People tend to think of “thinking” as a process inside one person’s head.  While many educators use group work and even collaborative learning, the common presumption is that the “real learning” is happening inside each child as an individual. Recent neuroscience is challenging this belief, and now we’re seeing that even traditional measures of IQ are heavily influenced by the social context.  Relationships, environment, and feelings are central to the way the brain works.

How do our interactions with students shape learning?

In this unit, you’ll get to hear Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a remarkable neuroscientist who studies how learning actually works in the brain.  This video is from her talk at Six Seconds’ NexusEQ Conference at Harvard University, entitled: Embodied brains, social minds: How emotions shape learning, motivation and self.

Next, Megan Marcus of FuelEd shares practical and profound ideas about “attuned relationships.”  It is those moments when a teacher stops and provides empathy and understanding that ultimately builds a student’s self-awareness, self-reliance, and self esteem.  In many ways, the key to a student’s social emotional development rests in the teacher’s emotional intelligence, emotional availability, emotional health, and their way of being in a relationship. Megan’s Prezi calls for reflection:  How do we, as educators, show up as catalysts of learning?

Finally, we have a dialogue with Alan Cooper, a former principal, now education consultant, from New Zealand.  Cooper speaks with Joshua Freedman (Six Seconds’ CEO) about how this awareness of the emotional drivers of learning play out in real world examples from school.  He highlights how even apparently small stressors push people into the reaction cycle which pushes them to fight-flight-freeze — which blocks learning.

Try this!

Think about these questions: Who do you feel listened to you well this year? Who asked you a question that deepened your thinking? Who did you learn something about this year? What new understandings of someone else did you arrive at this year? Who do you feel understood you better this year? (Aguliar, 2013)

Choose someone to practice active listening with. Could be someone you know or a stranger, adult or youth.  Listen to their story without judgment. Ask questions that help to deepen their thoughts and explore their feelings.

Or think of someone you sometimes have a challenge with. Consider and then express gratitude  to them for what they bring to the relationship or the classroom.

Reflect: What was the reaction? What can you learn from this? How will this help you to show up tomorrow at your school or job as a “catalyst of learning?”


Read this article Sociograms – Mapping the Emotional Dynamics of a Classroom about creating a sociogram, and make one for your class or another group. Identify one group or person who is not well connected and interview him/her: How does it feel to be in this group?  How does that affect you?

What did you learn from this experience? Post your answer here in this module’s discussion forum entitled: How it feels to NOT be connected…


Assess your own relationship with students.  Make a list of your students, and put a score from 1-5 by each one, where 5 represents a deep, strong, mutually respectful, trust-based relationship… and 1 represents an antagonistic one.  This week, pick 3-4 students and make a serious effort to move the relationship “up a notch.”  Ask and listen.  Give them time.  Celebrate them.  Give them opportunity and autonomy.  Learn from them.

What happens?  If you are able to improve your relationship, what works to do so? Post your answer here in this module’s discussion forum, entitled: Moving “up a notch”


Additional reading related to this topic:

How to make learning both social and effective – here are some “DOs” and “DON’Ts” from Dr. Anabel Jensen, Six Seconds’ President in her article The DOs and DON’Ts of an Emotionally Intelligent Child-Centered Education.

One of the big challenges in a healthy learning environment is the use of power.  Check out this article, “Three Traps for Teaching EQ” from Joshua Freedman – about use of power and authenticity

Another article from Freedman, Rules, Agreements, Emotion and Motivation on these lines:  Should we create Rules or Agreements?  What’s the difference, and why does it matter?  Hint: one is about compliance, the other about learning.

Annie Murphy Paul is one of the Six Seconds’ team’s favorite writers, here are 3 articles related to this unit:

  1. Why You Sometimes Feel Smart and Sometimes Feel Dumb. Did you know that you are actually more or less intelligent depending on who you are with?  This has profound implications for our understanding of intelligence — and teaching.
  2. Feeling Powerful Makes You Think Better. Feeling powerful makes you smarter!  So how can we help our students have that sense of capability (while also creating realistic and high expectations)?
  3. From the Brilliant Report: How to Eliminate Test Anxiety. In this unit, we talked about stress — this article has several proven strategies to beat test anxiety — a great example of the link between emotions and learning.


Here is another short video with Mary Helen Immordino Yang with some practical advice about using emotions in decision making:

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Assistant Professor, Rossier School of Education, USC
Assistant Professor, Brain and Creativity Institute
Faculty in the Neuroscience Graduate Program
Concentration: Educational Psychology

Expertise: Expert in the neuroscience of learning, creativity, culture, morality and social interaction.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D. is an affective neuroscientist and human development psychologist who studies the neural, psychophysiological and psychological bases of social emotion, self-awareness and culture and their implications for development and schools. She is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Rossier School of Education, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute, and a member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program Faculty at the University of Southern California. She was formerly a postdoctoral fellow at USC under the mentorship of Robert Rueda and Antonio Damasio.

Immordino-Yang has an NSF CAREER award and is the inaugural recipient of the Award for Transforming Education through Neuroscience. She and her co-authors received the 2010 Cozzarelli Prize from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for the most distinguished paper of the year in the behavioral and social sciences category, for the paper, “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion.” PNAS, 106(19), 8021-8026. In 2011 she was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science, and received a Commendation from the County of Los Angeles for commitment to translational research in neuroscience and education. In 2012 she received an honor coin from the U.S. ARMY for educational contributions toward supporting soldiers’ development of cultural literacy and compassion.

Immordino-Yang is the Associate Editor for North America for the award-winning journal Mind, Brain and Education. She is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and Culture and Brain. She was elected to the governing board of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, and serves on multiple school/educational advisory boards, among them Long Trail School (in VT), the Ross School Innovation Lab: Science, Math and Engineering Academy (in NY), and the University of New Mexico Family Development Program. She has served as a scientific mentor/adviser to several Los Angeles schools/districts, among them Troy High School, Marlboro School, Manhattan Beach Schools and Milken Academy. In 2012 she is launching a collaborative research project with ABC Unified School District, Cerritos College, Rowland Unified School District, and Huntington Park High School.

A former junior high school teacher, Immordino-Yang earned her doctorate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she was the recipient of grants from the Spencer Foundation and the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. She lectures nationally and abroad on the neural and psychosocial implications of brain and cognitive science research for curriculum and pedagogy.  She is the content director for a new online, free course for teachers on learning and the brain, funded by the Annenberg Media Foundation:



Megan Marcus, M.A.

Ms. Megan Marcus holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, and Masters degrees in Psychology from Pepperdine University and Education, Policy, & Management from Harvard University. She is the Founder & CEO of FuelEd Schools, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening educator preparation, quality, and retention by developing essential social and emotional competencies in teachers and school administrators. Ms. Marcus served as the lead researcher for The Social Neuroscience of Education, a book by Dr. Louis Cozolino, which serves as the research foundation for FuelEd and explores how strong teacher-student relationships trigger neural plasticity, learning, and development.

Recommended reading: The Social Neuroscience of Education, by Dr. Louis Cozolino



Alan Cooper 

CEO, Cooper Consultancy – Taranaki, Wanganui & Manawatu, New Zealand

After 25 years as a teacher, deputy, then principal (and 5 years as a Captain and Major in the New Zealand Army), Cooper started consulting on learning and leadership in 1999.  He works with schools in NZ and internationally, and writes about practical ways to improve education.

Published works include:

  • Cooper, A., & Honigsfeld, A. (2003) Learning Styles of New Zealand Adolescents. In Dunn, R., & Griggs, S. (Eds) Synthesis of the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model Research: Who, What, When, Where, and so What? New York, NY: St John’s University.
  • Cooper, A. (2004) Tools for Integrating Theories and Differentiating Practice. In Hyerle, D. Student Success With Thinking Maps. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Cooper, A. & Jenson, G. (2009) Practical Processes for Teaching Habits of Mind. In Costa, A. & Kallick, B. Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Cooper, A. (2010) At St George’s, It All begins With Self-Management: Getting to Know Yourself. In Honigsfeld, A. & Cohan, A. Breaking the Mold of School Instruction and Organization. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Over 100 journal articles in both in New Zealand and internationally e.g.

Reach Alan on LinkedIN here:

Mary Helen Immordino Yang on Embodied Minds from NexusEQ at Harvard:


Attuned Relationships with Megan Marcus:


Alan Cooper and Joshua Freedman on Emotions in School