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EMOTIONAL TAGS: Neuro-move #4 (of 5)

The DNA of Learning Series:  The “WINGS” ©2022     
EMOTIONAL TAGS:  Neuro-move #4 (of 5)
by Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf and Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S.


“No meaning, no memory.  Period!” 

     The “Wings” of the DNA of Learning Blueprint “give flight” to four principles of engagement (prior articles) that must be interwoven within pedagogy and instruction.  As relationships are built and student interests become known there are demonstrable practices that intersect education with learning science research.  Without becoming experts, we can adopt practices that align with the fundamentals of generating “minds-on” processing.  These promote results far beyond the “entertaining, flashy, the kids love it” type approaches.  Many common brain-based misunderstood strategies are misapplied, yielding little benefit.  Readily incorporated into educational settings, the focus of this segment is “emotional tags.”

See if YOU Can Relate to this image 

     You are standing at your classroom door greeting your students and you spot Denny’s (DNA article #1) mother heading your way.  Instantly the prevailing emotions of past interactions flood your mind.  With each approaching step you begin to anticipate the pending conversation.  You can feel a dominant emotion generating from all the prior interactions with this parent.  She is only 5 steps away. This emotion is taking over.  This happens with many relationships and situations.

     Now think of a student YOU have and pay attention to what automatically takes place in your mind.  An emotion from the sum-total of interactions floods the backdrop of memory and influences our disposition... however slightly—or more.  These undertones can range from joy to anxiety to frustration and beyond.  They influence our receptivity to what comes next.  Let’s keep YOUR student in mind as we unpack the role of dominant emotions and tags in learning.           

Emotions Aren’t All for Learning  

     We are all familiar with emotions. When we refer to them in our own context, the situations that generate emotions usually are described as happy, sad, fearful, angry, frustrated and even surprised.  Emotional “tags” are NOT to be confused with commentaries of “the kids love this” or “they really enjoy that.”  Read carefully going forward to understand the subtle, yet pivotal differences between how kids react or feel—and that which more powerfully impacts learning.  Without perceived purpose for the learner, feelings may initially appear positive but are hit or miss. Surface emotions can evolve quickly to complacency, rejection, anger, fear or disenfranchisement.  

 Unpacking “Emotional Tags” for Learning

     In this educational context the neuro-move “emotional tags” refers to high interest and meaningful based content that instills emotional connections for the learner.   YOUR student has topics, items, interests that are personally “tagged” as important and of meaning for them.  These tags are personal.  Everyone has them.  

They influence our behavior.  Connecting to these can shift a disposition more effectively and sustainably than punitive alternatives.  Helping each student connect to learning targets via their emotional tags will readily enhance attention and motivation to learn.  

The brain always looks for connections, using prior patterns as it interprets new learning for understanding.  

Dominant Emotions and Learning

     YOUR student also has “dominant” emotions about subjects, situations and even school in general.  Dominant does not mean strong or dominating.  Dominant refers to the cumulative landscape of prior circumstances that add up over time.  These predominant past experiences emerge in an overarching landscape that influences initial perceptions and cues interest level and the likeliness of certain responses.  

      Our challenging, disengaged students of today were once curious about things and the world around them. Think about the curious two-year olds who love playing with empty boxes.  But just 2-3 years later, while entering pre-school and then kindergarten, these same children often feel burdened with content that has no meaning to them. Subtly, and overtime, they begin to establish dominant emotions with respect to risk taking, exploring and engagement in their learning.  Early on, they are compared to peers and develop mindsets regarding being ahead or behind at school.  Slowly, some withdraw from participating when negative attention follows.  By age eight or sooner unproductive emotions become associated with schooling.  Attendance, grades and homework become battlegrounds into the middle and high school years.  Is this YOUR student?  

“WINGS” portion of the DNA of Learning Blueprint

Do you suppose 

     ...knowing dominant emotions and emotional tags of your challenging student could help guide him/her to a better learning experience?  Right now, all s/he has to do is drive by the school building and a tenuous rush of emotion emerges.  When harnessed, emotional tags bolster the attentional system.  When untethered, they resist or even block our attentional focus.  

     Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs (scripted based teaching about feelings) seldom address emotional tags or take dominant emotions into consideration.  The Denny’s of our classrooms will benefit by connecting personal meaning with learning more than being coached about feelings.  Their emotions are real, often entrenched and “earned” from the amassed experiences. The student you have in mind needs concerted opportunities to explore and connect to his/her deep interests.  In fact, we all do.  Bypassing personalization to learner interests (constructive dominant emotions) and passions (tags) will minimize positive impact on dispositions toward learning.  Remember, the brain always looks for connections, using prior patterns as it interprets new learning for understanding.  

Not Just About Kids

          A respected educator wrote, “I still love teaching, but am finding some of the institutional aspects to be more hindrance than help.”  He’s referring to many of the restrictive pandemic responses made by schools that are coverage or accountability focused, rather than learning focused.  Frustrating dominant emotions have coalesced over the past two years, now leading to an exodus from the field.  Similar to students, when educators “tag” their work with unproductive emotions they too, suffer.  

Shifting to Interest-Based Learning

     As your learners encounter the material put before them, how do they see it?  Can we replace “we only have one month left of school and we still have so much to cover” with “How can I connect major concepts, and essential learning within the curriculum?”  Personalize this for yourself and imagine working with colleagues on things that really matter to you as an educator.  Would this help redirect the disconnectedness sometimes felt by educators? Would relationships evolve into learning communities that support timeless learning beyond compliant mindsets? We believe it would!  

What if...

     ...we knew and helped each learner connect their meaning-laden tags with the big ideas of our units of study?  Would student attitudes shift?  Would their negative dispositions also change?  Would ours?

Think of: 

  • the first time a dad, while teaching his child to ride the bike, lets go of the bike and both the dad and the child realize he is pedaling solo... big grins on both faces!
  • when you’ve just read a piece of Helen’s writing and can’t wait to see her next class period to let her know how proud you are of her work
  • the look of determination on the learner’s face when they tackle a personal concern that affects the whole student body.

     Dr. Patrick Levitt, neurobiologist at Stanford University states, “Emotion IS learning... period!”  The mental conclusion of “not important” suggests that little meaning is indicated. That which has only minimal impact on personal meaning for learners can, by definition, have no significant emotional basis for retention.  This applies to all of us.  With few exceptions the dominant emotion that accompanies learning for many students is “ugh” ...or worse.  

Moving toward tomorrow

      Step 1: Knowing each student’s dominant emotions toward learning, as we have talked about in this piece, is critical to both engagement and motivation.  Using Juanita’s interest to explore cosmetology develops a stronger connection to the concepts to be learned and the positive emotional tags has an impact on behavior, attention, and sustained memory. 

     Step 2: As you identify the essential outcomes in the upcoming unit to be learned, the teacher’s role is to develop multiple opportunities for individual learners to connect and develop meaning (emotional tags), through personal and relevant themes. Without developing this understanding, many students create their own barriers to learning, where conflicts evolve through varied causes and responses.

     Step 3: Have students clearly identify where/how/why the big ideas of the learning in the unit relate to their lives today (making this explicit) [Our history unit has conflict and cause/effect as themes. These are integral to governments, cultures, occupations and life]

     Step 4:  Have students each develop a plan to demonstrate evidence of meeting the outcome. Juanita may develop a plan for attending cosmetology school; or develops a business plan to open her own salon; or design an informational packet about the science in choosing quality hair products.

     Always:  Provide continuous feedback on task improvement, not grades or scores.  Critical to improvement is student agency--students finding joy in their own improvement! 

     Once the psychology of engaging a learning mindset occurs, then the biology of neuro-moves can complete the learning agenda.  Emotional tags are powerful.  They are the basis for engagement, meaning, and motivation.  The brain always looks for connections, using prior patterns as it interprets new learning for understanding.  These personal connections will transfer learning forward in a sustainable manner. 

Coming soon:  Stay tuned for the fifth neuro-move of the DNA of Learning series!  


Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from superintendent, principal, teacher, & special education.  As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob has traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes.  Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt with undergraduate psychology.

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of special education, curriculum director and assistant superintendent of schools.  She has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As an educational consultant/instructional coach, she has worked nationally with hundreds of school leaders in areas of leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement.  She worked with Brown University as a consultant, guiding project work.

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