Feeling and Thought: What Cognitive Science Tells us About Social Emotional Learning

Nineteenth century American social reformer Henry Beecher once said, “The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices old experiences.” For centuries, philosophers as well as scientists have strived to intellectually to explain how the brain processes as well as incorporates new information. Consequently, the how/what the brain learns has dramatic implications for how students perceive themselves. Although it has only been in the last few decades that strides in cognitive science have revealed new information about how non-cognitive factors influence student learning. This has provided tremendous insight and generated new implications for classroom instruction.

This article will examine several principals of what we now know about the human brain as it relates to socio-emotional learning and what teachers can do to enhance instruction in their classrooms.

What is Cognitive Science?

According to MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, cognitive science is defined as the study of the human mind. A highly interdisciplinary field, it incorporates elements of
psychology as well as neurology and linguistics in an attempt to explain the nature of knowledge acquisition. As stated on the department’s website,

“The broad goal of cognitive science is to characterize the nature of human knowledge – its forms and content – and how that knowledge is used, processed, and acquired.” (n.d.). 

Retrieved from

Developments in the field have led scientists to also explore how noncognitive factors such as personal beliefs, gender, social class and culture impact a student’s ability to learn. Students of various needs and backgrounds come with different past experiences that provide a lens through which academic knowledge is acquired, filtered and prioritized. Additionally, from a social and emotional context, cognitive science provides insight into how students process emotions/motivations, problem solve in order to achieve goals, and make responsible decisions.

Cognitive Science and Student Motivation

We now know that a students’ perception of their own intelligence is an important predictor for how well students will achieve. We also know that the brain is malleable, a concept known as neuroplasticity. This means that the brain can adapt and self perception can be altered through strategic intervention and opportunities for practice. Students who believe that intelligence is flexible are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and become more driven towards success.
This creates a “growth mindset” that allows the student to overcome appropriate academic challenges as well as respond productively to failure and struggle. However, students who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait are less likely to take academic risks and tend to be more sensitive to negative feedback. Overall, students are more likely to learn when they believe that success is the result of hard work rather than ability.

Teachers can leverage these principals and use evidenced based interventions to challenge pre-existing mindsets. For example, teachers should be cognizant of the attributions which they associate with learning in their classrooms. They should explicitly connect the idea that student failure is not the result of a lack of ability but can be improved through practice and the use of alternative strategies. Additionally, teachers can help students select learning goals and administer interventions that allow students to reliably track their own progress towards that goal.

Another strategy teachers should consider is how they frame and execute praise (as well as constructive feedback) when students complete assigned tasks. Praise should be administered judiciously and appropriate for the task at hand. For example, a student who receives praise for completing a simple task quickly may not develop a drive towards a growth mindset. It is critical to note that subtle cues about student inability may be unintentionally communicated and undermine student motivation by suggesting that a student does not have the capability to complete a more challenging task. A student may interpret the scenario above to mean that they are successful because they completed the task quickly over retention of the taught skill. Another student in the same situation may be prompted to ask themselves, why am I receiving praise for getting the easy questions right?

Teachers should also realize that students will be more likely motivated to achieve in environments where they feel safe and accepted. This idea encourages a classroom where errors are seen as valuable opportunities to grow academically and that self doubt is a normal part of the learning experience that will diminish over time. Teachers should also encourage their students to see appropriate feedback as a sign of other’s belief that they are capable ofachieving the high standards set before them.

Cognitive Science and Self Regulation

As teachers, we are taught that effective transference of knowledge is rooted in anchoring new information to student prior knowledge. However, prior knowledge is also defined as all the past experiences and beliefs that students hold onto about themselves as a result of their experiences. Since learning is occurring at all times and situated within multiple social contexts, it is just as easy for a student to acquire negative habits or beliefs as it is to gain positive ones. As such, teachers should be aware that attributes such as self-regulation, the ability to monitor and regulate their own behavior, is not simply something that matures naturally over time, but can be deliberately and explicitly taught.

Teachers can increase self regulatory behavior by approaching desired skills in the same way they approach the acquisition of content knowledge; through explicit instruction, modeling, opportunities for practice and support. They can introduce skills and behaviors strategically into their instruction and even organize their classroom space to enhance this learning. For example, teachers can present learning goals to students and spend time working with them to understand the value of using those goals to monitor their own understanding.

Another way teachers can intensify social emotion self regulation is to provide models and exemplars of the appropriate behavior to be demonstrated and provide multiple opportunities for mastery over time. Teachers should break down these skills into bite-sized manageable pieces, with success criteria explicitly spelled out for student success. Fostering practice and cultivating opportunities for repetitions over time and multiple scenarios is essential for long term acquisition and transference of skills to new situations. As students progress along on their understanding of the desired skills, teachers can provide additional support and specific constructive feedback. This helps students identify and evaluate the consequences of their
decisions, both short and long term. Teachers can also further foster these processes in the long term by establishing and consistently applying cues to when new information and skills are introduced.


Students often come to the classroom with a limited understanding of how their minds work. As a result, students need explicit instruction on both their own cognitive processes and strategies to manage their behaviors. Cognitive science teaches us that the brain is highly susceptible to alternative truths and self perceptions as a result of past experiences which eventually become predictors of academic success. However, cognitive science also teaches us that through focused and deliberate instruction the brain can quite literally “change its own mind” about how they see themselves as learners and adapt over time. This results in developing the type of student that believe they are capable of success, irrespective of their individual circumstances.

Work Cited:

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press
  • Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007, Nov. 30). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318(5855), 1387–1388. doi:10.1126/science.1151148
  • Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Wolters, C. A. (2011). Regulation of motivation: Contextual and social aspects. Teachers College Record, 113(2), 265–283.
  • Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(2), 64–70.
  • Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E. D. (2011). Encouraging self-regulated learning in the classroom: A review of the literature. Retrieved from