Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Emotions Influence Cognition: The Missing Ingredient in School Evaluations

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Emotions Influence Cognition: The Missing Ingredient in School Evaluations

Article excerpt


CONTEMPORARY EDUCATORS OF ELEMENTARY SCHOOLCHILDREN ARE more and more aware of the importance of emotions in the education of children (Sobe, 2012). Yet far too often the education of teachers, the psychological or psychiatric evaluation of children with school difficulties, and the implementation in the classroom of educational plans (individualized or group) focus on the identification of cognitive deficits in the child and the promotion of the development of the child's academic skills via cognitive methods, while at the same time trying to insure the child's behavioral compliance. The child's emotions and their impact on his or her cognitive functions, academic progression, and behavior are often neglected. The difficulties faced by the dynamic clinician in contemporary school settings, including the clinician's countertransference feelings, is described by Bellinson (2012). In fact, in an informal survey, conducted by the Child Analysis Division of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, of several schools in the New York City area, we found that many teachers appear to have difficulties fully empathizing with and understanding disruptive children when they are difficult in the classroom. This is particularly true when children exhibit aggressive behaviors, a finding consistent with the literature (Chang, 2003; Nesdale and Pickering, 2006).

Unfortunately many psycho-educational evaluations simply describe the child's cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and if emotions are evaluated, they are only evaluated via a variety of checklist instruments that mainly address behavioral symptoms. Thus, a rich picture of the child's inner emotional life and its impact on his or her behavior, such as aggressive responses to frustration, as well as the impact of emotions on learning difficulties, are missing from far too many psycho-education evaluations. In this paper we describe an intake evaluation process of elementary schoolchildren who have exhibited difficulties in a more traditional school environment. In this process we integrate a dynamic understanding of the child's emotional life, the impact of the child's emotions on his or her behavior, cognitive development and academic performance, and how to utilize this understanding in planning an approach in the classroom.


In the early psychoanalytic literature, learning issues were usually considered to be a result of conflictual states. Klein (1949) described how often many school problems were the result of a psychological restriction or inhibition of function, and Pearson (1952), in a survey of thirtyseven children with learning problems, described many whose learning difficulties were secondary to psychological and dynamic problems.

Beginning in the 1970s there was a greater emphasis on the interaction between a child's physiologic endowment and the familial environment (Weil, 1970). For example, De Hirsch (1975) described the complex interactions "between physiological and psychological aspects of functioning, interactions which in turn are crucially affected by the emotional climate of the child's home" (p. 97). More recently, Gilmore (2002) cautioned that analysts should not simply consider conflictual issues when it comes to learning and other developmental disorders. She notes that analysts should carefully consider the complex influences that go into the progression of developmental disorders in order to recommend the best strategy for the individual child. Unfortunately, in the contemporary mental health climate the influence of psychoanalytic ideas in helping school personnel has waned and cognitive behavioral techniques (CBT) for behavior management are the major psychological interventions implemented in many school settings, without an appreciation that the child's emotional state can contribute to the child's maladaptive behaviors and academic functioning. The standard CBT techniques do not address the emotional states, particularly the relevant psychodynamic issues, of the children. …

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