Re-thinking fear-based learning as an effective teaching tool

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

For many people, reflecting on childhood includes vivid memories of being yelled at or feeling threatened by a family member or teacher.

These terrifying experiences often get imprinted in memory, with the memory of frightening events acting as a survival mechanism that helps us avoid further similarly scary events in the future.

But despite this strong connection between fear and memory leading us to think fear can be an effective learning tool, research shows that fear can have long-term negative consequences for both children and adults – and can make it harder to engage in meaningful learning.

How does fear affect learning?

Deborah Pino Pasternak is an Associate Professor in Early Childhood Education and Community at the University of Canberra.

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She says the research offers the opportunity to improve our understanding of how we learn when we’re scared – and how we can learn more effectively without fear.

“Fear is designed to protect us from current and future danger,” she says. “If children are faced with experiences that trigger fear, they learn to avoid new experiences – as opposed to exploring, engaging, and approaching the unknown with curiosity.”

Being consistently exposed to fear, Associate Professor Pino Pasternak says, changes the way the brain reacts to the outside world. Because fear triggers a stress response in the brain, the state of alert that is created makes us hyper-ready to react swiftly and decisively to incoming threats – a level of reactivity that, she says, may help you manage a confrontation with an aggressive stranger but will not create a productive learning environment in school, where being open to new experiences is essential to creating innovative solutions.

Read more: Navigating rewards – how to acknowledge your child’s academic achievements

“The areas of the brain that are activated when we’re scared are different to those we use when thinking carefully about how to address a tricky problem,” she says. “Research has shown the more primitive parts of the brain take over the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s ‘control centre’ when we’re in a state of fear.”

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This physiological fact means feeling threatened or afraid can impact our ability to plan, make sound decisions, and draw on our existing knowledge effectively – and because children soak up the examples the adults in their lives show them, the way adults exhibit their fear responses plays a critical part in providing (or failing to provide) safe environments that promote children’s explorations of the world around them.

Understanding fear responses can inform meaningful change

The educational value of this research, from Associate Professor Pino Pasternak’s perspective, is that “it suggests that several forms of learning are at play when it comes to the development of fear responses”.

“For example, individuals can learn about fear via associations (connections between a stimulus and an adverse response = linking a particular skate park with a fracture); but they can also learn it vicariously (by the way significant adults and peers react to situations); and by verbal learning (what they learn from conversations, interactions, and exposure to content),” she told EducationDaily.

“The last two (vicarious and verbal) are particularly important for adults to be aware of. As adults, we can be mindful of our responses to fearful situations (what are we modelling?) and can also use language as a tool to process situations where children have become afraid. Asking questions like ‘What made you feel afraid?’ ‘What can you do next time to feel safer?’ or unpacking whether a perception of threat can have a different interpretation (‘Does a person being loud on the street necessarily mean they are dangerous?’). All these are important opportunities for learning and reframing the role of fear in our lives.”

Recognising safe environments

She says that one of the most significant findings the research revealed to her was that anxious individuals who may acquire fear in similar ways to non-anxious ones “struggle to identify safety cues and to extinguish fear, more so than non-anxious individuals”.

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“This made me think of the importance of talking to children about what is safe about the environments and interactions they live and participate in, and not only what can be threatening,” she told EducationDaily. “While recognising that threat identification is important for safety (and I’m not saying this is not the case), I also wonder about the benefits of using language to point out what can be considered safe, and what strategies children can use to feel safe in an environment.”

With studies showing that both toddlers and school-aged children can learn to avoid new experiences if their parents communicate or show signs of fear in reference to them, Associate Professor Pino Pasternak cites the example of how a child can learn to fear animals by seeing how their parents react to them, or the way constant warnings to ‘be careful!’ may end up making a child too anxious to climb trees or take risks on playground equipment, to showcase the different ways learned fear can manifest itself in a child.

“Adult behaviours also affect the degree to which children feel safe to be themselves and explore the world with confidence,” she says.

“Studies investigating the behaviours of parents have consistently shown harsh parenting (involving physical and verbal aggression) is related to poorer outcomes in children – including academic underachievement, higher levels of aggression and anxiety and poor peer relationships.”

The development of fear responses has a lifelong impact

For parents who encourage autonomy while providing structure and reasons for boundaries, the opposite is true.

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To address arguments of adults who may reflect that their own experience of fear-based learning in childhood ‘didn’t do me any harm’, Associate Professor Pino Pasternak says it is important to consider that research on child-rearing continues to advance through longitudinal studies. She says that now, more than ever before, “we have a good understanding of the positive and negative impacts of adult behaviour on children’s long-term development”.

“For instance, a recently published study with families of Mexican origin in the US showed that maternal stress and harsh parenting in toddlerhood predicted aggressive adolescent behaviours,” she told EducationDaily. “Harsh parenting is characterised by over-strict behaviours and the presence of threats – in other words, it serves to create fear-inducing environments. On the flip side, other longitudinal studies have reported strong positive associations between autonomy-supportive parenting (characterised by psychological safety) at the age of five and children’s positive social and academic adjustment at school at the age of eight.”

Encouraging curiosity is critical

Teachers, she says, can also play a pivotal role in the way young children develop fear responses, with students more likely to be motivated and function well in classrooms if teachers are ‘autonomy-supportive’.

Educators can help students by displaying a curious and open attitude towards students’ interests, seeking the perspective of students and offering choices, as well as accepting a range of emotions (including frustration, anger, and reticence, as well as curiosity, joy, and playfulness).

Parents and teachers, Associate Professor Pino Pasternak says, “are in a privileged position to provide social and emotional environments where children can develop their best selves”.

“No matter how varied those selves may be, why would we settle with not doing any harm?”

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Future workplaces will demand creative thinking

And with the need for creative collaboration to address difficult problems proving more important than ever in the workplaces of the future, she believes that, by focusing on learning that allows children to grow and develop, instead of restricting thoughts about what is safe, adults can help encourage ways to think about how systems can be improved.

“That requires safe and nurturing environments at school and home, rather than settings that are ruled by fear,” she says.

“Curiosity has been defined as ‘the desire to know and experience that motivates behaviour related to acquisition of new knowledge’ – hence it acts as a driver that propels us to know more, acting as an engine that moves us to identify problems and develop innovative and useful solutions.”

As the world faces technological advancements that far exceed our understanding of the ethical repercussions of their presence in our lives, Associate Professor Pino Pasternak told EducationDaily “this calls for a different type of learner, one that is thrilled by challenges, one that can live with ambiguity, and one that is not prepared to give up after repeated failures”.

“We cannot develop such learning profiles if individuals, through fear, learn to comply and avoid the risky and the unknown.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]