Emotions are the Gatekeepers of Learning

The social-emotional needs of learners are our biggest challenge in this, the dystopian year of COVID-19.

Wellbeing was a hot topic before COVID-19 arrived on the scene and now it is red hot.

Never before has something disrupted children’s education and messed with the system to this degree.

Education is a messy business but it’s never been messier than this.

When we consider the socio-emotional impact COVID-19 has had on everyone then it has nightmare, PTSD and compassion fatigue written all over it. Many predict that has created a wellbeing time bomb that schools are ill-equipped to manage.

COVID-19 is full of shattering emotions with constant anxieties, pressures and traumas chipping away and making life unpredictable and scary. No one would have imagined the situation we are in now around this time last year.

It is that emotion that we have to watch and monitor like a hawk. One of the 7 Universal Principles of Learning created by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is “Emotions are the Gatekeepers of Learning.”

That’s clearly true. Learning is an emotional experience and if there are obstacles in the way then it’s like grit and stones in the machine and things don’t work so well.

Many teachers are quite rightly worried about how our children are going to learn inside this COVID-19 mess and beyond. Many children have fallen behind and playing catch-up looks like being a bit of a joke for some as they were already playing catch-up pre-corona. Then there is the need to keep things on an even keel. How to stay healthy and positive is exhausting.

Yet, there is hope. There is always hope. The cultural mindset can’t be one of doom and gloom. It can’t be based on fear. It has to be optimistic. Children pick up on fear pretty quickly and that’s something we can’t show. Positive emotions are the gatekeepers of productive learning.

We’ve got to be more optimistic about the here and now as well as the future and believe that children can cope. We are always telling others that “children are remarkably resilient” and the fact of the matter is they are. Children have lived through worse than this.

Children are coping better than we think. They are managing a nightmare scenario and they are carrying on despite the horrors in the news every night with graph after graph of deadly data. We must avoid the “deficit” models that focus on risks and  vulnerabilities but see the positive and help children build resiliency.

Speaking in the first lockdown, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman said,

However, it’s important to remember children are very resilient creatures … Most will bounce back pretty fast as soon as they have the normal experience of school and the good teaching that the vast majority of schools will have lined up to provide.

Many are indeed bouncing back and are very glad to be back.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, the Co-SPACE study has been tracking parents, children, and young people’s mental health. The Co-SPACE survey is for parents/carers of children and young people aged 4-16 years.

In the latest findings, the study found “behavioural, emotional, and restless/ attentional difficulties appear to have decreased after the lockdown eased, from July, throughout the summer holidays, and through the opening of schools in September.”

More findings and reports can be found here.


  • Emerging Minds is a research network that aims to reduce the prevalence of mental health problems experienced by children and young people. This is a useful evidence-based resource for parents/carers on how to support children and young people with worries about COVID-19.
  • Not everyone is a fan of the 7 Universal Principles of Learning and Greg Ashman is predictably opposed to it. He recommends instead looking at The Science of Learning. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Leave a Reply