Learning through Pain – Using Sensory Pathways to Differentiate Instruction

Kid at home by the window

Dr. A D. Monceaux, Director, Lamar University Pathway Program, Beaumont, TX, USA

Pulling from emotionally charged experiences can sometimes help support differentiated instruction – teaching that addresses students’ individual learning needs. Emotionally charged experiences , or stress factors,  can be experiences that the student may not be socially, emotionally, or physically ready to jump into, but can be helpful in their development of language in a supportive environment. Our brains can relive these moments powerfully so they can serve a good foundation for building language. This essay discusses how Dr. A. D. Monceaux worked with older students in a group setting to draw on these emotional experiences for constructive and supportive instruction. These strategies can be helpful for not only second language learners, but also for all learners as we develop language to compliment our growth.


During a recent conference, I spoke about using senses to increase student motivation in the classroom. During those sessions, I challenged educators to move beyond the traditional five senses into four others: thermoception – heat or cold, nociception – pain, equilibrioception – balance, and proprioception – body awareness. We have a stronger memory of intense moments (Wolfe 2001), so having students recall rich experiences allow them to build upon them for learning. However, during the conference, educators particularly piqued to the concept of using pain. Of course, educators should avoid pain and painful situations in the classroom. But perhaps we should clarify what we mean by pain, and how we can use powerful moments to create safe moments of learning for children.

Nociception (pain) functions on multiple dimensions and cuts across the learner’s thinking and thought processes ( cognitive), interest, motivations, and emotional/psychological dimensions (affective), and ability to use their bodies to demonstrate knowledge (psychomotor). Nociception impacts our thinking and our emotions, and we often have physical reactions to it also. Because of this, it is a critical sensory pathway.

Using emotionally charged experiences in safe ways can be especially helpful in developing language. In the reliving of these moments, the brains make powerful connections that the learner is deeply connected and interested in. It creates a critical avenue to scaffold in new language, comprehensions, and modes of thinking.  Having the students process new concepts through previous experiences allows them to work from a secure vantage point. The student is the master of those experiences; the student has all the answers. The teacher’s work is to help the student create a model that connects the new information to the old.

Recently, a college student was fighting with a cultural expectation that placed his family over his dreams. He struggled to understand how to move forward with his life. His teachers and the popular media pressured him to follow his dreams. Meanwhile, his community pressured him to turn away from childhood dreams and take steps that would allow him to be the man he needed to be to support a family.

We sat shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, staring at the near-blank computer screen. The assignment asked students to practice writing a narrative essay. To make it powerful and personalized, it had asked students to draw on an experience that was about cultural beliefs. He had chosen to retell an event where he had learned that cultural and community expectation. The lecture and text had introduced both the concept of an essay and a narrative. But he needed to find the story, analyze it, and plug it back into the narrative framework. This would give him access to the academic language required for writing as well as a clearer understanding of how the narrative essay functioned so that he would be able to use it effectively in a professional context.

I asked him, “What are you working with, which topic have you selected?” He said, “cultural expectation – the one that says, you should go to school, graduate, and get a job at the plant and work till you die whether you like it or not because that’s what provides for a family.” He then corkscrewed, reclined right, and resigned to wait for my retort. I waited and watched as his body sunk into the chair. He held my gaze, his eyes slowly redden and glassed over with tears. “But where did you learn this – what was the event,” I asked? “It was when I was lost and did not know what to do with my life; my father and I talked, and this was what I learned. This is what he did for us.” His brimming eyes watched as he waited for my response – waiting for me to refute his father, to deny this rule, to cast him back into his wilderness. I asked, “And what do you believe?” He rose, turned to the computer, ready to type, saying, “This is what I believe.”

As he started this assignment, his experience became foundational knowledge. However, learning is a process arising from the confluence of knowledge and experience (Monceaux, 2018). It is possible to know, i.e., this is what my father expects, and not learn. It is also possible to have experience, i.e., the face-to-face with his father, and not learn. This student “knew” something and had experienced something, but I wanted him to unpackage the moment. I wanted him to learn. To put into new language what had happened, to be able to break it into its parts, understand the situation, its dynamics, and their interplay. In his breaking down of the experience, he needed to draw on both new and old language to communicate his learning.

Teacher to student(s) exchanges guide the student through experiences and enable the student to access new learning while also allowing the student to develop perspective and coping skills. Initially, the teacher differentiates process and instruction for each student. This exchange is helpful. Often, it is difficult for students to gain access to everything an educator is providing though. This difficulty could be due to power or authority dynamics, relational dynamics, or language barriers to name a few hindrances. However, turning the assignment back to the students for peer-to-peer and group learning allows them to fill in those gaps using similarly leveled language. Use of peer-to-peer and group work can be a subsequent differentiation avenue.

Because each student’s ability to process and master content is different, allowing them to work together gives them greater access to learning. Building off their own experiences allows them to bring to bear their past knowledge in a way that is impossible with a prompt that inhibits past experiences.

Additionally, allowing the students to use their language and experience in peer-to-peer exchanges actively enables the community, empathy building,  and interpersonal understandings that help normalize their lives, while reinforcing communicative language and establishing new language connections. Just as the student was working through his ideas, the other 16 students were also working on projects of their selection. Most were also gravitating to deep psychologically or emotionally charged content with which they are grappling. However, this assignment’s core elements give them a way to understand their journey, causes them to scrutinize that journey logically, and to forge relationships with peers as they share and think about each other’s processes.

When the students talk to me about their process, the language is often formal and academic; some struggle to use and comprehend everything in a teacher-student discussion. However, when we break into pairs and small groups, the student’s language changes to vernacular. As the students read each other’s outlines and papers and begin to discuss these, they use language that is common to them and that works for the immediate situation to communicate their ideas and to foster trusting relationships. Students relax and comment on how they like to “talk” about things. However, it is important to note that even here, the impact of the language used is critical to developing the concept and solidify the learning, as well as developing a sense of community. One student recently proudly reported, “I only knew pain as physical, not emotional.”

The pair/group work, interplayed with lecture and teacher-guided discussions, and individual discussions empower the student’s process. Not only is the student able to grasp and utilize the academic language more fluidly, they can connect those abstract rhetoric concepts to their lives in ways that empower their ability to be objective about highly emotional life events, to break those instances into their respective parts, and wrestle meaning from what had been a mystical fog of experience previously. The learning assignment and engagement become the tools that they can apply to the struggle they are having with other life events with a gained ability.

Legend has it that Athena, goddess of wisdom sprang fully grown and armed. My student-teacher discussion was not this successful – the student did not, in a flash of insight, instantaneously craft a great American novel in that setting, but he did begin. By that I mean, he was able to take a piece of the target language, and fix it to a place. He was able to connect other pieces to their respective places then to etch out something more thoroughly. His conversation with his neighbor helped. Midst chuckles, grins, and multiple pauses, he gained clarity and insight. I watched as through that class; a young, isolated student began to connect to me, then others through language. His story was not less stark, not less painful, but language had given him objectivity to parse out his experience. His experience informed the assignments and gave it meaning and relevance, but differentiating the assignment made it possible to be accomplished at all. His focusing on that powerful and perhaps painful experience allowed him to wrestle through a difficult place in his life in a safe, learning environment that brought meaning to the course and deeper connections to his peers. I, for one, was happy he shared.

Bio:  Dr. Monceaux holds degrees in English and Modern Languages (B.A. & M.A.), Counseling and Human Development (M.Ed.), and Educational Leadership, Ed.D. with a concentration in Global Education. Since becoming an educator in 1999, he has offered more than 50 professional development workshops and training sessions to educators from all over the world.


Monceaux, A. Characteristics of Non-ESOL and Esol Higher Education Educators Affective Domain Training, Knowledge, Perception, and Uses. A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the College of Graduate Studies, Lamar University. (2018).

Oaksford, Linda, and Lynn Jones. “Differentiated instruction abstract.” (2001).

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.