Positive Psychology in the Classroom

Teaching students to be self-aware, self-assured, and self-sufficient.

Leaving No Brain Behind

3 positive psychology brain child ideas

1. The Emotional Brain is a Vicarious Learner

The brain learns through the heart’s experiences. Experiences, both positive and negative, create an indelible imprint in the neural pathways. When students encounter, or even simply observe, emotional actions and reactions, they well remember what they saw, heard, and felt. Positive teaching and learning is permanent learning. The story of young Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces and the Trail of Tears is illustrative.

One 8th grade teacher I observed focused on the facts, details, and mechanics of the narrative presented in the social science textbook. The other teacher prompted a deeper, emotional discussion: Do you understand why the men returned to the land to fight and die? How many of you have lived in the same place since you were born? Is affiliation influenced by mobility? Do you know your own ancestors? What is worth dying for?

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2. There are Two Brains: The Thinking Brain and the Feeling Brain

The two brains are not separate compartments. Rather, they are intertwined throughout the brain creating a mutual reciprocity: each affecting the other. Cognition and emotion comingles in all areas of the brain and cannot be bifurcated in the teaching-learning process. Effective teaching requires cognitive filtering of the content and emotional attachment to the content. There is a wonderful video, To the Moon, about a teacher who always wanted to travel to the moon. She is full of joy and gladness for space exploration and, instead of going to the moon herself, she shares her emotional connection and inspired strength with her students creating conjoint affinity, meaning, and accomplishment. The teacher finds and teaches the emotional component that can be found in every lesson.

 3. The Brain Seeks the State of Flow

The brain is always constructing and deconstructing experience in ways intended to achieve homeostasis of thought and feeling. When the cognitive brain is committed to the challenge of the task and the emotional brain is fully absorbed in it, learning is balanced and effortless. However, balancing cognition and emotion requires exquisite brain synchronicity. There are very simple emotional reactions that balance easily like smiling. And, then there are complex emotional competencies - like courage or empathy - that require complex, coordinated processing and response. The difference is comparable to levels of differentiated motor skill: the difference between clapping hands and riding a bicycle. To ride a bicycle, the whole brain must be fully engaged in the task until it becomes coordinated and automatic…and flows. There is a wonderful video, Key Learning Community, that suggests creating a “flow” period in schools where students can choose to engage in any learning task that they choose such as reading, writing, chess, or even ukulele practice. (Watch the updated video Key Learning Community Follow Up).

Your students will forget what you said but never how you made them feel. - Maya Angelou

 Web Resources

Annenberg Unity of Emotion, Thinking and Learning

Kevin Washburn from the Learning and Brain Conference

Learning and the Brain

Video Resources

Born to Learn

Ode to the Brain

The Story of the Brain

READ MORE IN MY BOOKPositive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom (W.W. Norton, 2013) is intended to help teachers build positive psychology classrooms consistent with affective neuroscience. 

Patty O’Grady, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Tampa committed to transformational education. She is the author of Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom.

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