Increasing Evidence that Social-Emotional Education is Important

"Cerebral lobes" by derivative work of this - Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cerebral_lobes.png#mediaviewer/File:Cerebral_lobes.png
“Cerebral lobes” by derivative work of this – Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This article explores ways to think about re-structuring our educational system to more fully support educators and students in a world that has changed immensely since the beginning of the public school system. We are living in a much different world and the way we approach education hasn’t kept up.

“…society must decide what it wants to be: interconnected individuals responsible to a community or a world filled with “consumers,” dependent on products, services and authority figures.” John Abbott, 21st Century Learning Initiative

Much of the disaffection with the school system stems from a pervasive feeling that the intense focus on formal academics has inadvertently neglected the rest of a child’s personality and humanity. While employers, psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly noted that social and emotional skills like empathy are some of the most important ones for success, many schools still lag in developing effective programs to nurture those soft skills.” Katrina Schwartz

Enter social-emotional education. With the newest revelations in brain development research, it is possible to more purposefully approach education in ways that are meaningful to our kids. Scientists like Dr. Dan Siegel believe that adolescence is a crucial time in brain development that offers the potential for us to impact lifelong patterns of thought and behavior by emphasizing certain neurological pathways. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in a human brain until around age 24, there is a lot of opportunity to shape it positively during the teen years. (The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that integrates emotion and behavior, brain and body, and ultimately is responsible for how we choose to act, especially in the most stressful situations.) One way to strengthen the prefrontal cortex is through mindfulness.

The double-whammy of adolescence is that, not only is the prefrontal cortex undeveloped, but the emotion centers of the brain are overactive during these years. This is why kids ages 10-20 can be so emotionally volatile and do things that we as adults cannot begin to understand. Using mindfulness to interrupt the sudden swells of emotion has been shown to be effective in stress management for individuals and reducing incidents of relational aggression in school communities.

The beautiful thing about these techniques lies in the malleability of the brain itself. The more you practice something, the easier it gets. Giving kids the tools to implement mindfulness as their brains are developing means that those responses will be more automatic as they age and are likely to ultimately reduce anxiety and aggression in their adult lives as well.

Unfortunately, many teachers are overwhelmed with the tasks they are already expected to do in any given day, and carving out time for one more set of lessons can feel impossible.  That is where The SELF Project comes in. If you know a school or other organization whose kids could stand to benefit from some research-based, dynamic workshops using mindfulness, contact kari@theselfproject.com

 

Simple Gratitude Practice for Kids

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I created these cards for my daughters when they were ten and eight. My oldest was struggling with anxiety at bedtime and cried every morning when I woke her up for school, desperately searching for some reason I ought to let her stay home. I hated to see her start and end every day like that and, honestly, it was wearing on me, too. After thinking about ways she could re-frame her day to inject some positive energy, I came up with this system.

I made each of them a ring with six beads in alternating colors.  There are three questions to ask before they get out of bed in the morning and three to ask right before they fall asleep. The idea is to slide the first bead to the side as they ask the first question, and slide the second bead as they come up with an answer. The morning questions are:

1. What can I expect from today?
2. What can I do to make today great?
3. What can I do for myself today?

The goal of the first question is to get some idea of what the day holds (a spelling test, a visit from Gram, school and then basketball practice, etc.). The second question offers them an opportunity to understand that they have the power to make it a good day, and the third helps to ensure that there is something they can look forward to that incorporates self-care.

The evening questions are:

1. What made me happy today?
2. How did I help someone else today?
3. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

At the end of the day, I want them to look back and focus on the parts that they enjoyed, the places where they chose to make a difference for someone else, and have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

I started out by sitting with them as they asked and answered each question, gently guiding positive responses, and gradually weaned them off of having me there.  My oldest was happy to do it on her own, realizing that sometimes she wanted to keep her answers private, and my youngest prefers to have an audience. I designed the rings with their favorite colors and my youngest, who is a very tactile kid, really enjoys sliding them back and forth as she goes through the exercise. My other daughter, who is the kind of person that loves little treasures, slept for a year with the ring underneath her pillow as a talisman.

While I didn’t make myself a ring, I have found the simple practice of asking myself these questions to bookend my day is a powerful reminder of where to place my energy and how to ground myself every morning and every evening in what is most important to me.