Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #14: Teachers: Understand and Communicate about Emotions to Support Deep Learning

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Authors's Note: This article has a companion article, DL #13, that looks at emotions and learning through the lens of the parent. 

All learning, including remote learning, is first and foremost emotional. Emotions drive our cognition, including our attention, memory, and planning/executive functions. If our students are feeling anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed, then this will impact their ability to learn and perform on their school tasks. It is critical that we work together with caregivers and students to understand and communicate about how emotions are impacting learning.

What does this mean for the design of our lessons during distance learning? It means that we need to develop and share strategies with students and their caregivers to check in about and monitor emotions - because they influence learning. We know there will always be a range of emotions throughout a day - whether we are working in remote or classroom learning spaces. When we understand our emotions, then we are better positioned to take on challenging learning. 

Whether you are working with a single student, a group of students, or a classroom full of many students in remote learning spaces or face-to-face classrooms, understanding and communicating about emotions for learning is an important skill to develop. This can be difficult, as we often: 

  • do not show emotions in the same way,
  • do not feel comfortable sharing emotions,
  • worry that talking about emotions will distract from learning,
  • do not have a strong shared vocabulary to describe emotions,
  • do not have a system in place for sharing emotions and how they are impacting learning.

Here are some strategies and tools to deepen understanding and communication about emotions that can enhance learning at any age. While you may modify the steps to work for you, we hope that some of the pieces will resonate. 

Recognize there will be a range of emotions in your students.

Anticipate that you will have a classroom full of students who each have very different emotions. A student may have just finished a difficult activity in a previous class, be overloaded due to sensory stimuli, or who may have just had a fight with a friend. A student may have a lot of excess energy or may be tired from not getting enough sleep the night before. Some students will be excited to learn and engage in the content, while others will not engage or may even feel anxious about the learning task. We need to plan for this range of engagement in our learning environment.

Know the learning goal of the task

When given a new learning task or activity, it is important to be sure that you and your students understand the learning goal, objective, or purpose of the task. Clarifying the goal for students will help us to assess and understand student strengths and challenges - and begin to share about the emotions that may be associated with the task and the situation. It will also help our students understand what they are to do. Knowing this then can help us to know what options might best help that student. In turn, it will help students to better tell us what they may need for this task.

Provide flexibility in how students can approach the learning goal

For the learning task, consider how there are flexible options available for students to choose to help them achieve the learning goal. Those options may not seem necessary, but having some choice and voice about how to complete a task can empower students to do what they need in that moment. One student may want to collaborate with a parent or sibling, another may prefer to put on headphones and work quietly. One may need to use a graphic organizer or to watch a refresher video to help build background about the content, another may already be ready to go. Setting a “learning buffet” for students and those at home who are assisting them will help be prepared for the full range of emotions for a learning task. 

At first, a student or caregiver may not know what option to choose or how to make a good choice based on how they are feeling and how that might relate to their best learning activity option. With time, practice, and having these options reliably available in the learning environment, we can build communication about the tools and strategies that support the learning process - with understanding that emotions are central to that learning. 

Encourage students and caregivers to reflect on how the strategies used supported their emotions during learning.

As part of the learning process, encourage students and caregivers to reflect on how the approaches or tools they used supported them to work toward the goal. You could ask them to share how they felt about that goal and which options they used to help them achieve that goal. Provide sentence starters or a choice of answers for them to start to share this kind of reflection. For example, were there parts of the lesson they were looking forward to or nervous about? How did they use any of the options available during the lesson to help them get “unstuck” or to make progress? Perhaps try a “stoplight” strategy where students share how the tool or strategy helped them with their work (i.e., red light = didn’t help me, yellow light = helped me a little, green light = helped me a lot) or quick thumbs up check. 

Note that learning does not require that we necessarily feel “good,” the full range of emotions is important. What is important is that we begin to recognize when emotions are a barrier to our learning and develop strategies to help reduce those barriers so we can be productive and learn. 

Sometimes, our own perceptions of our ability (or lack of ability) or of a certain task within a context can trigger different emotions. These perceptions are important to recognize as potential emotional barriers to learning. What we each need will vary. We will not always need the same tools or resources - as each day/each moment, we will have an original situation/context, emotions, and learning to tackle. Deepening our discussion of how our strategies and emotions contribute to our learning and goals help us support becoming expert learners.


In learning, emotion and cognition work together. To support the emotions for learning, these tips can help support all students: clarify the intended learning goal and make learning choices available. These choices help meet the range of emotions that students will be feeling during that task. Then, encourage students to reflect on how they felt during the lesson and which supports or strategies were most helpful (or not). The responses and strategies will differ from day to day and what you think is best for a student may not always align with what the student selects. But you are building a communication system for learning that includes emotions. This opportunity to develop new routines and ways of understanding and communicating about emotions will benefit academic learning, including distance learning, and will empower lifelong learning habits for all.

Want to learn more about emotions for learning?

Distance Learning Series: DL #14, June, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Hartmann, E., & Posey, A. (2020). Teachers: Understand and communicate about emotions to support deep learning (DL #14). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

TIES Center

University of Minnesota

Institute on Community Integration

2025 East River Parkway

Minneapolis, MN 55414

Phone: 612-626-1530

This document is available in alternate formats upon request.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.