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JB’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.

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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

The anticipation and curiosity state causes increased motivation and the formation of new knowledge. This is a powerful teaching tool for teachers and parents alike.

Even if we’re not officially homeschooling our children, it is useful to know what can increase these emotional states. Chances are you already have them down pat, but here are a list of a few, for parents, teachers, aunties, siblings, granparents etc.:

1. Physical Activity – The chemical’s dopamine and norepinephrine are released during movement and enhance long-term memory when learning takes place, before, or after such activity. I have JB walk as much as possible, climb at the park and we dance at home as he loves music and this all helps keep his emotional state positive.

2. Interesting questions/statements – These should ideally evoke emotion, thus changing from a negative state to a positive one of eagerness.

3. Lots of Hugging – this is useful especially after you have disciplined your child. JB responds well to this when he has been disciplined or just when he’s feeling frustrated or upset for some reason. An experimental psychologist at the DePauw University, Indiana, Matt Hertenstein confirmed this through research and added that hugging stimulates the brain to release dopamine as well as decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. Touch also increases the release of the oxytocin which is a neuropeptide that produces feelings of bonding, trust and devotion.

Holding hands, hugging and especially therapeutic massage all release oxytocin. Sometimes our children act grumpy and just want to feel connected to us, and hugging them is all it may take to fix it. It sure works with JB!

A quick word on changing states. If a child is in a negative state, we as parents and educators need to ensure our children (all children) change to a positive one for learning effectively, as well as overall feelings of well-being and happiness. Usually the child may be upset about something and this requires an empathetic listener. Show them some understanding of how they feel and if this is recurring, help them to change their own emotional states in the future. Older children should learn and know how to do this themselves. We as adults have to do this frequently!

4. Enthusiastic One to One Face Dialogue – This is great for speech practice. I follow JB’s lead on this and we have lots of laughs!

5. Role Modelling – All adults involved with children should strive to be positive role models. Show love of learning, smile, build suspense, tell a true story, show enthusiasm about learning and teaching, read a book, explore nature together etc.

6. Rituals – Sing or play a song, do clapping patterns, cheer, play an instrument, dance.. at a particular time each day.

7. Personal Learning – Link any topic you’re teaching to the child’s personal life.

When we actively and consiously strive to maintain positive emotional states in our children as far as it is possible, much else seems to fall into place. By hepling them feel secure and bonded, they are better prepared to meet unexpected disappointments and deal with them rationally with support.

Remember, as I always try to… If I do my best, even if it’s not perfect (and it never usually is), then it’s GOOD ENOUGH…

…AND…………. have fun!

Love Cornelia xx

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