When most of us think about learning, our minds go to reading, writing, and math. Building these key academic areas relies heavily on two sets of underlying skills: children’s self-regulation and executive functioning abilities.
Self-regulation refers to ways children – and adults! – manage emotional responses. Children whose self-regulation skills are more developed for their age receive increased opportunities to practice academic and social skills. Picture a teacher asking a kindergartener, Finn, to help re-shelve classroom books. Instead of starting with one book and giving the task a try, Finn says, “I’m not finished playing!” and stomps away. When given a letter-sorting task, Finn says, “I can’t do it!” and waits for help. Although Finn will eventually get to experience putting books away or sorting letters, significant time is spent on dealing with these initial responses.
In contrast, imagine Riley, a kindergarten classmate who is more able to manage frustration or uncertainty. Riley will be able to organize lots of books during the time Finn spends feeling frustrated, and will get in a few more minutes of sorting letters while Finn puts off the task. Over time, these differences add up to significantly more learning opportunities for Riley, all because of more developed self-regulation skills.
How do emotions connect to learning?
The human brain processes emotions in the limbic system, which includes neural areas like the amygdala and hippocampus. Because it evolved to protect us through managing the body’s “fight or flight” response system, the limbic system develops early in children and works very rapidly, allowing us to respond to perceived threats almost immediately.
When the limbic system activates in response to a threat – or even just intense feelings like frustration or anger – it briefly reduces connections to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex develops between birth and a person’s early 20s, and manages cognitive functions like organization, planning and prioritizing, getting started with tasks, and sticking with challenging activities. When strong emotions briefly interrupt prefrontal cortex activities, children have a harder time engaging in behaviors like multi-step activities, following through with plans, and trying out new skills. Even though the limbic system’s emotional response only interrupts prefrontal cortex activity for a few seconds, that’s enough to interrupt kids’ long-term thinking and planning abilities and allow a less cooperative and organized response to challenging tasks.
Emotional responses like “I’m not finished playing!” are typical and even age-appropriate, and the goal isn’t for children to achieve “perfect” behavior. However, by understanding how emotions and learning opportunities connect, parents and teachers can more easily incorporate activities that develop self-regulation skills into classroom and home environments. Self-regulation skills allow children to manage their emotional responses productively, providing more opportunities for learning.
Self-regulation supports executive functioning
When children’s self-regulation skills are less developed, strong emotional reactions or feelings can interrupt prefrontal cortex activity, preventing kids from accessing executive functions. “Executive functions” get their name from the brain’s decision-making capacities, much like the executive branch of the United States government is headed by the President, who is responsible for many day-to-day decisions. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for a variety of skills that support cognition, or thinking, and especially cognitive processes like planning ahead, problem solving, and organization. The brain manages these skills using the prefrontal cortex, which develops more slowly than the limbic system. As a result, these skills develop slowly during infancy, a little more quickly in toddlers, and much faster as children move through preschool, elementary school, and into adolescence. Executive functioning skills mature fully when people are in their early to mid-twenties, and may continue to grow well into adulthood.
Executive functioning skills like time management, getting started with challenging tasks, organizing ideas and physical belongings, and persisting with long-term projects are each important for different types of learning tasks. Like self-regulation skills, executive functioning is heavily affected by factors such as getting sufficient sleep, living in a consistent environment, and having basic needs met. On average, children living in stressful environments need extra support to develop the same self-regulation and executive functioning skills that a same-age peer living in a more consistent situation might have.
Because children’s self-regulation and executive functioning skills are closely linked, we can think of them as complementary skill sets that reinforce one another positively. Picture a third-grader, Charlie, who manages emotions well and typically can follow classroom expectations effectively. This lets Charlie work more independently, building the ability to re-read directions, check in with a classmate when confused, and try again when the answer isn’t readily apparent. In contrast, imagine a classmate whose emotional upsets frequently make it hard to engage in classroom tasks. This student may often have to wait for the teacher’s help, meaning that they experience far fewer learning opportunities during any given school day, which may add up to days or even weeks of missed instruction or practice time during a school year.
Strategies for building self-regulation skills
Just like academic skills, self-regulation skills can be taught, practiced, and developed.
- Mirror emotions. When a child is upset or frustrated, hearing adults acknowledge their feelings reduces limbic system response and makes it easier for the child to return to the task at hand. To mirror emotions effectively, a parent or teacher can say, “It looks like you’re feeling mad about what happened,” or “Are you feeling pretty frustrated right now?” Learning these labels lets kids develop their internal awareness of how they feel.
- Teach emotions directly. At times when kids aren’t upset, families or classes can discuss emotions and what they feel like, along with strategies kids can use to cope. Building children’s knowledge of their options when they are calm makes it likelier that, over time, kids can respond more effectively to their feelings when they’re upset.
- Create space. Recognizing the role emotions play in learning can make it easier to take these feelings seriously – but also let kids develop their ability to move on. Creating space can involve teaching children to take a few deep breaths when upset, giving kids a cool-down spot where they can focus on processing a strong emotion, or by acknowledging that it’s healthy to cry or express big feelings. The more kids have room to process their feelings, the easier it gets for them to return quickly and independently to learning or playing.
Adults can use similar strategies to manage our own emotions, which can give parents and teachers more ability to handle tough classroom or parenting situations. Acknowledging our own feelings aloud to kids sets a great example, and helps with co-regulation, which refers to the way our emotional states and behaviors are affected by the feelings and actions of those around us. When a parent says, “Wow, I’m feeling really cranky right now. I need to take a few minutes to rest when we get home,” children learn how to respond to disruptive feelings proactively. They also potentially get a chance to use their own skills to help out by cooperating or being extra kind while their parent takes a moment to decompress.
Strategies for building executive functioning skills
- Visual cues. Home and classroom environments that feature age-appropriate checklists and organizers increase kids’ abilities to carry out tasks independently. For example, a first grader might have a five-item Getting Ready checklist to help them get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, pack their backpack, and put on shoes. Checklists can reduce parent-child conflict by allowing parents to say “What’s the next item on your checklist?” This more neutral reminder creates less of an emotional response than “You’re still not dressed?” and may help kids connect to their internal motivation more readily.
- Narration. Reviewing plans orally increases kids’ ability to think ahead. Parents or teachers can frequently lead an oral review of what’s coming next, and when possible, can ask kids to supply the details. A parent might say on the way home from school, “OK, tell me what’s coming next this afternoon,” or “Let’s go over what we’re going to do now. What are you going to do first when we get home?” Narration allows the child to think ahead and prioritize their time, which often makes it easier for them to tackle challenging tasks like homework.
- Timers. Estimating how long tasks will take to complete is a critical part of executive functioning, and timers facilitate this practice. Ask a child how long it will take to do a task like tying their shoes, taking a shower, or doing a sheet of math homework. As kids become more familiar with how long tasks take, they can more easily plan their time. As well, timers can make it easier to tackle challenging projects. If a child doesn’t want to get started, a parent can give the choice of working for ten minutes or fifteen minutes – options that can be adjusted for age or the type of project. Even if a child picks the lower number, knowing they’ll just be working for a set time can make it easier to start. Timed work periods offer additional benefits, like building a sense of accomplishment, as well as a better understanding of how long the entire project will take. They also give kids a sense of control, because they learn that it’s OK to work for a reasonable amount of time of their choosing and then take a short break to decompress.