Adults who are dealing with emotional issues—financial woes, difficult interpersonal relationships, abuse, past school traumas — may have a harder time learning new information.
Adult educators have seen this phenomenon for decades, but now there’s new science to explain why and more importantly a new understanding on how to help learners overcome the impact of negative emotions on learning – an all-too-common problem.
"It goes back to our brain and how it has evolved,” says Dr. Laura Weisel, founder of The TLP Group in Columbus, Ohio. “Over seventy years ago scientists began learning how the brain operates through research involving war veterans with head injuries. But, it is only in the last fifteen or twenty years that we can play out the scenario of how brain-based injuries, past and current life threatening situations, and negative memories effect behavior and learning.”
Our Triune Brain
This knowledge starts with how the brain is organized. Weisel says the primary research shows that we have a triune brain—three layers in our brain. Each has a specific function.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) or Reptilian Brain
Layer one is called the reticular activating system or RAS. It is also referred to as the reptilian brain. This part comes directly up from the brain stem and is responsible for keeping us alive. It is often referred to as the reptilian brain.
“The reptilian brain ensures your safety,” Weisel says. “In addition to safety, it deals with trust, ownership, control and power, and homing or nesting. The homing or nesting function is the reason why once you take a seat in class the first night, you are drawn back to that same seat the next week. It’s the reason you sit at the same seat at the dinner table.
Some of this is just core to how we behave as individuals and as individuals in an organization or in the community. In organizations, there is a need to show a specific hierarchy of positions or departments. So, that is why most organizations familiarize new staff with the organization’s table of organization. Organizations want you to know your ‘place’ and your position in the organization related to control and power. Although your brain’s first level of functioning is about your own control and power, the organization is intent upon having you see that your control and power are limited to your position on the chart. You may not be familiar with the reptilian brain, but the behaviors and functions associated with this first level of functioning is known and used by many.
The Limbic System
The second layer of the brain is the limbic system.
“This is your emotional brain,” Weisel says. “It is responsible for feelings, fighting, feeding, the need for intimacy which is tied to the need for feeling special. Once your reptilian brain is feeling safe, then your energy is available for you to relax enough to think about your hunger, anger, sadness, loneliness, joy, excitement, feelings of confidence, or anxiety and frustration.
“We never think about food in an emergency,” Weisel notes. “It’s only when we feel safe enough that we can move up to our limbic system. That’s when we are able to start feeling anger at the person who caused the accident, the person who did the abusing, the joy of watching a gorgeous sunset, or the thrill of passing a test. But, if you are still trying to resolve lower level survival issues of not feeling safe or trusting, if you have no control and power, then you have to resolve or accept those issues first, before your emotions or hunger begin to surface.”
The Necortex – The New Brain
“The neocortex is all about how we learn,” Weisel says. “It starts with the hub of an idea and then expands, just like the way you learn to add and subtract before you multiply and divide. It asks: how do I connect these pieces together? Learnings or information are just memories. As with all memories they do not stand-alone. They are connected to an array of other information or contexts. So, when you think about the school you went to for first grade, you see the picture of it in your mind. Once you see it you can begin to see what else is connected to that memory – as tangents. These other memories connect to your memory of the school including: how you got to school, your teacher, your friends, how the classroom was laid out, the house or neighborhood that you lived in at the time, etc.
The neocortex is the upper most layer of our brain. This part is what makes us uniquely human. The neo cortex is very large in humans whereas it is non-existent or very small in other species. The frontal lobe portion of the neo cortex is where critical thinking, planning, organization, setting priorities, being strategic, making lists of tasks, learning from one situation and applying the new learning to future situations, reflection, and deeper analysis occurs. The frontal lobes don’t crystalize until age 25 or 26, In someone who has had many or major life issues revolving around safety, trust or control and power, has one or many traumas, the frontal lobes take much longer to become fully functioning.
Getting the connection
This is where it gets interesting and important for educators because it is almost impossible for a person to access the neo cortex—the part of the brain reserved for learning—until any impending emotional issues are identified, acknowledged, stabilized, or resolved.
“Many of our students come from chaotic homes,” says Weisel. “They have been living in their reptilian brain just surviving, feeling perhaps less than others, and feeling victimized by the world around them. They know no other way of life. They’re life situation has kept them stuck. The feelings they have about their life also leaves them residing in their limbic or emotional brain – they may be hungry, sad, angry, hurt, or numb. Some students have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) based on repetitive, highly negative school experiences.”
When a family is living in a survival or an emotional mode, their children often don’t get the early training they need for natural brain development and for becoming successful learners. When this happens over and over and over again in the period from youth to adolescence it can make it difficult for individuals to manage the day-to-day expectations of school. By the time the individual is an adult, who left school prior to graduation, the result of living a life of just surviving or being pulled by your emotions has a tremendous impact on how successful the student will be in an adult education setting.
According to Weisel, that’s why just seeing the building where a classes are held, walking into a classroom, or taking a test is so difficult for so many adult learners, their reptilian and limbic parts of the brain are in control and their negative memories of school or learning flood their thinking. Hence, when uncomfortable, the brain does a knee-jerk response to get out of the place that makes you feel bad.
“I have had a bias against writing in my career,” she says. “I have a doctorate; I’m a national presenter and researcher. But, when I start sitting down to write, I remember my 12th grade English teacher. Until 12th grade I had received good grades in English and loved to write. But, my new English teacher hated my work. She said I might as well give up the idea of college, because I would flunk freshman English. As long ago as that humiliation was (some 30+ years ago) and the way she attacked my dream to become a teacher, has left me to deal with that anxiety, the flood of memories of how I felt every time our papers passed back to us. These memories haven’t gone away. Over the years the memories of that one teacher have made me continue to I question my own sense of myself every time I sit down to write, and even though I know she was so wrong, I still have to purposefully reframe every time I attempt to write.
Emotions play a huge role in learning and demonstrating what you know.
“We’ve got an entire group of individuals who have negative emotions about learning and school. Since 1966 when the adult education act was passed, we have used a model of adult education that expects school dropouts to come to a school-like setting and then, almost immediately take a test to find out what they don’t know. Then we place them right back at trying to learn what was so difficult before and we do it in the same way they were offered the information before – in workbooks studying alone, using computers, or in a small group that is led by a teacher. These students are arriving with the same feelings that they had about school and learning along with no additional skills that are needed for becoming a successful learner and little insight as to why they struggled with learning or struggled with life situations. Automatically, adult education students are placed in a situation that is connected to negative emotions. Even though adult educators are some of the nicest people in world, students still have those old memories jumping around in their mind and often don’t return to classes because of these negative memories continue to hold them hostage, feeling bad and helpless about school and learning.
“Many students are hungry for what we have. They have some learning skills and often lots of holes in their knowledge. They need someone to acknowledge that they have some special characteristics that could support their personal quest, help them better understand themselves, and offer the hope to begin their path towards their long-term goals. Students need to trust their new relationships with peers as well as instructors. But, the majority of new adult education students have previous emotional issues surrounding school, whether it was a teacher, subject matter or classroom environment that can trigger a full blown emotional response that is probably not related to the new adult education setting. No matter what we call it, students know they are coming back to school and our “assessments” are tests by another name. How do you think they feel about tests and how they will perform?
This means that most adult education programs, as they are currently structured can be perceived by students as anything but warm and welcoming.
“We need to redesign how we deliver services based upon brain research and evidence-based practices,” she says. “We need to think very differently about programs and services. Just because we’ve been doing it a certain way since 1966 doesn’t mean that is the right way to do it. We have to jump out of our model and think from the students’ perspective.”
Weisel says that when we ask many adult learners to fill in a form, listen to an orientation and take a test, it creates havoc in their limbic system. With all of the brain energy going to emotionally issues, survival issues, there is little energy left of listening or higher order thinking.
“Stoplights and sirens are going off throughout their brain even though they want to get a GED diploma or job,” she says. “Without understanding the impact of emotions on the brain, what we see is laziness, irresponsibility, or someone who has just too much going on in life to take the time for attending classes and manage learning. While some of this may be true, in reality, most of the time the individual just doesn’t know how to manage their emotions, acknowledge and name their struggles – both academic and social, and then get on to learning new information and building new skills.”
So how do adult educators apply this new scientific knowledge to their programs? As you might expect, Weisel has a few answers—specifically four key interventions that need to be made to help adult learners get past emotion and unlock the neo cortex with its power for learning.
Step 1: Design a new “front end” to your program
Start your program differently. Offer a safe time to engage learners first before any testing or lengthy orientation. In group settings, have students work together to identify why they want to learn, explore careers, and talk about the skills they hope to develop by coming to back to ‘school’. As they work with other learners that are also newly entering the program begin some challenging but fun team building exercises. Help the students cultivate friendships and build a group of peers that they can trust. Students who have a cohort that they belong to will persist longer than students who don’t have a peer network.
In the late 1990’s, Weisel met Deborah Young, Ed.D., who had moved to Salt Lake City after completing her doctorate in Michigan. Soon, Deborah became the administrator of The Literacy Action Center. The center had high dropout rates and poor connections between students and tutors. To turn the tide, Deborah established a ‘new front end’ mandating that all students attend a 12 hour pre-course to learn about themselves as learners, learn skills to become a successful learner, identify their skills and knowledge, and build a network of peers they could trust. Her participation rate grew and grew. She achieved nearly 100 percent persistence as students moved from the pre-course into instruction. After adopting this new front end to her literacy program, Young found that students had such a positive experience in the pre-course that student/tutor matches improved too. When she shared this information with me, her ideas made me very curious and thinking new beginnings and why Young’s approach was so successful.
“This front-end course is about student’s building insight, awareness, hope and the skills needed to becoming a successful learner,” Weisel says. “It is about getting the learner ready to succeed. Otherwise learners just get stuck in their reptilian brain or limbic system.” Weisel has begun including a new front end, often called a StartSMART Course, Success Week, or Power-Up Course in all of the work she is doing across the country. This new front end is dramatically different than anything currently happening in adult education or community colleges. Students are gaining insight, identifying learning challenges along with strategies to manage their personal learning challenges, discovering the academic knowledge and skills they possess, exploring career goals, and learning how to learn! These courses evolve over time and just keep getting better and better each time a program offers the course.
Here are some of the consistent components in a pre-course:
A. Learners begin to understand different mindsets and work to build a growth mindset. The growth mindset says, when it encounters a new task: I can take my time, ask for help when I need to, talk with my friends, use my strategies. I can succeed. I can figure it out.
- Unsuccessful learners have a fixed mindset. If they go into math and math has always been difficult, they just say I can’t do it. Adult educators have to help all students realize ‘smart’ is about ‘sweat equity’.
B. Learners make appointments to take academic tests outside of the pre-course.
- Re-structure academic test results to tell learners what they know rather than what they don’t know. Weisel states, “The brain can only build on what it has, not what it needs.”
C. Teacher’s get learners' vision and hearing screened.
- Five of 10 adult learners have visual function issues that are mostly centered on how the two eyes work together. This vision issue can greatly interfere with sustained reading. When the eyes have to spend so much time ‘seeing’ they don’t leave the brain with much energy for comprehending what is being seen. Eye doctors rarely test this vision issue, called binocularity, unless specifically requested.
- Four out of every 10 adult learners have a hearing loss and rarely know about it. The implications of a hearing loss impact auditory comprehension, short-term memory, participating in group discussions, let alone figuring out how to spell the sounds heard in a word.
D. Teachers screen all learners for Visual Stress Syndrome and Attention Challenges.
- Nine of 10 have adult students – at all levels – have a little known neurological dysfunction called Visual Stress Syndrome. Bright florescent overhead lighting, black letters on white or glossy white paper cause havoc in the brain keeping the brain from being able to focus on visual tasks. Visual Stress Syndrome, when not identified could be the underlying factor of what is being diagnosed as attention challenges, dyslexia, or learning disabilities.
- About eight of 10 adult learners have an attention challenge. This is extremely high in the entire native US born and raised. Many have figured out how to manage their own learning challenges when they have been freed from issues of survival and emotional baggage. But, most adult education students do not have the coping skills or strategies to know how to reduce the impact of these attention challenges when it comes to school or a job.
E. After getting screening results, teachers have students demonstrate and select strategies and adaptations to manage learning challenges.
- Everyone has learning challenges, but they are different for each person. Simple adaptations and strategies, like changing the color of paper, wearing a visor, using a card under the words that are to be read, working with friends, using a magnifier, knowing where to sit in a class, use a volume increaser, learn to use spell check, etc., can easily shift a learners’ ability to become a successful learner.
Step 2: Install a positive future
Teach students to create a safe place. At some time, most learners will freak out about something. What are you going to do to get learners out of negative thinking?
Here is a suggestion:
Have students close their eyes, watch their breathing, be present with themselves, and feel safe. Help students learn to do this by teaching them to imagine being at the safest place they have ever known—a patch of grass by the river, a great big chair at my grandmother’s. It doesn’t matter where it is as long as they can emotionally return there whenever they need to.
Explain that when a negative memory or feeling stops them from progressing with their work, the student can go to their safe place in their mind by just closing their eyes, breathing, getting comfortable, and stay there until they are ready to return and take get back to what they were doing relaxed and ready to manage the challenge.
Educators can help by collecting pictures of places that are serene and peaceful. When a student cannot think of a safe place in their past, they can use one of the pictures as their very own safe place.
Step 3: Expect and prepare for crises
“We all have crazy lives at one time or another. Adult students, who are mostly indigent, have crazy lives too,” Weisel says. “When you have little money, your life gets pretty crazy. Many struggle with keeping their home or apartment, struggle to keep their car from being repossessed or kept in running condition, or struggle to keep their job or their entitlements. Educators need to know the strengths-based techniques to help learners manage the life circumstances that can stop them from completing their goals.
The technique involves four questions:
Question 1: Educator asks, "What’s going on?"
Learner explains situation, usually without much detail, e.g., “My mother is drinks a lot and struggles to manage her drinking. Since we lost our apartment, we are living with her and she suddenly wants me to pay rent.”
Educator: Use a Rogerian technique called ‘reflection’ or ‘mirroring’ by repeating one key word or phrase of what the student said to elicit more discussion, e.g., "Pay your rent now? Why does your mom want you to pay rent now?" This allows the educator to get more of the story and find out what is really happening without appearing as if they are prying or being nosey.
Question 2: Educator asks, “What would you like to have happen?” (Stay positive)
Learner responds with "I would like …"
Question 3: Educator asks, “What have you done when this has come up before? Let’s make a list of all the things you’ve already done."
After list is completed, ask, “Now, what else could you do?” This is the only time that the educator can offer any information or suggestions, so, if the student doesn’t know all of the resources they could use or how to get the help they need, the instructor can offer some ideas.
Question 4: Educator asks "What do you want to do about it? What can I help you with?"
The knee-jerk reaction is to say “If I were you, this is what I would do.” This response never works, neither in the long- or short-run! Instead, by asking these questions and being quiet, the learner will begin to come up with some next steps. Don’t offer what you can do to help. It is up to the student to request your help.
These four questions lay out the situation, set a direction, looks at past learnings, offers the options, and then lets the learner decide what to do so he or she can get back to learning.
Step 4: Facilitate support groups and conversations that matter
During break time, take the opportunity to informally go around and ask groups of students how things are going. After students respond, follow-up with questions like: “What do you think about what Tom said?” or “How would you handle this?” If someone has been really quiet in a group, ask that person what he or she thinks about another student’s comment or situation.
“These questions engage students in conversations about their lives. We know that the life situations that come up outside of class are brought into class. When students have difficult life situations it is important that teachers do not tell students what they could or should do,” Weisel says. “For one thing, learners trust other learners more than teachers. The situation is also much more likely to be familiar to peers than instructors."
Most importantly, when a student has a challenging life experience, it is an opportunity to learn how to problem-solve. When students can talk with other students, they can share ideas and problem solve together. If they need the teacher’s help, they will ask for it. Weisel believes that it is critical to help students understand that in developing a response to a situation actions don’t come instantly. Problems take time and effort to work through. Giving problematic issues time to think through alternative responses, weigh different actions and the outcomes they could lead to, and knowing the ‘you can’t control other people’s behaviors, so you can only do what you can do to address your own behaviors’. This is all part of shifting to a growth mindset.
“I had the opportunity to work with a pregnant 19-year-old who was employed as a shift manager at Wendy’s,” says Weisel. “That meant that she had some good skills and was reliable. When her baby was born she wanted to come to morning classes rather than evening classes. The class started at 9 a.m., and she was always late. She appeared so responsible that it was hard to imagine why we had to talk about coming to class on time. She said her problem was that with the new baby to manage she was always running late. She stated her question as: “What do I need to do to get to class on time?” We helped her make a mind map (graphic organizer) of all the things that she needed to do to get to class. This finally included figuring backwards what needed to happen. We started with what time she needed to drive into the parking lot for class, then, how long it took her to drive from the babysitter’s house to class, next, when she needed to drop the baby off at the babysitter for her to be on time, when she need get up in the morning and what time she needed to get the baby up, feed and dress the baby. When it came down to it, she needed to start getting ready the night before class, etc. After we completed visually laying out the issue, she claimed that she had never thought about any of the steps and issues with getting to class on time.”
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Want to learn more?
There is so much to learn about this topic that Weisel also teaches an entire course about it called “Transforming Learning and Innovating Instruction.” The course is run through Morehead State University, but educators across the nation can enroll for credit.
Here’s a little of what is included in the course:
How to move teachers out of the role of knowledge holders into the role of hosting learning. The shift is from telling students what to do and how to do it - to helping create situations that engage students to work together, be curious, try different ways of doing things, break down what needs to be learned, make mind maps of the components of a subject/skills and to see how the pieces are all connected, then identifying possible ways to arrive at a solution or solutions. The real shift is focusing on the learning rather than the teaching.
Ways to create opportunities for students learn together and from one another. Studies have shown that all people learn best from peers. “When students work together to problem-solve, they all learn better than if they work individually,” Weisel says. “Plus other things happen; they learn to collaborate, to ask questions, self advocate, ask for help, coach others, and share information. They see that there are different ways to do the same thing. This is also important for having students work together on computer-based learning.
It is the conversation about the topic with a peer that deepens learning and adds to developing neural pathways about how to learn.”
Specific ways to help students set intentions and then achieve them. When students walk into a class, they have been trained to do whatever the instructor has planned for them for the day. Without any personal ownership of the topic or outcomes, students often come away from class feeling less than satisfied. The brain is funny, if there is no personal ownership of an outcome, achieving the outcome isn’t very important to the individual.
In the course instructors to learn new methodologies, called Participatory Learning, that change the learning environment for the specific purpose of using brain research on learning to increase persistence and demonstrate improved learning gains. One of the methodologies is called 'circle’. This simple method works at the beginning of each class to help students set a daily intention (what they want to accomplish) and also build a learning community. Circle is used at the end of class to have students reflect on what they learned, how well they achieved their intention, and what they learned about learning to improve their process for the next class.
The four additional Participatory Learning methodologies are World Café, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, and Pro-Action Cafes.
Brain function and research on learning are included in the course because all learning takes place in the brain and teachers know very little about the how the brain works to learn. Once called the ‘7 Inch Wilderness’, the brain has become a haven for better understanding what drives human behavior and how a combination of genetics, early life experiences, and beginning school experiences set-up an individual to become a success or failure. This component in the curriculum has caused course participants to gain insight into why students respond the way they do and what can be done to help students achieve the goals they set for themselves.
How and why to screen for underlying learning challenges that keep students from becoming successful learners. Participants use the Kentucky Education Television’s PowerPath to Education and Employment online learning series (available through PBS’s Learning Media) to access a series of training films for how to screen for critical learning challenges, identify adaptations and strategies to address challenges, and use SMARTER – a metacognitive training offers ways to practice adaptations and strategies, learn how to learn or manage both academic and everyday life situations.
The course includes creating a new front-end course, training co-workers and students in how brains work to learn via an in-service training called Share the Power. Final course credit and certification is achieved when a site visit determines the level of implementation of the research-based best practices into how adult education programs deliver their services.
In addition to the Transforming Learning and Innovating Instruction course, Dr. Weisel will be offering two online webinars in the first half of 2014 along with presentations at several national and regional conferences.
First, in February, she is offering a webinar through the National Association for Adults with Special Learning Needs (NAASLN.org). It will cover mental health issues, what to look for to determine is a student may be dangerous to themselves and others, and how to manage specific student behaviors.
In April, Weisel will be offering another webinar on Building a StartSMART Course to help programs begin to rethink how students come into a programs and what they can do to improve persistence and learning gains. (This new front-end pre-course was discussed earlier in this article).
Dr. Weisel will put together a webinar or professional development program for any education or employment service group about emotions, learning, and ways to improve service delivery.