Thomas Armstrong

Consultant

Cloverdale, CA

Interests: Brain and learning,...

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6 Ways to Use Emotion to Increase Engagement in the Middle or High School Classroom

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This is part 8 of my 12-part video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain:  Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. In this video, I describe the importance of emotions in the life of teenagers, and the need not to ignore or suppress it in secondary school, as too often is the case. Instead, I present 6 practical strategies in which emotions can be safely integrated into the middle school or high school curriculum. These include the following:
1. Be Emotionally Supportive of Students
2. Express Emotion in Your Teaching
3. Use Appropriate Humor
4. Engage Your Students’ Imagination
5. Teach Controversial Issues
6. Help Students Understand and Self-Regulate Their Emotions
Research suggests that a student will be more likely to learn and remember something if it first takes a trip through the limbic system or emotional brain before being analyzed and processed by the rational prefrontal cortex. This video will empower teachers to engage students more fully in a lesson, create a more passionate curriculum, and help students learn more about and self-regulate their emotional life.

You can watch the video by clicking here  I've provided a transcript of the video below:  

''Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and this is Video #8 in my video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain:  Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (published by ASCD).  As part of this series we’re looking at eight practices that middle and high school teachers can implement in the classroom which are in line with recent research concerning how the adolescent brain develops.  In this video we’re going to focus on adolescent brain-friendly intervention #4:  affective learning.

During adolescence, human emotions assume a level of importance not seen since early childhood and never to be seen again. The dramatic changes going on in the body of the adolescent are matched by similarly dramatic changes in the brain, leading often to emotional turmoil in the life of the teen. While a teen’s hormones certainly do play an important role in this turmoil, its often in the impact that those hormones have on the brain that has a greater impact on a teen’s emotional life.  For example, the female hormone estrogen affects the development of neurons and neurotransmitters, microglia, which are the infection fighters of the brain, and astrocytes, which have many functions in the regulation of neurons and related structures.

Of chief importance to an adolescent’s emotional life, however, are neurotransmitters in the brain, especially dopamine and serotonin, seen on this chart in blue for dopamine, and red for serotonin.  As you can see from this chart, dopamine is related to reward-seeking, sensation or pleasure-seeking, and motor activity, while serotonin relates to mood, sleep, memory, and cognition.  Dysregulation of these neurotransmitters during adolescent brain development, can lead to substance abuse, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and sleep disturbances among many other outcomes affecting emotions.

Also disrupted during adolescence is the HPA-Axis, otherwise known as the ‘’stress response.’’ This represents a series of neurological changes in response to stressful stimuli, where the hypothalamus sends corticotropin releasing hormone to the pituitary gland, which in turn sends adrenocorticotropic homone to the adrenal glands just above the kidneys, which secretes the stress hormone cortisol which regulates or modulates many of the changes in the body that occur in response to stress such as heart rate, breathing, muscle tone, and the flight-or-fight response.  This dysregulation of the HPA-Axis basically means that teenagers tend to be more sensitive to emotional stress than either children or adults.  Further compounding the situation, research has suggested that when presented with emotional stimuli while reading faces, male adolescents tend to register their perception through the amygdala, an important part of the emotional brain, while male adults use their more rational prefrontal cortex.

The fact that the limbic system or emotional brain matures in early adolescence, while the more rational prefrontal cortex is still maturing until the early twenties, means that an adolescent will often filter their life experiences through the lens of emotions rather than rational thought.  In this instance, a teen has interpreted the bad day he has had as an example of how ‘’life sucks,’’ rather than thinking about the things he could do to make life better during the rest of the day. The fact that adolescents see so much of their lives in terms of their emotions means that educators need to factor the emotions into the way they teach.  Too many educators in times past have sought to ignore emotions in the classroom or actively suppress them through disciplinary methods, in their rush to get through the curriculum.  Neither of these approaches is satisfactory, however, first, because the emotions won’t go away, but will remain simmering underneath the surface, breeding resentment and alienation, and second, because the emotions represent a potentially valuable asset to help facilitate learning in the classroom.  In the rest of this video, I’d like to present six practical strategies that teachers can use in the middle school or high school classroom that involve affective education, or learning that makes use of the emotions.

The first, and possibly most important, strategy is for teachers to be emotionally supportive of their students.  Teachers at the secondary school level usually don’t have time to get very close to their students, and certainly can’t be counted on to provide in-depth counseling or therapy, but a kind word to a distressed student, a listening ear given to a teen confused about a class assignment, or a question to a student coming into class as simple as ‘’how are things going today, Pete?” can have a big impact in adolescents by letting students know that a teacher cares about their welfare.

The second strategy is to be emotionally expressive in your own teaching.  Too often, secondary school teachers feel that they have to be serious and maintain a professional and detached demeanor in order to be an effective teacher.  We should keep in mind, however, that the teachers students remember most fondly decades after they’ve left school, are the ones who shared something of themselves, who weren’t afraid to act a little wacky once in a while to make a point in a lesson, or who even were transparent enough to let students know that they too are human beings with lives of their own.

One way in which teachers can effectively bring more emotion into their teaching is by using the third affective strategy:  humor. Telling appropriate jokes (ones that don’t judge, shame, or insult), for example, or dressing up in funny garb one day, or putting cartoons on the whiteboard, are all ways in which a teacher can use humor in a way that is aligned to the purposes of the classroom objectives. A good resource for learning new ways to incorporate humor in learning is the book The Laughing Classroom by Diane Loomans and Karen Kolberg.

Another important strategy for teaching affectively in the secondary school classroom involves activating the imagination of the students.  I believe that the imagination may be the single most underutilized learning strategy in all of education.  Students bring their imaginations into the classroom every day of the school year, and if the teacher is not making use of this important mental feature, then students will use their imaginations for other things while the teacher proceeds with a lesson that few students will end up paying attention to.  But teachers can improve student engagement and also achievement by doing simple things like having students imagine a scene from a book they’re reading, visualize a historical scene in history class,  take an imaginary journey through the circulatory system for science, or use their visual thinking abilities in solving a geometry problem.

A fifth way that teachers can engage students with affective learning involves teaching with controversy.  This might involve assigning a controversial book in a literature class, taking on a controversial issue like abortion or evolution in science class, or working with statistics in math class having to do with a controversial issue like police killings of people of color or tabulations of people sick or dying from substance abuse across the nation.  Studies suggest that material is much more likely to be learned and remembered if it first takes a trip through the limbic system or emotional brain before being analyzed and processed by the rational prefrontal cortex.

A final, sixth strategy that is key to any curriculum that addresses the emotions, is to help students manage their own emotions; to learn essentially how to self-regulate their feelings when they start to feel upset, stressed, angry, or have other deep reactions to life events.  While once again, while it’s clear that secondary school teachers can’t be therapists, they can still provide students with tips for dealing with strong emotions using stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, exercise, visualization, or yoga.  In the classroom, teachers can help students who are feeling strong emotions, learn how to name their feelings – this alone is an important skill to in emotional self-regulation, because if you don’t know what you’re feeling, you can’t do anything about it.  Once students can name their emotions, the teacher can help the student develop strategies to help regulate it, which might even involve taking a short non-punitive break from the classroom while the student gains better control of himself.  Of course, teachers should also be on the lookout for signs of ongoing emotional problems in their students and be ready to make a referral to the school psychologist in such cases.

If you’d like more information about engaging in affective learning at the middle and high school level, or want to know all eight interventions that are adolescent brain-friendly, get my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain, available through Amazon or other online sources including the publisher ASCD.  You can also find the other videos in this 12-part series on my blog or on You Tube.

For more information about my work, go to my website:  www.institute4learning.com, or contact me at: thomas@institute4learning.com.  Thanks so much for your attention.  I hope this information  helps you appreciate the broad range of strategies that can be used to capitalize on the adolescent’s heightened emotional life, to enable the student to regulate their emotions more effectively, and to use emotions to capture the attention and engage students with the curriculum in a more passionate way.”

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