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43. Regarding the Heart of Learning & Teaching

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Good Morning Families, today is Friday May 22nd, 2020 and it is now time for a moment of SEL.

We are continuing our journey through the heart of learning and teaching today by looking closer at how chronic stress, that is stress that is ongoing, acute trauma, when something happens that is both brief and severe, or chronic trauma, just like chronic stress, that is trauma that is ongoing; how those things impacts learning.

In very simple terms, when a person is experiencing ongoing stress, or ongoing trauma, or acute trauma, there can be additional barriers to learning, beyond just the fact that learning can be challenging anyway. But, in order to understand that, we need to get real complex for a bit because we need to put on our emotion scientist hats, because we need to do a little learning about the brain!

There are some very cool parts in the human brain that do some very cool things. How cool? How about thinking, feeling, breathing, resting, blinking, moving, I mean, everything? One of the things your brain does is keep you functioning without you always have to be thinking about the things that keep you functioning.

There are so very many great resources for learning about the brain. One of our personal favorites can be found at And I would recommend taking a quick look at Dr. Siegel demonstrating the “Hand Model of the Brain”. Here’s the link or just google hand model of the brain.

So, in your brain you have a thing called the limbic area. If you are making your brain hand model right now the thumb is the limbic area. Among many things the limbic area does, is it provides information through the experience of emotion.

Inside the limbic area there is part called the amygdala. The amygdala shares emotions as information. In some cases, when the amygdala is sharing information it can also trigger the hormone system simultaneously, releasing cortisol and other stress hormones to prepare the body to respond to a possible threat. As you know if you’ve ever experienced a threat to your body or feelings, the emotion information you receive may be very unpleasant.

But for people who have experienced acute trauma, or chronic trauma or stress there doesn’t have to be an actual threat to still feel the feelings of the threat. If there is only the perception of a threat or the memory of a threat this can interfere with what we think of as a normal emotional response and can be hard to overcome. And by the way, a “normal emotional response” would be defined by the culture and context of the environment and the people there, and\ the event. In a more recent theory of emotions, Dr. Lisa Feldmann Barrett, provides evidence that emotions are learned from the family and culture you grow up in and carried in the brain as information and memory and processed like any other thinking.

Let’s talk about that for a minute. When a person is experiencing prolonged or chronic stress, or prolonged or chronic trauma or acute trauma, this can stimulate the amygdala to flood other parts of the brain with emotion information. This emotion information may or may not be helpful for the situation at hand. For example, if there is clear and present danger in the environment, then this emotion information may be exactly what is needed to ensure safety and survival. However, if there is not clear and present danger in the environment, but due to chronic stress or trauma the amygdala is still sending those messages that there is, either by experience or memory, that can be very tricky. So again, you don’t have to see a bear to fear a bear. And that can really make sitting in a classroom, a different experience, if you are fearing a bear.

We learn as infants and children how to respond to messaging, and that is where our learned emotional reactions come from. This doesn’t mean we become consciously aware of the messages or our responses. Many of our learned behaviors occur unconsciously, resulting in physical and emotional responses that can surprise us and those around us.

You could think of emotion information and learning this way. Emotion information is neither good nor bad, it is only information, as in the same way running is running. However, the context in which someone is running will inform the runner about how to run. For example, a running style that allows a person to run a sprint across the playground, would be out of context and unhelpful to running the pacer in PE, which in turn would be out of context in running from that bear. You want to be able to run all those ways, as needed, so you need to be able to regulate the body appropriately, depending on the context of the race.

This is why schools need to understand compassion and learning and why all students have the right to access Social Emotional Learning. These things are essential for the wellbeing of a community and can be particularly supportive for communities who are dealing with academic learning, social and personal learning, all the while learning to manage and regulate challenging emotion information. And guess what. Right, now that’s all of us!

Our entire nation is dealing with the prolonged stress of the corona virus. So, you could imagine that our collective amygdala is sending some pretty strong emotion information. When we come back together on Tuesday, we’re going to spend some time thinking about some ways we can approach our communities with compassion, so we’ll still be journeying to the heart of learning and teaching.

For the rest of the day, try to recognize your emotion information. Use your self-awareness to ask yourself, what am I thinking? How am I feeling in my body? How do I want to express myself? How can I express myself? That piece of self-awareness is key to being able to recognize when you might need some self-compassion and when you might need to have compassion for others.

Okay, we look forward to connecting with you in whatever way we can on Tuesday. Until then, may your thoughts and feelings be with you.

There is so much great information about the brain out there. If you go to the written copy of today’s Moment of SEL you can find links to information about the brain.

Anil Seth - Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality - Ted Talk

Lisa Feldman Barrett - You Aren't at the Mercy of Your Emotions -- Your Brain Creates Them - Ted Talk

Neuroscience for Kids

Khan Academy lessons about emotions and the brain.

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