How Teenagers Feel About Learning

How is your teenager going at school? Do they look forward to going to school and enjoy the challenge of academic learning? Or are they a less than enthusiastic student?

With a new school year starting in northern hemisphere, and southern hemisphere kids heading back for the second half of their academic year it seems timely to consider an often overlooked aspect of learning.

When considering academic performance a lot of parents rightly focus on finding the best school, establishing good home study habits, monitoring grades, providing tutoring if necessary, and identifying preferred learning styles.

However, one of the most significant impacts on how adolescents learn is often overlooked; their feelings!

That’s right, the way your teenager feels and their emotional state can have a far bigger impact on their academic performance than the quality of the school or the hours of homework they do.

This is the first of two posts on how your teen’s emotional health affects their ability to learn and how parents can help their teen improve their emotional intelligence.

The Feelings Factor

Emotions function like the on/off switch for learning.

Students learn more and perform better when they feel safe, happy, and are energized about the topic.

According to learning expert and child psychologist Dr. Maurice Elias, emotional well-being is “predictive not only of academic achievement, but also of satisfactory and productive experiences in the world of work and marriage, even of better physical health.”

The converse is also true. When students feel angry, stressed or sad they are less likely to learn because their mental energy is expended focusing on the cause of their negative emotions. “Children in class who are beset by an array of confused or hurtful feelings cannot and will not learn effectively” says Dr. Elias.

Students who are stressed have significantly reduced capacity to take in information. The emotional brain, known as the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning and memory. If a teenager is feeling anxious in the classroom, they are unlikely to remember any of the subject matter presented. As education expert Priscilla Vail explains if the limbic system senses trouble, ‘access shuts down’ to the parts of the brain responsible for higher order through and learning.

As parents, you can help improve your teen’s capacity to learn by doing what you can to put them in the best possible emotional space.  You can improve your teen’s emotional life by focusing on the “3 E’s” of emotional nurture; eliminate, educate, and encourage.


By reducing the number of situations generating negative emotions for teens is the first and most obvious means of setting them up emotionally to learn.

Some of the more common sources of stress and anxiety for teens include:

In The Classroom

  • Anxiety about doing schoolwork
  • Fear of embarrassment in the classroom
  • Personality clash with teacher
  • Stress of not achieving desired grade
  • Being harassed or distracted by other students

In The Schoolyard

  • Bullying in the playground
  • Being the victim of gossip or exclusion
  • Falling out with peers
  • Breakup with boy/girl friend

In The Home

  • Fighting with parents
  • Fighting with siblings
  • Family breakdown
  • A parent leaving/absent from the family home
  • Serious illness in the family
  • Violence at home
  • Death of a relative
  • Recent or imminent move

Obviously, the place you have the most control over is the amount of stress in the family home. The more you can do as a parent to create a healthy and harmonious home environment the easier you will make it for your teenager to get the most out of their schooling.

If your teenager is in danger of being physically or emotionally harmed then the first priority is to remove them from this danger.

Be proactive about modeling constructive conflict resolution methods both with your teenager and other relationships in the house.

If there are significant changes happening at home, make an extra effort to watch for changes in your teen’s behaviour. Go out of your way to try and connect with your teen more often with the intent of finding out how they are handling the changes.

Sometimes life doesn’t go the way we hope and life at home can get a bit messy. You may not always be able to control or clean up the mess straight away but it helps if you can communicate to your teenager clearly what is happening and give them the chance to express to you how they feel about events.

In relation to stressful events happening in the classroom or the schoolyard, you probably won’t have quite as much control. Many parents struggle to find out anything from their teen about school, never mind what is emotionally stressful.

Monitor you teen’s grades. If you notice significant drop in performance discuss with your teen what is happening in the classroom.

Don’t hesitate to contact your teenager’s teachers to discuss any concerns or questions you might have. Working with teachers to develop a holistic approach to your teen’s learning is a great way to boost your teenager’s education journey.

Teenagers are always going to have their ups and downs with friends. It is important for parents to try and discern the difference between the every day spats and disagreements of adolescence, and the ongoing more serious conflicts and fallouts.


Helping teen’s achieve at school requires them developing their emotional intelligence as well as their cognitive intelligence. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) relates to a person’s ability to understand and manage their emotions, motivations and desires, and their awareness of the feelings and behavioural cues of others.

It is widely accepted there are 5 basic competencies associated with emotional intelligence:

  1. Self and other awareness: the ability to understand and recognise feelings; knowing the difference between thinking, feeling and acting; and understanding actions have consequences in terms of others’ feelings.
  2. Mood management: the ability to handle and control difficult feelings; being patient with self and others; and being able to deal with anger constructively.
  3. Self-motivation: being able to set and work towards goals with optimism and hope; being able to generate enthusiasm even in the face of challenges and set backs.
  4. Empathy: being able to see things from someone else’s perspective; being sensitive to others needs and feelings; being able to demonstrate care and compassion.
  5. Management of relationships: the ability to make and nurture friendships; using conflict resolution negotiation skills; being able to cooperate and collaborate with others.

Daniel Goleman first articulated these five competencies in the book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman explains that each of these competencies is a skill that can be learnt by anybody.

In the next post we will look at what parents can do to build up their teen’s emotional intelligence through Education and Encouragement at home.

Until then have a read through the 5 competencies of emotional intelligence and consider how strong your teen’s “EQ” might be.

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