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The Emotional Environment of Learning

As a special educator who has worked in the public schools and tutored privately, I've observed that all students learn best in an emotionally supportive environment. Most students with special needs have accumulated a long history of negative learning interactions over the years. They feel inferior to "better" students, they sense that teachers expect less of them, and above all, they are painfully aware of their parents' disappointment and anxiety. I have tutored students at very different grade levels and found many of them full of anxiety, to the extent that in some cases absolutely no work was accomplished due to emotional roadblocks. Why? The problem may be an emotional one to start with, or it may arise because by the time parents decide to pay for help from a professional, they have exhausted themselves trying to understand and explain why their child is blocked. An emotionally supportive environment, paradoxically, may not be the one in which they are most loved: their home.

I've observed the snowballing of anxiety in families in which one child fails to achieve the same academic success as siblings, or in which daily routines are not really routine but are full of conflict and inconsistency. The negative context created by the child's "failure" and parents' desperation is palpable, even though the tutor arrives having no emotional stake in the session other than wanting the student to be willing to trust a new learning setting. In these homes, barriers are difficult to overcome even if the student wants to concentrate on the assignment. Often the disruptions of the environment are the activities of family members happening near the site of the tutoring. Dining tables in rooms that connect to the front door, living room and kitchen never seem to be conducive to student concentration. This fact suggests that you may want to drop your student at a neutral location for tutoring or have them meet at a desk in the basement or a bedroom more isolated from interruption.

On the other hand, I have worked in homes where tutoring is secured more like "insurance" rather than "damage control." In this environment, students do not regard it as a punishment or unwelcome pressure. Like lessons in music or karate, it is another opportunity parents can give to enrich their children and back them up in their learning success. I've seen a kitchen table serve well for tutoring two brothers, but only because their mother was a "non-anxious presence" doing her routine responsibility of preparing a meal while they did their routine responsibility of finishing homework. Providing a tutor for them was not damage control; it was a vote of confidence.

This is why classrooms in public schools are most successful when the teacher establishes clear routines and expectations and behaves predictably. If you looked in on your child's school room, you would observe these traits in most cases, and where you did not find them, you could justifiably be concerned. Teachers cannot substitute for loving parents, but they have a profession to which they feel called, and their reward is seeing the positive results of the learning environment they create and the respect they offer their students. For me, special education classrooms have a unique potential to offer to individual students the attention of a caring adult who accepts and believes in them. Such an emotional environment proves that no student is "learning disabled." A student inevitably gains something, whether academic or personal, usually both, from a teacher who creates positive emotional connections.