Parental Conflict and Learning

February 22nd, 2017

The brain is a funny thing. We use our brains constantly and don’t even think about it. We can walk, talk, solve math problems, and much more! But how did our brains learn that 5-3=2? Many of us learned through brute memorization and repetition that wore a neuron pathway in our brain until we could recall the fact easily. According to Anita Woolfolk, its because “the brain seeks meaningful patterns and connections with existing networks…” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 46).

However, before you learned to subtract, you had to learn to count. Without the ability to count, learning to subtract would probably have been outside of your zone of proximal development. What is the zone of proximal development? “The zone of proximal development is a phase in which a child can master a task if given the proper support” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 67). Your teacher was probably familiar with this theory by Lev Vygotsky. This theory helps teachers understand how to help students learn by providing them with support as they work to complete goals within their realm of achievement based on previous knowledge.

Strategies such as Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development are very helpful as teachers work with students to help them learn. However, there are often circumstances outside the classroom that can also affect students ability to learn, and it can sometimes be very difficult to see how these circumstances affect a student’s zone of proximal development and ability to learn. Urie Bronfenbrenner, a professor of psychology, introduced the idea of “context” as a way to understand how development and learning are shaped by factors surrounding a student.

Context is the “internal and external circumstances and situations that interact with the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to shape development and learning” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 86). To simplify, context acknowledges that students are a part of a bigger world around them and are affected by what goes on in their family, neighborhood, school, and world. One particular context I wanted to learn about was the role of a parent’s relationship, or lack thereof, in development. Thus, I studied a phenomenon that plagues almost half of students in today’s culture- divorce. My parents filed for divorce my junior year of high school, so this topic was of particular interest to me.

As I searched online for additional information regarding the effects of divorce on child development and found a great TedTalk by Professor Tamara Afifi. Professor Afifi discusses that there are many variables to how children cope with divorce and that children react differently. She suggests that the biggest factor of a parent’s relationship on a child is how parents, both married and divorced, handle conflict (Afifi, 2012).

Afifi conducted a studied that took saliva samples of children before and after talk about a stressful subject related to the parents’ marriage. The saliva sample were taken multiple times after the discussion and all saliva samples were tested to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes our heart rate increase by narrowing the arteries to our heart and raises our blood sugar levels. Parents that discussed in a competent, supportive, and affectionate way, children saw a slight increase in cortisol levels immediately after the conflict, but eventually returned to normal levels. Children of parents who were married and chronically fighting saw irregular patterns in cortisol and were unable to calm down and regulate their stress levels (Afifi, 2012). If you want to learn more about Professor Afifi’s work, the video is below.

For teachers, the book provides some helpful tips for ways to be sensitive to students who have parents with struggling relationship. Three strategies that I found the most helpful are (1) “Talk individually to students about their attitude or behavior changes, (2) Watch your language to avoid stereotypes about “happy” (two-parent) homes, and (3) Help students maintain self-esteem” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 92).

In conclusion, it is not only important that teachers understand how the brain learns, but also how circumstances surrounding a student affect how the brain is learning.


Afifi, T.D. [TedxTalks].(2012, May, 20). The impact of divorce on children: Tamara D. Afifi at TEDxUCSB.

Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition. Pearson.


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