Hidden Thoughts How Negative Emotions Can Shut Down Language and Learning

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Dartmoor School
Violence. Failure. War. These words trigger unpleasant thoughts — so unpleasant, in fact, that our subconscious minds don’t want us to think about them too deeply, researchers at Bangor University have found. Their pioneering study, originally intended to shed light on the inner workings of the bilingual brain, stumbled across surprising evidence that our subconscious minds block access to language in order to mitigate the impact of negative emotion.

It was a complex experiment. Psychologists Yan Jing Wu and Guillaume Theirry gave a group of English-speaking Chinese students multiple sets of English words pairs and asked them to determine whether or not the words were related in meaning. But this wasn’t a test of reading comprehension. Instead, the researchers secretly engineered English word pairs for the test that, when translated into Chinese, would yield counterparts with similar sounds. Words that sound similar but have different meanings take a longer time to process than words that both sound different and mean different things; so while the English word pairs could be processed relatively quickly, their Chinese counterparts would take a longer time.  Meanwhile, researchers measured participants’ brain activity and correlated that data with participants’ response times.  Through measuring response times to word pairs, researchers confirmed that Chinese students were typically accessing the Chinese counterparts to the English words they were shown as a part of the language processing necessary for the task.

But not always. In word pairs where the first word indicated a negative concept, Chinese students maintained consistently quick response times, regardless of sound similarities in the Chinese translations of the word pairs. Though participants were unaware of any difference in their thought processes, their test responses clearly indicated that the Chinese counterparts to the word pairs were not included in the language processing task when the words were negative. In other words, participants’ brains were blocked from accessing negative ideas in their native language. Why? Because negative concepts are felt more deeply when they are embodied by words from one’s native language. By blocking participants’ brains from accessing their native speech, this spontaneous censorship created a mental buffer between negative ideas and participants’ feelings.

The study brings up a wealth of other questions about the role of subconscious processes in learning and language. After, if simply looking at a bad word is enough to trigger subconscious language suppression, then how might real-life experiences affect language function, memory, attention, and a host of other cognitive processes required for learning?  What else might our brains shut down to shield us from negative experiences? This study adds to the growing pile of evidence that learning and emotion are deeply intertwined, whether learners themselves are aware of it or not. The bottom line for parents and educators?  Learning involves our students’ hearts as well as their minds, and we are thus charged with caring for both.

Five favorites for kids

  • Written by Emily Bishton, of Green Light Gardening
Think back to your first garden memories … did your love of plants begin when you were small, and the world of your own back yard seemed so big?  Would you like your own children to be inspired by their back yard too? Here are five simple activities that are sure-fire favorites:

1) Grow food that’s fun to eat.  All berry plants are a huge hit with children, because they are easy for their small hands to pick and a sweet reward for their gardening help.  Raspberries also fit on fingertips for a portable snack!

2) Grow food for birds. Native plants each provide flowers, fruits, seeds or shelter that attract native songbirds which are fascinating for children to observe. These plants are a beautiful addition to your garden, too!

3) Plant a tree to celebrate a special occasion, whether in your own yard or as a part of community volunteering, a tree that planted together is a touchstone for a child’s life from then on.

4) Create a sensory walk.  Fragrant-leafed herbs inspire “scratch ‘n sniff” garden tours or tea parties, and plants with super-soft leaves create comfy beds for elves and fairies!

5) Add some art. Children love to make a garden their own by creating painted rocks, signs, scarecrows, or steppingstones.

Emily Bishton directs the Magnuson Jr. Nature Explorers Program. Visit Emily at

3 Myths about Homework

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Campus Manager, Dartmoor School, Woodinville
Students hate it. Teachers love it. Parents dread it because it is so hard to get done. Homework is an opportunity for students to develop long-term memory of the skills they learn in school, but for many families, homework causes nothing but headaches as parents and students wrestle over its accomplishment.  Sometimes in an effort to make the grade, families waste time and energy fighting over things that aren’t actually important when it comes to completing homework. Fortunately, common misconceptions that cause parents extra grief can be avoided. The following are a few of the most widespread fallacies.

#3. My student should not stop working until all homework is complete.

While it is true that distractions negatively impact the completeness and accuracy of homework, students still need to take strategic breaks, especially when the time required for homework completion is an hour or more.  Strategic breaks can help increase the flow of blood to a student’s brain and remedy low blood sugar. Breaks that include a healthy snack and some exercise are particularly valuable. Also, the brain’s ability to focus waxes and wanes in cycles; in fact, a human’s ability to maintain focus at the highest levels of concentration only lasts for about ten minutes. Altering the type of activity in which the brain is engaged at moments of low attention relieves stress and allows re-engagement by working with the natural attention cycles of the brain.

#2. My student should do the hardest task first.

Actually, many students, particularly those who have trouble with self-confidence, benefit from starting off with a task that is easy enough to allow them to build momentum and have a sense of accomplishment. Starting with the easiest task helps students overcome procrastination and remember that they are capable.  A student who is already nervous or reluctant to approach homework will have a far greater obstacle to surmount if they have to start off with an object of dread. The worse the initial step looks, the sweeter escape will appear.

#1. My student refuses to do homework because she is lazy.

In adults as well as students, procrastination on a task is a sign that the individual anticipates a negative experience as a consequence of completing the task. If a student is reluctant to do her homework, it is most likely because something about the homework experience is significantly unpleasant. The most strategic approach to reducing procrastination is to find out why a student dislikes his or her homework so much. It is very common for students to anticipate that they will fail at their homework because they are not sure how to break down a large task into manageable steps, or because they had trouble learning the skill they should be practicing, or because the homework requires them to exercise a cognitive skill that is weak. The best remedy for procrastination in these situations is alleviating the issue causing distress. Helping the student determine how break down a task, re-teaching topics, or getting professional help to teach the student how to cope with a weak cognitive area—these tactics overcome natural reluctance by directly addressing the source of students’ negative feelings about homework.  Frequently, students do not know how to identify the origin of their negative anticipation, so discovering the source of dread can be difficult. However, it is always well worth the time and effort.

3 Reasons to Send Your Child to Arts Summer Camp

  • Written by

Summer camp is a place where children and teens are able to explore, mature, and define. Kids learn to work together with others in community and communicate thoughts and feelings in their own unique way. Arts summer camps help kids discover their voices and find vision and inspiration.

1. The Imagination Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

The imagination is an essential part of a child’s life. Girls and boys alike respond best when encouraged to dream, wish and pretend. Exercises in imagination help children develop flexible perspectives which allow them to emotionally adapt when necessary. Arts summer camps encourage children to expand and communicate their imagination. Music, visual arts, theater, crafts and other summer camp programs are specifically geared toward creating a safe, supportive, environment where kids can artistically grow.

2. Creative Exercises Help the Mind Develop

Creativity in the classroom has been proven to improve brain development, along with physical movement. The body and mind must both be engaged on a regular basis in order for kids to grow up healthy and strong. Arts summer camps provide both of these essential experiences. The time spent outdoors combined with the opportunity to creatively express ideas and thoughts via music, acting, dancing, painting, etc. makes arts summer camps the prime place for children and teens to develop healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms.

3. Self Expression Is an Important Part of Personal Growth

One of the most valuable skills a child can develop is the ability to clearly communicate. Children dealing with communication issues, such as speech impediments and dyslexia, need extra attention and help learning how to clearly articulate their needs and wants. Arts and crafts can help kids develop the skills necessary to share their ideas, thoughts and emotions. This helps them to grow up and become healthy adults. Self expression is something all humans need to develop and there are many ways to explore this aspect of one’s self. Arts summer camps give kids a variety of mediums through which to express all kinds of inner dialogues. In the future, this will allow them to continue to learn new ways of expressing and sharing themselves with others.

Sarah Benoit is a writer for, a comprehensive online directory of summer camps for boys and girls throughout the United States and Canada.

What is phonological awareness and why is this important for my child?

  • Written by Kali Glynn, MA, CCC-SLP, Bothell Pediatric and Hand Therapy
Did you know that children develop reading skills before being introduced to written language? During the past 20 years, research on reading, reading development and reading instruction has revealed that a strong understanding of spoken language is critical to the development of basic reading and writing skills.

Words in English are composed of strings of sounds called phonemes. Speakers of English can create all the words they ever need by using various combinations of 44 different speech sounds.  When we listen to another person talk, we listen to and process the information without actually being aware of the individual phonemes in words themselves. However, because phonemes are represented in written language by letters, learning to read requires that children become consciously aware of the phonemes as individual elements of words.

Phonological awareness refers to awareness of phonemes, as well as all different levels of awareness of words. This includes rhyming, awareness of syllables in words, knowledge of letter sounds and identifying individual words within a sentence. Important phonological awareness skills also include being able to segment phonemes (for example, realizing that the word “cat” contains three individual sounds) and blending phonemes (for example, when hearing the sounds  d-o-t  realizing that they can be blended into the word “dot”). More advanced phonological awareness skills would include a listener identifying the first, middle or last sound they hear in a word  (what is the first sound you hear in dog?) or manipulating sounds (if you take /s/ out of “stop,” what word is left?).

Since phonological awareness is strongly tied to beginning to read, most schools test kindergarten and first grade students in this area. Phonological awareness skills are not innate but rather learned and are a significant part of the curriculum in these grades. However, if you are concerned that your child is struggling to develop phonological awareness skills, speech-language pathologists are able to treat deficits in this area.