Learning, Emotions and Well Being


On 26th October over 320 teachers and school support staff from two East Lothian school clusters met at Preston Lodge High School for an in-service morning on the theme of – Learning, Emotions and well being. This post is the first of a series on presentations and workshops held at the event.

Talented young musicians welcomed the staff members before everyone was welcomed by Gavin Clark Preston Lodge new Headteacher. Gavin introduced Dr Harry Burns(Chief Medial Officer for Scotland) as the first keynote speaker after giving an overview of Support from the Start.

The following is my interpretation of Dr Burns presentation – you can view the slides preston-lodge-prestonpans-26-october-2009

Dr Burns started his presentation by changing the ordering of the title for the in-service morning to – Emotions, Learning and Well being -arguing that emotions underpin learning and well being and therefore this was the right order of precedence. He then began to give a clear and entertaining summary of the research that underpins the social determinants of health and inequality in health outcomes. He made it totally clear that environment and biology interact dynamically, and that a poor environment in the early years of life can influence, if not determine, our biological reaction to physical and mental stress in later life. Indeed the way in which our brains grow is determined by the environment that we find ourselves especially in early life.

Dr Burns drew on the work of Aaron Antonnovsky a researcher who followed up the health of people who were survivors of Nazi concentration camps, many of whom were able to live healthy lives despite the trauma and deprivations they experienced. Dr Burns said that this research demonstrated that how people perceive the environment they inhabit can have a radical difference to their health. Those survivors of the concentration camps that could find some ‘sense of coherence’  about the environment they were in had better health outcomes than those who could not. Another way of saying this is that people who can find the internal resources to make sense of the world they live in and feel they have some control and purpose have better health outcomes than those who don’t. From this we can say that a healthy environment, at all stages of life, needs to be experienced as :




In early life if these conditions are met our brains will grow with its stress responses set at a low threshold, and the parts of the brain that deal with personality formation, intellectual reasoning will grow better. When these conditions are not met the parts of the brain that deal with emotion fear and anxiety grow more strongly and stress responses are set high. This he evidenced with the results of a series of cortisol (a stress hormone) studies.

He then went on to look at ‘attachment theory’ and what conditions create poor attachment in early life. From psychological experiments,  on monkeys which altered the way in which parents could feed their babies, it was clear that an environment that created inconsistency in feeding, rather than scarcity or easy feeding regimes, created poor attachment between parent and baby. The inconsistency reduced the chances of the baby being able to develop an understanding of its environment that was comprehensible, manageable and had meaning for it. The babies with poor attachment were more likley to develop problems such as depression and obesity.

Dr Burns went on to look at studies that showed that inflammatoryresponses (the bodies system for dealing with physical stress and damage) also interacts dynamically with environmental factors. This leads to higher levels of disease such as cardiac problems and diabetes in people from more deprived backgrounds.

He also looked at how learning can be effected by environmental determinants describing a range of studies and experiments in this area.

It was the third time that I have heard Dr Burns speak on the theme of the social determinants of health and well being and I am always impressed by not only his grasp and understanding of the science and the research but the way that he makes it comprehensible to a non medical and mostly non scientific audience. 

However, its one thing to interpret the world another thing to change it – in the context of schools and nurseries what difference does it make how we understand the inequality that is clearly apparent – Can this understanding of brain development and the dynamic interaction of human biology and environment lead to better outcomes for children? I don’t have an answer to this question but whatever the answer is I’m sure that emotions and how we deal with them will be right at the centre of it.

Steven Wray

7 thoughts on “Learning, Emotions and Well Being”

  1. Steven, the answer is yes, yes, yes. Theories of brain development, biology and environment can have a radical impact on the learning environment we offer children and can guide on overcoming some of the biological,emotional and social barriers to learning that children (and adults) have. Over the last 6 years, Forthview Primary in Edinburgh used these insights to shape a school that nurtures and overcomes barriers to learning with very good impact on children’s wellbeing and confidence. This is inclusion in practice. 🙂

  2. Hi
    Thanks for the comment on the post – Dr Harry Burns was back in East Lothian talking to community groups on the 2nd November. This time we have videoed his presentation along with Don Ledingham’s presentation ‘These are out bairns’ . So David you will get the opportunity to hear the presentation of the slides. Some students from QMU are doing the work on this and once its finished I hope to be able to post it on this blog – but I think I will need your help David as my attempts to post video material have failed.

    Shiela, took a look at Campies blog and I can see your already working your magic. As part of the test site process we have been working on a map or pathway for the outcome ‘Improve readiness for learning’ – its still at a very early stage and would welcome your views on it.

  3. Steven, let’s get together and talk about our shared interests. I’ve been trying to find your contact details without success so can you call me at school on 665 2045? I’d love to help.

  4. Hi Steven

    Factual and fascinating is how I would summarise your notes on the event. I am very excited about the developments in this field. I have recently managed a pilot project on Music and Emotional Literacy based at Ross High School with a small group of S1/S2 pupils and have a copy of the evaluation (carried out independently by Edinburgh University) if anyone in the group is interested in learning more.
    I believe a child is best served when their carers, schools and other agencies sahre the same vision and have consistency in methodology to realise that vision for the child. I am keen to explore how the arts/culture can possibly act as a cohesive for these agencies for the benefit of children

  5. Hi Ruthanne
    I have heard about the Music and emotional literaycy project from David Trouton – in fact he gave a workshop presentation about the project at the learning, emotions and well being conference. It would be good to see a copy of the evaluation and I would like to link it here.
    David and I had planned to see if there was some work that could be done on this theme for early years in East Lothian.I think music can aslo help with langauage developement and therefore can help with getting children ready for learning – so as you say arts / culture has a lot to offer for the health and social well being agendas. Sustainability is a key issue and I know David has some ideas about this.


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