In a Perfect World

You might assume that I think it is impossible to divorce a student’s social-emotional health from their education. You would be right. Just like our left brain and our right brain are not isolated from each other, we cannot expect our kids to operate in a vacuum at school – absorbing information and making calculations like a computer. Their environment and mindset and overall emotional maturity play a huge role in how they learn and process information and whether they integrate it effectively or not.

Here are a few key social-emotional skills adolescents need to develop in order to become active participants in their education, but they can’t do that without a lot of support from parents and teachers.

  • identify and demonstrate their personal values – It isn’t enough to “know” what your values are. Teens and tweens need to find the courage to live their values. For example, if Marcus values his health, then over time it will become important for him to make choices based on that belief despite what others around him are doing.
  • self-manage attention and focus – There is a difference between using technology as a tool to further your goals and letting technology do the work for you or distract you from doing your work. The more parents and educators can teach adolescents about how to use technology mindfully and purposefully, the more they can understand how it affects their time management.
  • positive outlook/growth mindset – All too often, we treat individual assignments and activities as though they are important in and of themselves, as opposed to recognizing that they are steps along the way. As students begin to see each task they are asked to do as relating to the bigger picture, they can be more open to learning from their mistakes. Understanding that we have something to learn from every situation and using that information in our pursuit of a larger goal is key to giving us the courage to keep trying.
  • personalized priorities – Every student has a different threshold for frustration and prolonged studying. Every student learns in a slightly different way. The earlier they are encouraged to prioritize based on what they know about themselves, the more likely teens are to create effective time-management strategies. Some kids do best when they get the “hard” tasks out of the way first, and others do great if they take short breaks every 30 minutes or so to stare out the window.
  • stare out the window – This sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but it has been shown that when we take time to ruminate or daydream, our brains are making connections that they don’t make when we are reading or being lectured to. Letting our brains play with information and reorganize it in different ways helps us find deeper meaning and integrate abstract concepts – something the adolescent brain is learning how to do if we can just give it the opportunity.
  • engage in creative activities – This is related to the previous skill and can take on many different forms, depending on the individual. When teens and tweens are encouraged to create, they are engaging different parts of their brain and often lighting up the pleasure centers, which floods the brain with chemicals that actually help us imprint memories better. A range of experiences and emotions when we are adolescents means that we are more capable of making better decisions as adults.
  • connect to others in a variety of ways – The stronger a teen’s relationships are, the more likely he or she is to feel as though they can risk living their values and attack challenges. Adolescents who are encouraged to both draw on their social connections for support and provide empathic support to others are more resilient and creative and grounded.

How do you think schools and parents can support adolescents in developing these skills?

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

It is really easy to get sucked in to the notion that our children’s best learning opportunities come within the four walls of a classroom or school building. We talk about strategies for educators and examine the curriculum on back-to-school night and ask questions about class size and grading, and all of those things are important, but it is important to remember that their brains don’t turn off when they leave school for the day.

Whether your child is involved in sports or music lessons, the drama club or working a few hours after school, they are learning valuable lessons and we can help them absorb those things by asking questions and expressing interest in what they are doing. Trying out for a position on the team or in the school play is a lesson in courage, not getting it is a lesson in adjusting our expectations and dealing with disappointment. Working on a particularly challenging song is a lesson in perseverance, and getting along with customers and co-workers can help develop patience and empathy. All of these things might seem obvious, but pointing them out to our kids is a way of reminding them that they can always be learning and growing, even if it isn’t in a formal setting.

One of the goals of social-emotional education is to teach kids that they can be the leader when it comes to what they learn. Finding things that interest them and pursuing mastery (and even sometimes simple survival of a situation) is just as important for their development as algebra and history. If we as parents and teachers place just as much value on the things kids are learning outside of school, we reinforce the idea of lifelong learning and let them know that grades aren’t the only goals to set your sights on.

How can you talk to your kids about the non-school things they learn every day?

“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

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