The origin of emotions lies in internal and external stimuli. The brain uses emotions to create feelings that strongly influence decision-making. The advice that is often given to students to put their feelings aside for a while, therefore, seems to run counter to the hypothesis that our rational decision-making is driven by emotions. Emotion and cognition are interdependent.
An important point in the learning process is when fear responses take over and hold our awareness and attention. An unsafe home situation due to neglect, mistreatment or abuse or an unsafe school environment has a disastrous effect on learning.
A threatening environment increases cortisol (the stress hormone) level in the body and there are clear indications that an increased cortisol level has a negative effect on the development and functioning of the frontal cortex. A less well-developed or functioning cortex has negative consequences for concentration and working memory. The mental repetition of a potential threat occupies the working memory, which should be used for example following the lesson.
Many schools are addressing this issue by focusing on strengthening students' emotional resilience by incorporating lifestyle, social skills training and aggression management into the curriculum.
Another way to alleviate anxiety in school is to pay more attention to teaching the ability to better perceive emotions of both yourself and others. Understand those emotions better and therefore better manage your own emotions. Education could be strengthened by teaching teachers more knowledge about emotions. Teach them to reflect on emotions and to teach them to deal with the emotional side of the thinking process.
That sounds very nice, but it is not yet clear from research whether such an approach can do anything against the unconscious but very powerful impulses of fear reactions.
Controlling emotions and learning
Controlling emotions is an important ability for effective learning. The question, however, is how much influence an individual has in regulating his own emotions. This certainly applies in a social environment in which emotions are strongly influenced by the emotions of others in that environment. This is even more true for adolescents in a social context.
Neuroscientific research shows that an emotion is triggered much earlier than our rational system can influence it. If we think there's a snake on the road, our emotional system has already warned our body before we realize it's a dried up branch. It is therefore not possible to hold back an emotion. At most, it is possible to limit the duration of a negative emotion. So is a positive emotion, like trying to hold back a laugh, but that's usually less of a problem.
This means that the emotional system always influences thinking, while the rational system can only secondarily manage emotions.