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My Son's Emotions and Why They're My Priority

You may well think, why write about emotions?

Life with a lively young boy with Down’s Syndrome peppered with stubbornness and a good dose of physical strength makes for re-strategising on how to manage his behaviour, both of our emotions and ultimately maintain a happy and healthy relationship.

I believe that learning should take place all the time, even when JB is relaxing, I know his brain is processing something he has just learned. Our children learn by touch, hearing, smell, taste, movement, sensations and above all, seeing and being aware of the space around them and the people in it. If their senses are being stimulated most of their waking hours, their brain is making and establishing connections.

However, if our children are not in an emotional learning state, none of this will be effective. Our children need extra minutes of input each day compared to the typical child in order to keep improving at a good rate, but at their rate. When I have managed to keep JB emotionally positive and feel he’s had a good variety of learning experiences during the day, I feel satisfied.

So, I know my child, what brings out the best in him and how best to deal with moments of challenging behaviour (although I am still learning here as well). I also have to ensure I am in an emotionally good place myself, and that JB is emotionally ready to learn.

If a child, and that means any child, is in a negative emotional state, he or she is not going to learn anything of great value. If a child is constantly being shouted at, humiliated or smacked, the brain responds in a very different way and essentially shuts down on all potentially good learning. Positive emotions do the opposite; they help each of us remember better to establish memories and enhance learning.

We are all exposed to situations that produce a variety of emotions all the time at home, and children have even more exposure at school. As a mother of a child with special needs, I have made it a personal obsession (a healthy one hopefully), to ensure my child deals with the uncontrolled negative emotions such as a death in the family and optimise on the positive ones.

On the topic of discipline, a child who experiences fear, the fear of threat, his brain will either be fighting it, running away from it or just taking it when confronted with it. A threat always takes priority in the recipients brain evoking a ‘survival’ response. Even threatening facial expressions are very effective in engaging the threat response (survival). (Ohman, Flykr, & lundqvisit, 2000).

Violence causes the blood flow to decrease in many areas of the brain concerned with cognition. Studies on animals have revealed that threat damages the hippocampus and further fails to fully function for new learning in the short-term.

The Hippocampus is a small area inside the limbic region of the brain that forms, organises and stores new memories, connecting particular emotions and sensations to them. It is also crucial in processing spatial memories. Many of these memories are processed during sleep and so learning something before bedtime is useful as well as getting a good long nights sleep.

Distress has been shown to kill brain cells, decrease new brain cells produced, and long-term stress negatively affects moods, cognition, damages the hippocampus and frustrates the ability to prioritize. Stress also impairs verbal short-term memory and memory created through experiences such as events. (Lupien, Gillin & Hauger, 1999).

Positive Emotional States
There is an emotional state essential for all learning; the joy and pleasure state.

Why? Firstly, there is improved behaviour and judgement. The high release of dopamine during this emotional state means the brain has a far greater ability to perform well in executive attentional system. This takes place in the frontal lobe which helps significantly in school success as it deals with short-term memory, judgement and decision-making.The brain’s ability to focus and ignore distractions is also enhanced.

A Word on Dopamine

Dopamine is a chemical that transmits neural connections in the brain. It is linked to positive experiences and pleasure and is a vital element in the built-in reward system which cements our ability to predict and enjoy perceived rewards. Other positive evidence of dopamine includes enhancing our attentional systems to improve memory involving symbols, words, textbooks, video’s, computers, abstractions and written stories (semantic memories). Dopamine also plays a crucial part in spatial memory. (Schultz, 2000) (Denenberg, Kim, & Palmiter, 2004; Tanaka, 2002).

The School

It is therefore a necessity as parents to ensure that our children experience these emotional states at home AND at school by following up each day on how happy our children were. And if necessary educating the teaching staff that this is vital for their learning from the time they start and during all the years of their schooling. When our children experience these positive emotions at school, they associate such feelings with learning, school, teachers and assistants. Beware of bullying in all its forms!

The Anticipation and Curiosity State