The Wings of Instruction:  Neuro-Move #4 – EMOTIONAL TAGS

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part  11: The Wings of Instruction:  Neuro-Move #4 – EMOTIONAL TAGS

Emotional Tag’s Role in DNA’s  “wings OF INSTRUCTION”

“No meaning, no memory.  Period!”


See if YOU Can Relate to this situation

     You are standing at your classroom door greeting your students and you spot Denny’s (DNA chapter #1) mother heading your way.  Instantly the prevailing emotions of past interactions flood your mind.  With each approaching step you begin to anticipate the pending conversation.  You can feel a dominant emotion germinating from all the prior interactions with this parent.  She is only 5 steps away. This emotion is percolating.  Sound familiar?  This happens with many relationships and situations.

     Now think of a student YOU currently have in class and pay attention to what automatically takes place in your mind.  An emotion from the sum-total of interactions floods your mind and influences your disposition… however slightly—or most typically… more.  These undertones can range from joy to anxiety to frustration and beyond.  They influence our receptivity to what comes next.  Let’s keep YOUR student in mind as we unpack the role of dominant emotions and tags in learning.

Emotions Aren’t All for Learning We are all familiar with emotions. When we refer to them in our own context, the situations that generate emotions usually are described as happy, sad, fearful, angry, frustrated, and even surprised. Emotional “tags” are NOT to be confused with commentaries of “the kids love this” or “they really enjoy that.” Read carefully going forward to understand the subtle, yet pivotal differences between how kids react or feel—and that which more powerfully impacts learning. Without perceived purpose for the learner, feelings may initially appear positive but are hit or miss. Surface emotions can evolve quickly to complacency, rejection, anger, fear, or disenfranchisement.

Unpacking “Emotional Tags” for Learning In an educational context the neuro-move “emotional tags” refers to high interest and meaningful based content that instills emotional connections for the learner. YOUR student has topics, items, interests that are personally “tagged” as important and of meaning for them. These tags are personal. Everyone has them. They influence behavior. Connecting to options or constructive emotions can shift a disposition more effectively and sustainably than punitive alternatives. Helping each student connect to learning targets via their emotional tags will y enhance attention and stimulate motivation to attend.


The brain always looks for connections as it interprets new learning for understanding. 

Dominant Emotions and Learning

     YOUR student also has “dominant” emotions about subjects, situations and even school in general.  Dominant does not mean strong or dominating.  Dominant refers to the cumulative landscape of prior circumstances that add up over time.  These predominant past experiences emerge as an overarching landscape that influences initial perceptions and cues interest level and the likeliness of certain response types. 

      Our challenging, disengaged students of today were once curious about things and the world around them. Think about the curious two-year old’s who love playing with empty boxes.  But just 2-3 years later, while entering pre-school and then kindergarten, these same children often feel burdened with content that has no meaning to them. Subtly, and overtime, they begin to establish dominant emotions with respect to risk taking, exploring and engagement in learning activities.  Early on, they are compared to peers and develop mindsets regarding being ahead or behind at school.  Slowly, some withdraw from participating when negative attention follows.  By age eight or sooner unproductive emotions become associated with schooling for some.  Attendance, grades, and homework become battlegrounds into the middle and high school years.  Is this YOUR student? 

Emotional Tag’s Role in DNA’s  “WINGS” of Instruction

Do you suppose

     …knowing dominant emotions and emotional tags of your challenging student could help guide him/her to a better learning experience?  Right now, all s/he must do is drive by the school building and a tenuous rush of emotion emerges.  When harnessed, emotional tags bolster the attentional system.  When untethered, they resist or even block our attentional focus. 

     Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs (scripted based teaching about feelings) seldom address emotional tags or take dominant emotions into consideration.  The Denny’s of our classrooms will benefit by connecting personal meaning with learning more than being coached about feelings.  Their emotions are real, often entrenched and “earned” from the amassed experiences. The student you have in mind needs concerted opportunities to explore and connect to his/her deep interests.  In fact, we all do.  Bypassing personalization to learner interests (constructive dominant emotions) and passions (tags) will minimize positive impact on dispositions toward learning.  Remember, the brain always looks for connections, using prior experiences as it interprets new learning for understanding. 


Not Just About Kids

          A respected educator wrote, I still love teaching, but am finding some of the institutional aspects to be more hindrance than help” (Coven, 2023).  He’s referring to many of the restrictive pandemic responses made by schools that are coverage or accountability focused, rather than learning focused.  Frustrating dominant emotions have coalesced over several years, now leading to an exodus from the field.  Similar to students, when educators “tag” their work with unproductive emotions they too, suffer. 

Shifting to Interest-Based Learning

     As your learners encounter the material put before them, how do they see it?  Can we replace “we only have one month left of school and we still have so much to cover” with “How can I connect major concepts, and essential learning within the curriculum?”  Personalize this for yourself and imagine working with colleagues on things that really matter to you as an educator.  Would this help redirect the disconnectedness sometimes felt by educators? Would relationships evolve into learning communities that support timeless learning beyond compliant mindsets? We believe it would! 

What if…

     …we knew and helped each learner connect their meaning-laden tags with the big ideas of our units of study?  Would student attitudes shift?  Would their negative dispositions change?  Would ours?

Think of:

  1. The first time a dad, while teaching his child to ride the bike, let’s go of the bike and both the dad and the child realize he is pedaling solo… big grins on both faces!
  2. when you’ve just read a piece of Helen’s writing and can’t wait to see her next class period to let her know how proud you are of her work
  3. the look of determination on the learner’s face when they tackle a personal concern that affects the whole student body.

     Dr. Patrick Levitt, neurobiologist at Stanford University states, “Emotion IS learning… period!”  The mental conclusion of “not important” suggests that little meaning is indicated. That which has only minimal impact on personal meaning for learners can, by definition, have no significant emotional basis for retention.  This applies to all of us.  With few exceptions the dominant emotion that accompanies learning for many students is “ugh” …or worse. 

Moving toward tomorrow

      Step 1: Knowing each student’s dominant emotions toward learning, as we have talked about in this piece, is critical to both engagement and motivation.  Using Juanita’s interest to explore cosmetology develops a stronger connection to the concepts under study.  The positive emotional tags will have an impact on behavior, attention, and sustained memory


     Step 2: As you identify the essential outcomes in the upcoming unit to be learned, the teacher’s role is to develop multiple opportunities for individual learners to connect and develop meaning (emotional tags), through personal and relevant themes. Without developing this understanding, many students create their own barriers to learning, where conflicts evolve through varied causes and responses


     Step 3: Have students clearly identify where/how/why the big ideas of the learning in the unit relate to their lives today (making this explicit) [Our history unit has conflict and cause/effect as themes. These are integral to governments, cultures, occupations, and life]


     Step 4:  Have students each develop a plan to demonstrate evidence of meeting the outcome. Juanita may develop a plan for attending cosmetology school or develop a business plan to open her own salon or design an informational packet about the science in choosing quality hair products.

     Always:  Provide continuous feedback on task improvement, not just grades or scores.  Critical to improvement is student agency–students finding ownership and joy in their own improvement!


     Once the psychology of engaging a learning mindset occurs, then the biology of neuro-moves can complete the learning agenda.  Emotional tags are powerful.  They are the basis for engagement, meaning, and motivation.  The brain always looks for connections, using prior patterns as it interprets new learning for understanding.  These personal connections will transfer learning forward in a sustainable manner.

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Phillips, Gary. (1998).  National School Improvement Project, P.O. Box 11365, Bainbridge Island, WA. 98110. 

Levitt, Patrick. (2010). Lecture at R.I. Hospital. W.M. Keck Provost Professor of Neurogenetics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Coven, Robert.  Cary Academy Educator.  Interview conducted in the spring of 2023.