How Emotions Affect Learning, Behaviors, and Relationships


Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

We need all of our emotions for thinking, problem solving, and focused attention. We are neurobiologically wired, and to learn anything, our minds must be focused and our emotions need to “feel” in balance. Emotional regulation is necessary so that we can remember, retrieve, transfer, and connect all new information to what we already know. When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijacks our frontal lobes, our brain’s architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains.

The 2015 film Inside Out is an exceptional and accurate portrayal of our five core emotions. These primary emotions are joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. This film depicts how we use these emotions when difficult and happy experiences arise, and how we need the negative emotions just as much as the positive. After reviewing the science behind Inside Out, I developed research-based educational neuroscience strategies, questions, and assessment ideas aligning with a few scenes from the film. In this post, we’ll explore four categories representing the conceptual and developing brains of all children and adolescents. There is no recipe for successful implementation of these strategies, and each will be based on the grade level, teacher preparation time, class time, and mostly the enthusiasm that we bring when introducing these concepts to our students.


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to rewire, strengthening pathways between neurons that are exercised and used while weakening connections between cellular pathways that are not used or retrieved. Rewiring our brain circuits is experience dependent — we can change the synapses or connections that are firing by changing a perception or behavior. Neuroplasticity includes reframing or reappraising an experience, event, or relationship so that we observe and experience a different outcome. What we perceive and expect is what we get! The brain sees and responds to perception, not reality. Negative lingering brain states can become neural traits that are hardwired into our circuitry. Neuroplasticity is the best news from neuroscience in recent years.

The processes that support emotional intelligence are addressed in the growing field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). The theory behind IPNB provides a picture of human mental development and the potential for transformation that exists in changing thinking and processing of emotions, thoughts and behaviors (Siegel, 2001, 2006, 2007). The concept of emotional intelligence is interrelated with IPNB and the development of mindful awareness as a strategy for achieving healthy integration of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive functioning (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Siegel, 2001, 2007).

In the film Inside Out, we are introduced to core memories. All of us are constantly creating memories, but what makes them core or significant are the emotions that we attach to these past events, experiences, and relationships. Emotions drive our attention and perception. We form positive and negative core memories because of the emotional intensity that we’ve attached to the event or experience.

The movie introduces us to the emotions mingling in 11-year-old Riley’s brain. Her joyful core memories are represented by golden balls. At the beginning of the film, Riley’s sadness interferes with these golden balls of joy-filled memories. When a core golden memory is touched by sadness, the gold fades to deep blue, and joy becomes frustrated. Later, we learn through Riley’s various experiences that the blue and gold tones representing sadness and joy can work well together, weaving beautiful contrast to create a lasting core memory. These core memories are stored in “long-term” and eventually become a part of our Personality Islands, or what I have labeled as the Islands of Self.

The questions below are designed to ignite your creativity and thought processes as you integrate topics and standards into morning meetings, afternoon circles, and subject matter — as you embrace the power of feelings and how they intimately affect learning, relationships, and behaviors.

Questions for Educators

1. What types of core memories could you create in your classrooms and buildings with students and teachers? These memories could be emotional, academic, or social, reflecting a new relationship, a novel way of attempting an assignment, or a collaboration project with others.

2. How can we create core memories that energize, pique curiosity, and bring joy to our students?

3. Are you teaching the students about their neuroanatomy?

4. Do students understand the negative role that stress plays in cognitive functioning with regard to learning, memorizing, and retrieving information?

5. How might we begin a class period or day with an emotional check-in? What is the weather in your brain? Could we use laminated notecards with the primary emotions for younger students and the primary and secondary emotions for older students? Students could display the feeling that they are holding as they begin class and note how it changes throughout the day.

Questions for Students

These questions were designed for promoting student discussion, self-reflection, and self-awareness. Dr. Dan Seigel’s research reports that, “What is sharable is bearable.”

Sadness helped Joy in the film, and your own Sadness can help you.

1. How do you cope with Sadness?
2. Can you use your Sadness to feel better? How?
3. What would happen if we never felt Sadness? Is it sometimes good to keep Sadness inside a circle so that it does not spread and get out of control? Why?

Fear and Anger can protect and motivate us.

4. When was Fear needed in your life?
5. How did Fear help you?
6. What is the perfect amount of Fear?
7. What happens to our thinking and problem solving when we carry too much Fear or Sadness?
8. How does Anger show up in your brain?
9. Has Anger ever helped you?
10. How do you typically handle your Anger?

Disgust keeps us from being poisoned physically and socially.

11. How has the feeling of Disgust helped you?
12. How has expressing Disgust hurt your relationships or experiences?

In the film, Joy plays the leading role among the feelings in Riley’s brain.

13. Does Joy always play the leading role in our brains?
14. What happened when Joy and Sadness left headquarters?
15. How do we see Joy in your brain?
16. What creates Joy to take over your brain?

Imagine having no feelings at all.

17. What would life be like if we didn’t have feelings?
18. Describe two positive changes in our life if we didn’t have feelings.
19. Describe two negative changes that could occur in a life with no feelings.

In my next post, we’ll look at core memories. Meanwhile, in the comments section below, please share how you help your students accept and explore their own emotions.



Creating Trauma Informed Instruction-Schools The Heart of Teaching and Learning

A Presentation by Dr. Lori Desautels- Marian University

trauma and brain powerpointPreview: Schools as Ecological Systems

Students who attend school from kindergarten through secondary school typically spend more than 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s time in the presence of teachers.

Their brains are highly susceptible to environmental influences – social, physical, cognitive, and emotional. And, more important, their brains will be altered by the experiences they have in school.

(Eric Jensen, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition, 2005)

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How the Brain Works, Mindfulness and Meditation Pt. 2

In this episode we discuss How the Brain Works in regards to educational neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels of Marian University.  If you want to better understand the reasons behind student behavior and motivation while learning how to start training student’s brains to focus this episode is for you.

Reach out to Dr. Desautels on Twitter @Desautels_Phd





In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • What a Brain Break is and why you should use them
  • How to validate emotional responses with students
  • How our role as educators has changed in the 21st century

Get Part 1


How the Brain Works, Mindfulness and Meditation Pt. 1

In this episode we discuss How the Brain Works in regards to educational neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels of Marian University. If you want to better understand the reasons behind student behavior and motivation while learning how to start training student’s brains to focus this episode is for you.podcast=pt1




Reach out to Dr. Desautels on Twitter @Desautels_Phd

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
•The effects of chronic stress on students brains
•How parts of the brain cause and regulate emotional reactions
•What is the source of most negative behavior
•How to overcome students negative brain bias survival mechanism
•The three step process of bringing mindfulness brain training into the classroom

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Unwritten, The Story of a Living System: A Pathway to Enlivening and Transforming Education

Get Part 2 with Dr. Desautels


The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference

We can change our behaviors: Strategies for the Social Brain. Keynote Presentation by Dr. Lori Desautels at the Indiana State Teachers Association(ISTA) Early Educators Conference.

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 1

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 2

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 3


Radio Interview: The Basic Needs Required for Any Student to Learn

Rae Pica with Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., Lori L Desautels, Ph.D., Peter DeWitt, Ed.D.

Our guests say that if basic students’ needs are not met, learning is difficult and in some cases impossible. What are the basic needs that must be met to enable learning?



Lessons From Nellie

Lessons from Nellie!
Troubled Youth Need our Presence

We think we know what we need. We think we know what our children and youth desire. We think we know what will create healthy attachments and relationships. We think we know what will bring our students and us happiness and peace. We subconsciously limit our visions to match only what we can see in the moment. Our agendas can sabotage and stagnate our growth. We think that by fixing or healing or leaving or entering the life of another affects only him or her. We are grossly mistaken. And we know this too…when we stop and feel, and let go of our repetitive habit minds and thought processes.

We do need our habit minds for survival but they can also defer us from embracing a much larger view. A little less than a year ago, my life was turned upside down in 10 minutes as a mom and as an educator. There was not a shining “aha” moment when insight stabs you in the heart or a dramatic change of scenery or a flash of experience leaves you with an exuberant knowing of what to do next. I could not see a “gift” of hindsight foresight or even a dilapidated sideways perspective! I was stuck and felt helpless and yes, a bit bereft of solutions. Living with questions and the unknown for me breeds great stress. I feel I am not alone. Suddenly the professional development presentations I was giving to schools felt void of meaning and even fake. I was talking the talk and had even been given a course release , entering as a co-teacher in the classrooms of students who wore and breathed in adversity and poverty in ways I could never imagine.

Unexpectedly, last summer, on a rainy Monday night, our oldest son brought a U-Haul, some significant sadness, anxiety and his recently adopted puppy Nellie, (who had walked into his home a few months prior with a history of abuse and neglect) into our home. On June 24th, left alone in our basement as Andrew went to gather the rest of his belongings, Nellie frantically panted, cried and mimicked Andrew’s distress along with my feelings of deep fear of what was happening and the looming questions of what was to come. I remember one moment that night. As Nellie finally calmed down enough to lie upon the ripped corner of a worn story-filled mattress, I lay next to her and petted her like a cat. She was not pleased. With one ear turned back, she abruptly looked into my eyes and pleaded understanding. There were no thoughts or words of reassurance for her. I didn’t want her or the circumstances that had driven her and Andrew into our home.

On this night, Nellie did not feel safe or attached to anyone or anything. She was as fearful and unsure as any living being I had ever seen up close and personal. As I reflected several days later, Nellie was the temporary victim of circumstances that had left an imprint of accumulated distress, fear and anxiety in the gut of her innocent fifteen month old life. Or was she?

I believe animals have so much to teach us about children and youth. We can read the statistics about adversity and how it affects the brains, emotions and learning of students, while we observe their demeanor in our classrooms, but to deeply feel their pain is where our work begins as educators.
Now, ten and half months later, I continue to learn at a speed that paradoxically has slowed me down. Tonight, Nellie and I took our 400th plus walk interspersed with abrupt sprinting, sniffing and ingesting every spring smell, sight sound and movement around us. I am remembering… and learning …
How can I affect change in my students’ lives that enter into our schools and classrooms from environments that exhaust and harden their young minds and hearts?

1. As a teacher or mentor in my student’s life, I need to be present and patient, allowing him or her to take the lead, although my gentle grip is felt and acknowledged. When there is tugging and pulling masked in resistance, I am “felt” on the other end, listening to learn, guiding and redirecting.

2. I am learning that a loving presence means…Nellie, as well as my students know I am not going away and if I do, I will prepare, plan and teach the behaviors I desire to see, over and over and over again. Slowly but deliberately, modeling release, while explaining that changes are life’s heartbeat.

3. I am learning that Nellie’s disposition, her agitation, anxiety and challenges are of no reflection on me. My encouragement and affirmation for noticing everything she does well, trumps the anxiety that seemingly dissolves with our time together. Nellie is teaching me to become quiet, to remember how very challenging our environments can be with regard to our everyday behaviors and shifting moods. When I feel and listen to her tugs, pulls and leads, I am laying a foundation for trust and acceptance which is very different than tolerance.

When troubled children walk into our classrooms carrying in their private logic, histories, beliefs and cultures, I am always amazed at my own “learning” that each student provokes. We don’t initially need a strategy, a technique, or plan of action with children who sometimes mistrust adults and life. First we need to be present, to notice, to listen as we feel our way around the landscape of the child. When an emotional connection is felt, we can then begin to ask: How may I serve you?

“However we treat the child,
the child will treat the world.”
― Pam Leo


Metacog…What? A new way to teach students about their own thinking!

Metacog…. What?
Metacogntion-I’m thinking about my thinking!

The one aspect of being human that sets us apart from all mammals in this time is metacognition! This is our brain’s ability and capacity to self-assess, think about our thinking, reshape our perspectives and self-reflect with emotion! Recent neuroscience research has concluded that our brains are not only wired to survive, but we are also biologically wired for cognition and emotion. There is this marvelous inherited executive function skill called working memory that all individuals can exercise and develop through brain isometrics. Working memory is one’s ability to take in information from the environment and manipulate and massage it to create new connections and meaning inside our worlds and experiences. What does all of this mean for educators in 2015 with such a heavy emphasis on performance, competition, and academic precision in our schools and classrooms?

We know that the more students understand how they think, process, connect and remember information, the better their learning. Recent research has also reported that working memory skills more than IQ are a better predictor of academic success.
When teachers model their own understanding of personal learning and coping strategies for their students, students pay attention! Story-telling, modeling, recognizing emotional interference and impact coupled with discussion are four powerful strategies creating brain states that grow! Our brains begin to process thinking and emotions with curiosity. Listed below are brain aligned metacognitive strategies that lay the foundation for metacognitive application while helping students to shift perspectives from an end result mentality to a process result emotional and mental state of mind.

1. Teach your students about their own unique neuro-anatomy! When children and adolescents understand the impact of emotions, stress, and memory ability on their learning, they are empowered and are given choices! Four neuroscience terms easily understood and shared can change the way students think about their thinking. These terms are neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire and reshape its neural pathways based upon experiences, prefrontal cortex, amygdala and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex can be found when we place our hand on our forehead. It is here we problem solve, emotionally regulate and learn to pay attention. The amygdales are two neural shaped clusters of neurons in each hemisphere deep in the limbic system of our brains. When these are ignited we move to a fight flight freeze response and the prefrontal cortex shuts down. The hippocampus can be shown with our pointer finger curled down shaped like a seahorse. The hippocampus works beside the amygdala helping our brains to memorize and connect learning. In stress, the hippocampus cannot remember so well! Teachers need to know this but our students do too! Teaching our students what happens in our brains is intrinsically motivating. Knowing how stress distorts thinking is comforting to students. Students begin to understand stress and simply sharing their perceptions of stress lessens the stress while opening pathways to improved metacognitive thought processes.

2. How do you learn new information? How do you make connections with what you already know to what is being taught? As I stand before fifth and seventh grade students I begin to share. “For me, I need to read out loud while writing key words down in my notebook or textbook! I also use lots of colors to help address the most important parts I need to memorize.” Then the sharing begins. One student at a time begins to describe how he or she approaches new material and how they think and feel about it. We decide as a class that instead of a periodic chart, with listed elements, we will create a periodic table with learning strategies. We decide which wall to place this large colorful chart and then we discuss how seeing the different learning strategies will help us to choose one that we might have never considered.

3. How do you cope with emotional and social problems or challenges in your life? I begin to share and model a scenario with my students. “For me, I have a good talking to myself in private.” Here is what it may sound like. “Lori, take a deep breath or two and know that this problem has a solution somewhere in your brain. Let’s just list all the reasons why this might have happened and what you can begin to do with these options!” The students laugh a little and talk amongst themselves for a minute. We then slowly begin to share our coping strategies as a class! Some coping strategies discussed are: talking a walk, spending some time alone, talking the problem out with others, eating some ice cream or wheat thins and moving away from the challenge for a little while. This list begins to grow and purposefully we have created another colorful wall of metacognitive coping strategies in a periodic table format. The students understand that this colorful array of strategies allows them to choose a strategy that they might never have thought of in a heightened emotional moment.

4. Many of us use Do Nows to begin the day with students. The purpose of these short assignments is not to learn new content but to possibly review from the prior day or to even fill time while attendance and the logistics of the day are being tallied. Use this morning time to give each student a question on a colorful half sheet of paper accompanied with a fictitious problem to solve that is relatable to their experiences and worlds At the end of this time, create a class discussion around these questions . Not only will students begin to think about how they approach their thinking, but we will be given a valuable formative assessment tool! The Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching discusses the power of questions and self-assessment as we model metacognition for our students. Below are a few example questions.
A. What do I already know?
B. What confuses me?
C. What resources do I have?
D. What is a similar experience I have encountered?
E. How can I explore my mistakes to improve my understanding?


The Vortex of Feeling and Learning… What does Educational Neuroscience look like in our schools?

The Vortex of Feeling and Learning
Educational Neuroscience in our Schools
“We are feeling creatures who think.”
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

As I reflect upon and intentionally consolidate the work I am doing in our schools with students and teachers, I wanted to describe and define this and how I am integrating Educational Neuroscience principles and strategies into our classrooms and schools.

A. The educators and students are learning collectively about their own neuro-anatomy and how their feelings, thoughts and behaviors are intimately connected and affected to and by the CEO (the mind) while trickling into the body, (Emotional, Social and Cognitive Health). When we spend some time, understanding that a brain is not a machine. It is not outside of us working on automatic. It is a social organ that affects and directs every experience in our days, empowering us and the emotional academic and social outcomes of every experience and relationship. We are no longer the victim of our feeling and thought processes which can lead to strong accountability!

B. Students are exploring how they learn, how stress occurs in their brains, and how their emotions and thoughts affect every moment in their day. They are given specific strategies to help lessen the stress response, emotionally regulate, and while learning to empathize with other people. Focused Attention Practices are a critical and very well received strategy as we train and mentor the mind for attention and relaxation.

C. Students and teachers are given principles and strategies to assist with creating meaning and relevance to the content and subjects taught. They are learning how memory is processed in the brain, and how best to engage with the content for sustainable learning. The principles and strategies include: neuroplasticity, the development of executive functions, (sustained attention, emotional regulation, planning, organizing, flexibility, goal -setting and metacognition strategies,) and how to implement and weave emotion into new standards and topics drawing upon the strengths of every student profile.

D. We are implementing metaphors, visualization, analogies, associations, emotions, story chunking and imagery creating brain states of anticipation, curiosity, novelty, prediction, as we prepare; priming the brain for learning, low stress, and improved engagement.

E. Teacher Brain Development- The most significant aspect of this Professional Development is the attention and care of the educator’s brain! If teachers and administrators are to be transformative effective leaders and role models in the educational community, they need to employ the knowledge of brain engagement, brain health, the power of emotional contagion and how modeling is most effective knowing the roles of mirror neurons. Educators must tap into their triggers, personal stories and culture to deeply understand how conflict cycles are born and lessened through personal perceptions. Self-reflection separates effective and superior teachers and administrators and these educational neuroscience principles and strategies engineer these sustainable social and emotional skills.

Dr. Lori Desautels
School of Education and Exercise Science
Marian University


Three Words Students Want to Hear from Teachers!!

Three Words Students Deeply Desire to Hear From Teachers
CAUTION: Proceed with transparency, self- awareness and persistence

A year and a half ago, I made a decision! I needed to return to the K- 12 classrooms and really experience ground level teaching, testing, core standards, differentiating , and emotionally connecting with children and adolescents in ways I had not for many years. I have been an assistant professor in the school of education at Marian University, and I still am, but the environments, experiences and my own learning have grown and changed immensely from returning to the classroom 18 months ago. I asked the University for a “Course Release” taking the lectures, research and strategies into the early adolescent grades. Marian University said yes, and three and a half semesters later, I am discovering, sometimes failing, sometimes celebrating, but always walking the walk of my graduate students and sharing these experiences with my pre-service teachers. Two mornings a week, I have entered six fifth grade classrooms in three elementary schools in a large public school district, Washington Township, in Indianapolis. Currently, I am co-teaching in four different seventh grade classrooms. I am learning more than I ever could have imagined, but the greatest lesson has been discovering the three key themes or words that keep showing up with the hundreds of students I have had the privilege to teach and to mentor. They greatly desire to hear these affirmations from their teachers in every building, university, classroom and district for which I have been present.

1. Believe- “I believe in you. You are going to be successful someday. You’re going to make it! If you apply what I see in moments, there is nothing holding you back!

To believe in another, is to see what cannot be seen just yet! It takes a focus on all that is going well and right even though there will be conflicts, bad moods, ornery behaviors, and consequences for poor choices. We notice it all -new shoes, hairstyles, kind gestures, (though they may be scattered and few) and we build upon even the most challenging of performances that could turn on a dime (with a perspective shift) to a strength. We are detectives, looking for the missing pieces that we know exist, but have been momentarily buried. We create experiences, “forced successes,” that give the student an opportunity to feel capable! This time of year, we know our students well; yet, we can fall into the rut of the winter classroom emotional and academic doldrums. So we begin to give a few more choices that we can accept and are aligned to our standards and topics. We can leave affirming notes and share our personal challenges that caused us to doubt ourselves at an earlier time in our own lives. “I believe in you! Let’s make a plan together for just tomorrow. Let’s choose two accomplishments you want to see through and design a way for that to happen!”

2. Purpose- “You have a purpose Andrew.” I see it and I feel it! Let’s have fun and discover what it is….a purpose might change and that is a good thing, but it’s there!” How do we help a student find his or her purpose? We begin with an affirmation, “You have a purpose!” We listen… we listen for interests and signs. We respect the off days and the off hours, and we try again! We share stories of others who lost a bit of hope and purpose, but tried again and again! J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, and Walt Disney are just a few well known individuals that defined purpose through their mistakes and failures. We talk about the gift of failing and how we can choose to respond and learn from those moments of illusory despair. We begin to create a “purpose” for those students or student at school and in our classrooms. We make a plan; a plan to invite the student to serve another. Maybe he or she tutors a younger student or helps to plan a surprise meal for the custodians and the cafeteria staff. Maybe she targets another student who is struggling, becoming a secret inspirer for a week. Maybe we connect the class to a retirement home and skype with another generation who has lived through these tumultuous years yet would love the companionship and communication from middle and high school students. Field trips are fewer today, and this allows us to invite community members with their own purposes and gifts to be guests in our classrooms, igniting and sharing the work they are doing with homeless populations, incarcerated youth and other service organizations that thrive on volunteerism.

3. Question Me- Ask me how I am. Ask me what I need. Ask me my thoughts and feelings. Ask me what my opinions are, even if my response is ridiculous because I don’t want to stand out in front of my peers! Ask me in private- always in private. Ask me to teach you! Ask me to teach you anything about my world, my culture, music I love, my beliefs and my story. I may not say a word and it may take the entire school year for me to respond to your questions, but I hear you. I hear your interest, your compassionate concern for what I like, what I need and what plans I would like to create.
When we serve another, our own emotional circuitry changes. Our perspectives broaden raising positive emotion, while enhancing our own feelings of purpose and well-being.

“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”
Urie Bronfenbrenner

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference. Part 1.
View Entire Presentation

A message from the Authors of Unwritten, The Story of a Living System

Mark your calendars and come learn with us!
  • Pike Township- August 24, 2016
  • Indianapolis Youth Orchestra- August 20, and September 8
  • Pike Township- September 12
  • Dubai Educators come to Indianapolis- September 12
  • Indianapolis Children's Museum- September 22
  • Indianapolis Yoga Instructors- September 24
  • Manchester College- October 11
  • Rowan University, Southern New Jersey- October 21
  • Kappa Delta Pi- Webinar series-November 2
“This book is a refreshing look at our philosophy of education and a reminder of what is most important in teaching."

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