will make him more lazy.  At first, it might be hard to find compliments, but do it anyway.  As you do, you’ll see that soon the kid will create more and more behaviors worthy of praise.  If you can’t find anything else to say at first, a simple – “Do you know that I will love you forever and always no matter what?” – should suffice.

Don’t give up.  Change takes time, but everything from a little math lesson grump to bigger emotional hurdles can be overcome with patience and understanding.  And that’s the only way to get those brains back on a learning track again.


Do emotions get in the way of learning in your homeschool?  How do you get your kids out of a grump?

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    1. These are things we struggle with too. It is not easy to be kind or patient with kids when they are acting up. And we all mess up from time to time. Thankfully kids are pretty resilient and we can always try again and again as parents to do it right.

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