Emotions: The Cement of Learning

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“Feelings” are more than an old song; they’re the key to amazing
learning in your classroom!

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I sit on the bench under the trees, smiling as I see little
hand- and footprints in the paving stones under my feet. I can
still remember the six of us laughing together that hot summer day
two years ago. Caleb pouring water into the bucket and mixing it
with the powdery cement until it was so stiff he needed Grandpa’s
help. Mommy, holding a grinning Ben as he pressed his foot into the
dark, wet cement. Four small hands covered with sticky cement,
reaching out as four adults joined in a chorus of “No, don’t touch
that!”

A lasting impression — set in cement. Isn’t that what you want
in children’s ministry? A lasting impression on children’s lives
and God’s truth cemented into their faith.

Well, it’s not as far away as you might think. Create a place
where learning about Jesus is exciting, mysterious, relaxing,
intriguing, and, well, downright fun.

Brain Chemistry

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Research has proven that the emotional climate of a classroom or
any other learning environment actually affects brain chemistry —
and that affects what children learn. We’re just beginning to
understand how what we see, feel, smell, touch, and taste is
transported through the millions of neuron networks in our brain
and then translated into millions of interconnected memories that
travel down multiple different paths into long-term storage vaults.
And even more amazing (if you’ve ever misfiled anything) is how we
retrieve and use those stored memories to help us know what to do
in every life situation.

One thing is clear — there’s one force that’s more powerful
than any other when it comes to moving information into and out of
long-term memory storage: emotions.

Emotions — Handle With Care

Because emotions are powerful shapers of human growth and
development, we need to handle them with care.

Think of your brain working in dual mode — thinking and
feeling. When information is received, it goes in two directions at
once: the full message traveling to the “thinking” brain (in the
hippocampus and neocortex) while a shorthand version shuttles
quickly to the emotional alert center (the amygdala and other parts
of your limbic system). Before your thinking brain has time to
retrieve and connect this new information to related memories and
determine the appropriate response (which happens quicker than we
can imagine), your emotional brain has responded to its first
impression and set responses in motion.

Positive emotions facilitate these connections in a way that
enhances learning, but fear and stress dramatically affect brain
chemistry in ways that interfere with learning. We must plan
learning experiences that integrate emotions in appropriate and
positive ways. Avoid activities that arouse undue fear or humiliate
students. Resist setting up highly stressful competitive
situations. And never allow experiences that attempt to manipulate
children.

Positive Learning Environments

So what can you do to put the power of emotions to work in
helping children grow in their relationship with Jesus? Start by
creating a learning environment that has a positive impact on brain
chemistry. Help kids feel safe — physically and emotionally. Let
them know it’s okay to make mistakes as we learn how God wants us
to live. Give kids lots of opportunities to work together
collaboratively — not competitively. Encourage kids to express
themselves in a variety of ways, such as journaling, artistic
creations, dramatic presentations, and more. Use music to set the
tone — it’s a great way to celebrate God’s goodness, to calm a
group, to help kids relax, or to stimulate reflection and
expression.

When you provide a place like this for kids, you’re mixing the
water with the powdery cement and preparing a place where lasting
impressions can be created.

Learning Strategies

Now you’re ready for the real work of helping kids learn what
the Bible says — the stories, the facts, and the principles to
live by. Not because knowing all that will help them pass a test or
win a Bible drill. No, you want them to be able to remember those
important life lessons to help them face the daily challenges of
life in a way that reflects their relationship with Jesus. So what
kinds of learning experiences produce that kind of long-term
learning and life application?

Without a doubt, emotional memory strategies are the most
powerful, says Marilee Sprenger in Learning and Memory: The Brain
in Action (ASCD). Many researchers believe that emotions are the
force behind our ability to pay attention. That means that active
emotional engagement is a critical element of effective learning
experiences. If that’s true, then we must be intentional about
including the power of emotions in teaching children to know and
love Jesus. Here’s how.

1. Identify what you want kids to learn. Itemize the Bible
story, the key point you want them to remember, and the resulting
life-changes you hope to see in their behaviors.

2. Select learning activities that involve as many of kids’ five
senses as possible.

3. Build in movement. Physical activity along with positive
emotions actually increases the neurotransmitters for making brain
connections.

4. Create a mood. An emotional environment can consist of
decorations, costumes, props, lighting, smells, and music.

5. Carefully stimulate the key emotions connected to what you
want kids to learn. Your opportunities are endless: games, crafts,
role plays, videos, puppets, movie clips, snacks, science
experiments, skits, and acting out the Bible story or a
life-application challenge, to name just a few. For an effective
active learning idea that uses emotions effectively, see the “Stick
It Out!” box.

6. Always debrief activities. Intentional questions and
discussion help kids connect their emotions with the Bible story or
character’s life response so they remember the lesson for a
lifetime.

Congratulations! When you help kids experience strong feelings
about what you want them to remember, you’re helping to cement
those facts and feelings into their long-term memory vaults. And
you’re creating lasting impressions.

Sue Geiman (sgeiman@grouppublishing.com) is vice president
of products at Group Publishing, Inc.


Stick It Out!

The key ingredient of R.E.A.L. learning that cements life
lessons in the minds and hearts of kids is emotion. Take a look at
this effective emotion-based lesson about perseverance.

Evoke Emotions

Distribute a needle and thread to everyone. Have kids each try
to thread their needles in two minutes. Let those who thread their
needles quickly cheer on those who are having trouble. Give the
last person who threads his or her needle a big round of
applause.

Debrief the Activity

Ask: “How did you feel as you tried to thread your needle? How
did you feel when you succeeded? How did you feel about the
encouragement you got? Why were some people more successful than
others?”

Talk about how ordinary people who persevere are often more
successful in life than very talented people who give up easily.
Ask kids to name situations in their lives that call for
perseverance. Invite kids to talk about experiences in which
perseverance paid off.

Connect to Scripture

Read aloud James 1:12. Gather everyone around a table with a
pincushion on it. Have kids take turns sticking their needles into
the pincushion and saying, “I commit to sticking it out when I feel
like giving up.”

Adapted from 10-Minute Devotions for Youth Groups (Group
Publishing, Inc.).


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