Effects of emotions on how children learn

Judy Willis, MD, MEd Neurologist, explains how a child's emotions affect his or her ability to learn and retain information in their brain
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Effects of emotions on how children learn

Children today are under a great deal of stress and there's a part of the brain that's actually a stress monitor – it's called the amygdule, it's in the deep emotional limbic system. And when there's threat, high stress, pressure, when a child feels threatened or uncomfortable, is highly bored, is highly frustrated, doesn't expect success, this part of the brain gets more and more metabolically active. When that happens, when the amygdule goes into the stress state, information cannot go through it to get to the higher thinking brain. So one bad problem – memories can't be formed. The other problem is – information coming in hits the amygdule, doesn't get to go through to the prefrontal cortex, is deflected to the lower brain. That's where the responses are limited to involuntary fight, flight, freeze. So in the high stress state the actions of kids are to zone out or act out. They're involuntary, they're stress reactions. On the other hand, during an engaged, positive time when the amygdule is not hyperactive, information that goes though it when a child is actually feeling good has a stamp, a change in the neurochemistry of it, a change in the RNA, so it becomes more memorable. So positive emotions – higher memory. Low stress, high stress will affect where it goes in the brain and how memory is formed.

Judy Willis, MD, MEd Neurologist, explains how a child's emotions affect his or her ability to learn and retain information in their brain


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Judy Willis, MD, MEd


After graduating Phi Beta Kappa as the first woman graduate from Williams College, Judy Willis attended UCLA School of Medicine where she was awarded her medical degree. She remained at UCLA and completed a medical residency and neurology residency, including chief residency. She practiced neurology for 15 years before returning to university to obtain her teaching credential and master's of education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She then taught in elementary and middle school for 10 years.

Dr. Judy Willis is an authority on brain research and its applications regarding learning. With the unique background as a parent, neurologist, classroom teacher, and neuro-educator she writes extensively for parenting magazines and professional educational journals. Dr. Willis has written six books for parents and educators about applying brain research to parenting and teaching.

Dr. Willis is on the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Education, University of California and gives presentations to parents and educators nationally and internationally about how to help children learn joyfully and successfully. She is on the Board of Directors of the Hawn Foundation, dedicated to helping children improve academic performance and acquire vital social and emotional skills. In 2011, she was honored by Edutopia, as a “Big Thinker on Education”.

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