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How children use their emotions to learn

Emotions play a critical role in everyday life. The ability to express, regulate, and understand one’s own and others’ emotions – known as emotional competence – is linked to good social skills and to doing better at school.

Children and adults who are emotionally competent tend to have more successful social lives. And children with a good level of emotional competence tend to be more popular among their peers, have more friends, and display higher levels of pro-social behaviour than children who are not as emotionally adept. Children who are emotionally competent tend to learn better and to do better in school than their less emotionally adept peers.

Differences in children’s emotional competence can be observed from a very early age. For example, some toddlers will throw a tantrum when they are not allowed to have an ice cream before lunch, but others who are better at regulating their emotions, will not.

One of the main contexts in which children learn about emotions is with their family. It is through interactions with their siblings and parents that a child learns to understand what to do when his mother is upset or how to negotiate his sibling’s anger when he broke his favourite toy. As children grow, the extended family, peers, teachers and what they read or watch are also relevant in children’s development of emotional competence.

Mothers who mention more emotion words such as “sad”, “guilty” or “happy” in conversation with their children have children with a better level of emotional understanding than those whose mothers don’t do this. Both the frequency and quality of mothers’ use of emotional words and phrases also has an impact. Mothers who explain the causes and consequences of emotions – “I am angry because you painted on the wall” – have children with a higher level of emotion understanding than children whose mothers who don’t and just say “I am angry”.

Standoff. Maryna Pleshkun/

Academic boost

Starting from a young age, children who are emotionally competent are better able to adapt to the transition between nursery and school. They are better able to face the more challenging demands of school life while at the same time having less one-on-one support. These children continue to do better academically throughout the school years as they tend to better manage the stress and anxiety that school life frequently provokes.

There are two main reasons why children who are emotionally competent tend to do better academically at school. First, emotionally competent children tend to have more friends and are more popular among their peers.

When a child is well-adapted to their school life, he or she is more likely to do better academically. In contrast, children who have problems in relationships with their friends in school, may have their concentration, motivation, and working memory affected. Children who have difficulties dealing with their emotions are also more likely to display behavioural problems such as anti-social behaviour or anxiety problems. This makes the child’s learning process more difficult throughout their time at school.

A second reason is that children who are emotionally competent tend to have a better relationship with their teachers than their less emotionally able counterparts. Teachers also tend to demand more of those children with whom they have a good relationship – so in turn, these students tend to put more effort in to please their teachers.

Watching emotions at work

It seems clear that emotions play a role in learning. Some researchers even suggest that learning simply is an emotional experience.

These questions are starting to be explored outside of traditional lab settings. Several techniques to identify emotional expression have been developed by computer scientists to make predictions about people’s emotions. These include monitoring facial expressions, heart rates, and even the comments students write down.

These techniques are currently being researched at the Open University and have the potential to be used to study wider groups of students.

There are obvious ethical questions that arise when talking about using technology to measure emotions. Parents, teachers and school administrators may have concerns about student emotions being tracked using technology. Research that uses these measures will need to show how such analysis benefits student outcomes.

Given how important emotions are to learning, it won’t be too long before we see emotional measures right next to traditional measures such as attendance and grades in efforts to support students to achieve their goals.

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