The power of emotions

Emotion is your most powerful tool. This is what will make your children remember your lessons for months and years afterwards. Which emotion doesn’t matter: joy at Alice making it back through the looking glass, shock as bicarbonate of soda reacts with vinegar, sadness at any number of stories from our history; whatever it is, lean in and emphasise it, so long as you stop short of traumatising your kids.

Emotions can be hard to reach. A page of percentage questions will quicken the pulse of only the most introverted percentage-fan. This is where the flexibility of home-school comes in because these are no ordinary percentages. These are how fast different populations of Velociraptors are growing each year. They are how much money different football clubs gain each game. They are how many more cats live in the village each year. Whatever your kid cares about, that’s what these questions are on.

Often negative emotions are easier to reach than positive ones but obviously use those sparingly. This is best illustrated by a mistake I made. Don’t do this!

I told my kids the story of Phineas Gage as part of our work on the human body and how the brain works. Poor Mr Gage is famous in psychology for working on the 19th century American railroads where, after an explosion, he received a metal spike through the front of his head. Incredibly he lived, although with severe damage to the front of his brain which had a specific effect – he could still walk and talk and eat and work but his personality was massively changed. He gambled and drank and couldn’t be relied upon, having previously been conscientious and careful. “Gage wasn’t Gage any more” is the famous quote from one of his friends. That vivid example shows that the front part of the brain is significantly involved in personality, particularly impulse control.

“The spike went through his head!?” was all my kids asked. I even showed them a picture of Gage’s skull after his death, with the splintered hole through the bone. My seven-year-old-daughter was not pleased at seeing that. She immediately asked for the picture to be closed and needed cuddles for a few minutes afterwards. Whoops. So don’t do that. But they never forgot that lesson.

Conversely, if they burst into giggles while you’re describing photosynthesis then go with it. You might not get the joke, but so long as it’s vaguely work directed, then use it. If they start giggling at the squirrel out the window while you’re describing photosynthesis, then that needs to stop, of course.

A great way to play into their emotions is to tie abstract theories into everyday objects and tasks that they care about. Photosynthesis is what makes the flowers grow, if they love flowers, or what makes potatoes grow if they love eating chips. That’s going to take some imagination on your part, so give yourself a mental pat on the back every time you manage it.

Telling stories and personifying objects also helps bring them to life: these aren’t just metals reacting, they’re playground bullies, fighting for the sulphate ion. Which is the strongest bully, who will win the fight? That works particularly well in science which has lots of complex events but no people. It’s harder in maths, easier in English and history which naturally have stories.

Another way to tap emotions is to make questions personal for your kids or give them a connection. The times table square is a classic example of a flat, bland list of numbers to memorise, so bring it to life. 7x8? That’s the hardest times table question, you don’t know that one! 12x12? That’s the very biggest. Give them an emotional hook where you can. The same works for spellings. "'Watching' is the one you always get wrong, do you remember it this time?" Give them a link, make it special to bring it to life.

Children experience wild swings of emotions, peals of laughter and tragic tears that it’s hard for adults to recall. Don’t let them be random, put them to use illustrating the world, attach them to important points to remember.

See also

Getting it wrong

Maths, yay!

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