Community Updates


Emotions & Learning

TLC Blogs
By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on March 12, 2024 | Updated March 12, 2024, 10:02am

Lidya nada 0a K Qa9gr4s unsplash

On Feb. 29, 2024, Micaela and I attended a virtual Teaching and Learning Symposium hosted by Vancouver Community College. One of the sessions, “Trauma-informed Post-Secondary Education,” by Matty Hillman from Selkirk College, really stuck with me to the point that I needed to write this blog post to figure out why.

I have always been a little leery of the term “trauma-informed teaching” because I worried that it implied that instructors should fill even more holes in our grossly inadequate mental health support systems than they already do. After attending Matty Hillman’s presentation, I now recognize that many of the practices in trauma-informed teaching aren’t even necessarily about trauma but more about the interconnections between emotions and learning.

The simple but powerful idea that captivated my interest and kept me thinking about this presentation for the past two weeks is this: emotions are always already part of learning, and the behaviours we develop in response to our emotional experiences are always already affecting how we learn.

Strong emotions shape our behaviours by changing how we approach the world. Renowned addictions expert Dr. Gabor Maté describes the role of emotions as follows:

For all their complexities, emotions exist for a very basic purpose: to initiate and maintain activities necessary for survival.... We always want to move toward something that is positive, inviting and nurturing, and to repel or withdraw from something threatening, distasteful or toxic. (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, 163)

Experiences that generate strong positive emotions make us more likely to seek out similar experiences, while experiences that create strong negative emotions make us more likely to avoid similar experiences to keep us safe from physical or emotional harm. For example, if you were rewarded for taking creative risks as a child, you would learn that creative risk-taking leads to positive feelings and so you’d welcome risk-taking opportunities. If you were punished for risk-taking, you’d probably learn to avoid it and stick to the tried and true. If you grew up being criticized in a way that was mean and hurtful, you might quite naturally learn to fear criticism, whereas someone who experienced criticism as supportive and constructive would likely learn to value it.

These behaviours are all normal adaptations to our emotional experiences, but you can probably already see where they would potentially lead to issues in a classroom. Those with positive experiences of risk-taking and criticism, for example, have adapted in ways that make them much more likely to succeed in the average studio class because they will embrace common learning activities like critique. Whereas those who have had negative experiences will more likely learn to avoid or detach from learning activities that involve risk-taking or criticism which means they might miss out on some potentially transformative learning.

So what can instructors do to help our students recognize where emotionally-driven behaviours are getting in the way of their learning?

Adapting liberally from what I learned from Matty Hillman’s session, here are some ideas to start with:

  1. We can talk explicitly about the role emotions play in learning: emotions like curiosity, excitement and passion fuel learning; emotions like fear, stress, and anger get in the way and inhibit learning.
  2. We can accept that emotions are in the room and get comfortable talking about them. Practices like doing informal temperature checks about how students are feeling about an activity or assignment can help you and your students get comfortable acknowledging the different emotions in the room.
  3. We can validate and normalize common emotional responses. Most people feel a bit nervous (or outright terrified) about public speaking or putting their work up for critique, for example. A trauma-informed approach would acknowledge those emotions and talk about ways to deal with them rather than pretend they aren’t there.
  4. We can talk about emotionally-driven behaviours, and ask students to consider how their behaviours are helping or hindering them in their learning. This is a form of metacognition which gives students the self-awareness to make choices about their own learning.
  5. We can warn students when things might get emotionally hard – not just for potentially triggering content but also for activities and discussions where we are asking students to take risks or be vulnerable.
  6. When students are struggling emotionally, we can validate their emotions, ask them what they need, and refer them for support when necessary.
  7. Finally, and maybe most importantly, we can get to know our students and encourage them to get to know each other. Strong interpersonal relationships are key to building trust in a community, and trust is essential if we want students to take the emotional risks that are necessary for learning and growth.

If you are interested in learning more about emotions and learning, here is one resource to explore:

If you have other resources on this topic, or if you want to continue the conversation, please email me at