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?

New Guided Meditation: Cheesecloth

I désigned this meditation when my daughters were in elementary school and struggling to process all of the interactions they had in any given day. This is a quick, five minute “reset” anyone can do in order to clear out any extra negative stuff and move on with purpose.

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.

Is Our Public School System Neglecting Half of Our Kids’ Brains?

Most people have heard about left brain/right brain science. Ideally, while the two sides of our brain are responsible for different parts of learning and activity, they work in tandem to help us make our way through the world.  But in looking at what each side of the brain is involved in, I wonder if our increase in core curriculum and standardized testing is leaving out some vital educational opportunities that will end up being detrimental to our kids.

The left brain is generally thought to be in charge of all things logical, rational and analytical. Language mostly occurs here, as does mathematical reasoning and sequential thinking. These are the things we can (and do) measure on standardized tests.

The right brain is responsible for creativity, pattern recognition, design, story, meaning and context, among other things. It is here where the concrete information we take in every day finds a home, a place to be played with and understood more fully.  But these things, as they take longer to figure out and reach across different subjects, are incredibly difficult to measure in a quick, standardized way. In order to really see whether someone has a true understanding of something, we have to see how they integrate it, use it, see it fitting in to the big picture. This kind of knowledge is much more demonstrable – it has to be shown and not recorded.

Dr. Dan Siegel writes that the main job of the adolescent brain is to integrate the two sides of the brain, to begin to piece together what a child knows of the world and has discovered in ways that build a more complex understanding of consequences and possibilities. This process takes years and years – many of them in middle and high school – of practice.  But if our schools are increasingly teaching our kids to perform on standardized tests, memorize names and dates and places, and placing a premium on following pre-established rules and formulas, we aren’t giving these adolescent brains much to work with when it comes to the “right side” of things.  In a world where our children have fewer personal interactions with their friends (spending much of their time texting each other or ‘liking’ each others’ Instagram posts), they are already at a deficit when it comes to learning about social cues like body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.  If we continue to de-emphasize creative problem solving and critical thinking, we are putting them at a further disadvantage.

As art and music classes are cut to make more time for science and math classes, as recess and physical education go the way of the dodo, we are increasingly putting all of our eggs into the left brain basket and I wonder where it will leave us. So many of the most innovative thinkers in our world who have solved incredibly difficult puzzles are not people who were thinking inside the box. They were using their right and left brain in tandem to come up with new ways to tackle persistent problems.  When kids have time and space to sit back and think about the implications of what they are learning, when they are asked open-ended questions that prompt further introspection and contemplation, they have an opportunity to use both sides of the brain and the information tends to be more important and longer-lasting.

Social-emotional learning can reinforce the activities of the right brain and help adolescents with the integration their brains are trying to achieve during this time. Because the premise of so much of the curriculum of The SELF Project is based in curiosity, it expands connections between seemingly disparate things in our brains. When we ask “why?” or “how?” questions, we are building bridges and creating a depth of knowledge that isn’t possible when we only use one side of our brain.

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