About Reading, Emotion and Cognition

Discussion in 'Special Ed 101' started by Sheila, Oct 10, 2007.

  1. Sheila

    Sheila Moderator

    An Interview with Debby Zambo : About Reading, Emotion and Cognition
    Michael F. Shaughnessy
    Senior Columnist EdNews.org
    Eastern New Mexico University

    1) Much of your recent reading research has focused on emotion and cognition in reading. What aspects of emotion are you referring to, and what specific aspects of cognition?

    That is a good question because emotions have been one of those sticky issues when it comes to learning. The first problem is identifying what emotions really are and how they affect behavior and thinking. This has been an age-old question stemming back from the work of William James and even before. To me emotions are the feelings we have. They are the psychological and physiological responses that our brain and body produces in reaction to things important to us. The work of Paul Ekman tells us that emotions are universal. All cultures have feelings and display emotional reactions in their facial expression and body posturing. So emotions are real for everyone.

    With many of the new techniques we have to see inside the brain we can now directly witness specific structures as they operate in real time. Simply looking at the midbrain that contains the limbic system shows us how much of the brain is devoted to emotions and how early those feelings come on board. So when it comes to learning emotions get involved. This means that if a child values reading and consistently fails his or her brain will link that domain with negative feelings. As a teacher I saw this all the time. Simply mentioning it was time to read caused children to feel a certain way.But what really helped me understand the impact of emotions was the work of Joseph LeDoux. LeDoux used neuroscience to show that when an emotional reaction is triggered it can take one of two routes; a conscious path involving the rational part of the brain, the cortex, or a quick, reactive, unconscious route, via the amygdala. As a teacher I saw children using both routes. Mention it was time to read to some children and they felt happy and ready to go. But mention reading to children who had experienced constant failure and you see one of two reactions. They display either a type of learned helplessness (a flight reaction) or they put up their guard (a fight reaction). Their brain automatically takes one of these reactive paths before they even realize it. If teachers and caregivers do not help them circumvent this negative loop they may always associate reading with this negative reaction. When I wrote my dissertation I was able to use students words to confirm these ideas. My article written with Dr. Sarah Brem titled Emotion and Cognition in Students who Struggle to Read brings voice to students' feelings about reading and also provides things teachers can do when these reactions arise. I also developed techniques to help educators get at students' feelings. One of the most successful have been thought bubbles.I have written two articles on using these.

    2) Tell us about the educational experiences of children with dyslexia?

    The educational experiences of children with dyslexia are both good and bad. When children are diagnosed early and a consistent structured approach to help them build reading skills is used their skills grow, they achieve proficiency, and their esteem remains high. In contrast, when children fail and no one cares they can lose confidence in themselves and just give up. Unfortunately, I have seen children at all grade levels struggle without any reading support. In many of our poorest schools, children are slipping through the cracks. I have been at conferences where I have seen grown men and women with dyslexia cry because they did not receive the support they needed in our schools. Having dyslexia can take a lot out of a child.

    I also believe that things have gotten better with the push for frequent assessment. However, it is how that assessment gets interpreted that matters most. If tests help teachers understand what children need to become better readers then testing is worthwhile. While assessment gives us information the real key is a well-trained teacher, someone who knows what to do in a caring and humane way. Good teachers know the importance of literacy and they take students beyond the world of decoding to appreciate and love it. As for children with dyslexia this can be very difficult because reading takes a lot more physical, mental, and emotional effort for them. Their reading needs are more complex and take patience and energy to support. But I believe that it is never to late. We can never give up on a child who struggles with print.

    4) With children who are severely emotionally disturbed, how should reading specialists be working with them?

    The work of Dr. Bruce Perry tells us that the key to working with children who are severely emotionally disturbed is to form bonds and relationships with them. Children who have experienced emotional trauma often lose trust in others because the people they care about have hurt them in some way. To recover they need to learn to trust again and they need to regain confidence in themselves. Teachers working with these children must provide academics but they must also provide a sense of security, consistency, and care. For teachers of reading this means being understanding and sometimes putting academics aside until bonds of trust are formed. Trust can be developed with good stories and comfortable classroom situations. Books can help children learn about themselves and help them cope with the traumas they have faced. My article What Can You Learn From Bombaloo? Using Picture Books to Help Young Students With Special Needs Regulate Their Emotions that was published in Exceptional Children specifically aligns picture books to emotions and explains how teachers can create this connection to help children with emotional problems begin to gain control.Likewise, Cory Hansen and I wrote an article about using language and literacy to enhance emotional development in the very young and I think these ideas apply to children with emotional difficulties as well. Providing a comfortable setting with soft pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals can help traumatized children relax as they listen to a story. I believe bonding with students and creating a positive environment are key.