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Bridging the Learning Gap

Exploring the crucial role of emotion in the post-COVID classroom.

Key points

  • COVID-19 reshaped schooling, leading to research on the "COVID slide" and learning loss.
  • Emotions profoundly affect executive functioning skills that are crucial for academic success.
  • SEL enhances self-regulation, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.
  • Recognizing emotions' impact on learning can help address learning loss and set students up for success.

As we prepare to send our children back into the classroom, the checklist for the post-pandemic return encompasses more than just school supplies and back-to-school clothes. The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably reshaped education systems worldwide, bringing about school closures, remote learning, and unprecedented disruptions in the traditional classroom experience. Research, like one 2022 study, has focused on the performance of U.S. students during the first two years of the pandemic, comparing test scores from before the pandemic, during its onset, and more than a year into pandemic-related disruptions. Terms like “the COVID slide” and “COVID learning loss” have also taken center stage in newspaper headlines. School districts and states are currently deciding on strategies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, utilizing funding allocated by the American Rescue Plan and the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Funds, including investments in summer learning, tutoring, after-school programs, and extended school-year initiatives.

Kenny Eliason / Unsplash
Source: Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

As we embark on the journey to bridge the learning gap and address the challenges of learning loss in this new era, it’s imperative to recognize that our children’s emotional well-being is not just an auxiliary concern but a foundational factor influencing their ability to absorb and effectively apply knowledge. While academic recovery rightfully commands our attention, we must not underestimate the profound significance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in cultivating resilient and engaged learners. A recent 2022 study conducted by the Housman Institute sheds light on the profound interconnection between social and emotional learning (SEL) and the development of executive functioning skills, highlighting why we must recognize that emotion is integral to our efforts to close the learning gap.

Understanding Executive Functioning Skills

Executive functioning skills are a cluster of cognitive abilities that enable individuals to manage themselves and their resources effectively. These skills include working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, self-monitoring, planning, and organization. These are the cognitive processes that allow individuals to plan, organize, initiate tasks, manage time, focus attention, switch between activities, inhibit impulses, and evaluate outcomes. In essence, these skills form the cognitive toolkit necessary for problem-solving, decision-making, and goal attainment—all critical aspects of academic achievement. While often associated with higher-order thinking, executive functions are the invisible scaffolding that supports our daily lives.

The Impact of Emotions and Emotional Competence on Learning

Emotion is not an isolated aspect of the human experience—it is deeply intertwined with the learning process. When students are emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious, their executive functioning skills may falter. Conversely, when students feel safe, emotionally connected, and engaged, their executive functions flourish. In short, emotions can be gatekeepers to effective learning.

In our interview, Dr. Housman explained: “Brain function is the interaction between genetics and experience. Healthy brain development is informed and shaped by children’s daily experiences within the context of responsive, empathic relationships. An emotionally overwhelmed brain cannot learn.”

Imagine a student tasked with a complex math problem. To solve it successfully, they need to juggle multiple steps, stay focused on the task, and inhibit distractions. This scenario illustrates how executive functions underpin academic success. However, fostering these skills is not solely about sharpening intellectual acumen; it involves nurturing emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

The reason, as Housman explained to me, is because “intense, dysregulated emotions hijack the brain, impairing your ability to think, problem-solve, and grasp new concepts, ultimately impacting executive functioning skills, such as focusing, comprehending, and memory. These skills are necessary for learning and directly impact your ability to be and do your best.”

So, imagine the same student frequently experiencing frustration when faced with challenging math problems. The frustration may cause the student to become distracted, to shut down, or to act out. Becoming more attuned to these emotional responses and learning to employ calming strategies, for example, could foster enhanced emotional competence, enabling the student to approach math problems with greater resilience and problem-solving skills.

Building upon an earlier 2017 study by S. D. Cohen, Housman’s work encourages us to “[r]ecogniz[e] that thinking can be impaired and the brain cannot learn when feelings are not regulated” [1]. According to the Housman Institute’s research, emotional competence plays a critical role in fostering executive functioning skills. Emotional competence encompasses the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s emotions effectively, as well as empathize with the emotions of others. The study found that emotional competence is not a mere ancillary attribute but a fundamental building block for the development of executive functions.

The Impact of SEL on Executive Functions

SEL programs are designed to teach students crucial skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. While these skills may initially appear unrelated to traditional academic subjects, the Housman Institute’s study illuminates the profound influence of SEL on the development of executive functioning skills. SEL interventions empower students to build the cognitive abilities that underpin executive functioning. For instance, self-awareness, a core component of emotional competence, enables students to recognize their emotional states and adapt their responses accordingly. This skill is crucial for managing stress and maintaining focus during academic tasks.

The Importance of Self-Regulation: Self-regulation, a key component of executive functioning, encompasses the ability to manage one’s emotions, behaviors, and attention. It is a fundamental skill for academic success and personal growth. Students with strong self-regulation skills are better equipped to stay on task, set priorities, adapt to changing circumstances, and effectively navigate their emotions during challenging situations.

SEL can be instrumental in teaching self-regulation skills. By providing students with tools to recognize and regulate their emotions, SEL equips them to navigate the ups and downs of the learning journey. This, in turn, enhances their ability to concentrate, solve problems, and make sound decisions—all critical aspects of academic achievement.

The Importance of Working Memory: Working memory, another vital component of executive functioning, plays a central role in academic performance. It allows students to hold and manipulate information temporarily, which is crucial for tasks like mental calculations, comprehension, and problem-solving.

SEL can enhance working memory by helping students manage distractions and stay focused on tasks. These programs reduce cognitive load by teaching students to regulate their emotions, freeing up mental resources for complex thinking. This enables students to process information more efficiently and perform better academically.

The Importance of Cognitive Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing situations and shift between tasks, is essential for academic success. Emotionally resilient students are better equipped to handle setbacks and adapt to new challenges.

SEL can foster cognitive flexibility by teaching students to cope with stress and setbacks. When students can regulate their emotions effectively, they are more likely to approach challenges with a growth mindset, viewing mistakes as opportunities for learning. This resilience not only improves academic performance but also enhances students’ overall well-being.

The Importance of Inhibitory Control and Emotional Regulation: Inhibitory control, or the ability to inhibit impulsive responses, is closely tied to emotional regulation. Emotionally competent students can manage their emotional reactions, preventing impulsive behavior that might disrupt their learning or relationships with peers.

SEL can help teach inhibitory control by helping students recognize and manage emotional triggers. This skill is vital for impulse control in the classroom, allowing students to think before acting and make thoughtful decisions. In turn, this supports a conducive learning environment and academic success.

Dr. Housman encourages us to see SEL as a foundation for success. In our interview, she concluded: “Promoting and fostering the building blocks of emotional intelligence during children’s earliest years helps set the patterning of the brain for lifelong success. Helping children recognize emotions, express them constructively, and manage and regulate their intensity—both positive and negative—creates a strong foundation in terms of a positive sense of self, relating to others, and academic achievement.”

Conclusion

In the pursuit of academic excellence, we must recognize that knowledge acquisition is not solely a cerebral endeavor—it is profoundly influenced by emotions. Emotion cannot be regarded as an extraneous element in education. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of addressing students’ social and emotional well-being to equip them with the executive functioning skills necessary for success in the classroom. By fostering emotional competence and nurturing social and emotional learning, we empower students to excel academically, equipping them with the cognitive and emotional tools they need to navigate the challenges of the classroom and embrace the pursuit of knowledge with open hearts and agile minds.

References

Cohen, Stephen D. “Three Early Childhood Development Principles to Improve Child Outcomes.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 23 Apr. 2021, developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/three-early-childhood-development-principles-improve-child-family-outcomes/.

Housman, Donna K.. Interview. Conducted by Melissa Rampelli. 11 Sept 2023.

Housman, Donna K., et al. “The impact of begin to ECSEL on children’s self-regulation, executive functions and learning.” Early Child Development and Care, vol. 193, no. 2, 2022, pp. 159–173, https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2022.2071869.

Kuhfeld, Megan, et al. “Test Score Patterns Across Three COVID-19-Impacted School Years,” 2022, edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai22-521.pdf.

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