As soon as you wake up in the morning, your brain begins making a series of choices. While some actions don’t feel like choices—especially those that come naturally to us—they are indeed conscious decisions your brain is making. Throughout the day, the decisions your brain makes ebb and flow between large and small, but have you noticed how some decisions you make quickly and easily, while others require you to think through them more?

Those decisions that come naturally to us are driven by intuition through the emotional brain. Those that require more logic behind the action demonstrate the rational brain taking the lead. As an educator, you understand the importance—and challenge—of balancing the decision-making weight evenly between both brains.

Let’s discuss the emotional brain and the rational brain, review the importance of utilizing both, and discuss strategies for keeping the emotional brain in check.

The Emotional Brain vs. Rational Brain

When a student consistently disrupts the class and you feel like raising your voice in response . . . that’s the emotional brain leading the way. Let's say instead, you keep your composure and redirect the class back to the lesson plan; now you’ve allowed your rational brain to take the lead and win out. While we can all agree the latter situation is the ideal outcome, we also know that in any stressful situation, this doesn’t always happen. The emotional brain wants to win every time, and usually does—in fact, it wins as often as 80% of the time.

Both your emotional brain and rational brain are critical to decision making. They rely on one another in order for you to function in a healthy manner.

You can’t make rational decisions in your classroom if you are too emotional, but you need the emotional brain to help sort through rational options, too.

The emotional brain is driven by:

  • Hopes and desires
  • Fears and concerns
  • Comfort
  • Gut feelings
  • Inner wisdom

The rational brain:

  • Advocates for the emotional brain
  • Steers the emotional brain in the direction it wants to go
  • Reasons through options
  • Cannot “control” the emotional brain

The Emotional Brain and Teaching

So why is it important that the emotional brain remains in check during the school day? When emotions are impaired, rationale follows suit.  

Think back to a time when you were teaching; you were hungry and the day was almost done, but you still had to get through one more hour of instruction time. Were you patient and positive with your students? Or were you perhaps impatient and easily irritated? It’s not a coincidence that your heightened emotions—being tired and hungry—likely caused you to act based on those feelings versus what you knew was the logical way to respond.

When emotions are impaired, decision-making suffers.

Now let’s think of a time when the rational brain gets overwhelmed. Imagine working with a dozen tiny learners—no one is paying attention to the book you’re reading; some are talking to each other; others are running around. As you’re reading, you start running through the options in your mind of what you could possibly do to help them refocus. The choices are overwhelming and suddenly you find yourself raising your voice to get everyone to stop and look at you. The learners may have stopped, but are some of them now physically upset or are others escalating their behaviors out of anger with being yelled at?

When there’s too much to consider, the rational brain overloads and intuitions win out.

See the pattern of who always wins?

Becoming aware of your emotions helps to correct many emotional biases, which will allow you to make more complex decisions rationally. This creates not only a balanced emotional state for you, but it also creates a harmonious environment for your learners as well. So, with the emotional brain appearing to be quite stubborn, how do you keep it in check?

Balancing Your Emotions

It’s important to remember that you can’t always control the behavior of your students or colleagues, but you can control your own behavior—most importantly, your reactions to others’ behavior. The strategies below will help you keep your emotions in check, allowing your rational brain to bring out the best of the emotional brain.

  1. Organize your thoughts, often.

    Before the start of the school day, write down your plan for the day including goals of what you hope to accomplish, along with back-up options if the original plan goes awry. Getting those options out on paper helps your mind take a breather and provides a quick reference for you to use if you do sense the environment becoming overwhelming during the day.


  2. Understand your emotional triggers.

    What triggers the emotional brain’s fight-or-flight response in one person may not trigger the response in another. Know what causes your emotions to kick into overdrive, and plan ways to calm them before they overtake your rational brain. If noise, for example, seems to be an environmental factor that causes your rational brain to feel overwhelmed, schedule regular quiet/calm sessions throughout the day. Take this time to dim the lights, play gentle music, and let your students work through some self-guided lessons. You’ll find this will help keep students’ emotional brains in check, too!


  3. Remember the Integrated Experience.

    The Integrated Experience provides us with an understanding that our behavior and emotions influence those around us. It also serves as a reminder that the only behavior we can control is our own. How does this relate to your life as an educator? Know that your students’ behaviors can cause your own to fluctuate. Plan how you’ll de-escalate those behaviors in advance so that they don’t overtake your emotions. Remaining calm and pulling the student aside who is causing verbal interruptions provides an even playing field for effectively discussing the challenging behaviors while keeping your healthy dynamic intact.


  4. It’s time for mental math.

    Every so often the rational brain needs a little boost. When you feel the emotional brain dominating and you’re struggling to gather your thoughts, pause; do a simple math problem in your head and then try to pull that logic out once again. Mental math can work as a reset button for your mind, allowing it to kick into gear and tell the emotional brain to take a backseat in that moment.


  5. Share your feelings with your colleagues.

    When the emotional brain carries too much weight, the rational brain carries it too. Finding outlets for your stress and emotions, like talking to your colleagues, can help alleviate the mental load you’re carrying. You’ll likely find that your fellow educators could use your listening ears as well. While it doesn’t take away the stressors, talking through your emotions does minimize their ability to overtake your rational brain.

Your Students’ Emotional Brains

Just as your emotional brain needs help regulating, the emotional brains of your students do as well. And just like you, your learners are faced with numerous choices throughout the day and are challenged to not allow their emotions to steer the wheel each time.

It’s important to remember that the age of your students plays a big role in the amount of time you’ll spend helping your students regulate their emotions; young learners for example are still learning to self-regulate and will likely need a bit more assistance in calming their heightened emotions.

As we noted earlier, keep that Integrated Experience in mind and remember that you can help guide your students to balanced emotional and rational brains by demonstrating your own level decision-making skills. Show your students that you too must balance your emotions and that the process takes work; try saying out loud, “Gosh, we have had a really busy day today. That last activity made me tired and I can't remember what I wanted to do next. Would you all like to stand up and do some stretches with me to help reset ourselves?” Then discuss with your students how that mental reset made you feel—encouraging them to use that exercise when they’re having trouble focusing or when emotions are high.

Guiding your students with specific strategies to combat specific emotions not only helps them regulate their emotional brains but helps them develop their own solutions too. Provide examples of heightened emotions they may be feeling and the strategies they can use to help find balance.

Feeling Anxious/Nervous

  • Practice breathing exercises.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Study with friends to talk through concerns together.

Feeling Overly Excited

  • Ask students to arrange seating in a manner that allows extra room for restless legs.
  • Provide Play-Doh to help occupy fidgety hands (works for all ages).

Feeling Worried

  • Pair up with a friend for activities.
  • Ask for a group discussion ahead of tests or projects so questions can be asked freely.

What techniques do you find most helpful for keeping your emotional brain in check during the school day? Share your techniques with your fellow educators in the comments below.