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Expanding Social and Emotional Development: Why More? Why Now?

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a multi-part series about how findings and solutions from Applied Educational Neuroscience are necessary in improving our approach to the social and emotional development of children.

By Lane JaBaay

The mission of schools and school districts has always been to educate students. To do this, we must continually evolve our approach to education and instruction so that schools provide students the academic intelligence necessary for them to flourish and be successful in the world in which they have been born.    

However, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report (World Economic Forum, 2016), in addition to academic intelligence, emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills required in 2020 (and beyond). 

This insight, coupled with the awareness that students are dealing with mounting emotional stressors given today’s tumultuous environment, reinforces that schools must be willing to reinvent themselves and become more intentional in whole-heartedly promoting the social and emotional development of their students.

A commitment to our students’ social and emotional development must be the new battle cry – from the top of the school system down – if we are to realize the academic outcomes we are working so hard to achieve.  

Why This is Now More Urgent

Right now, across America, there are a number of macro-level social influences converging, all resulting in the need for social and emotional development of our children if we are to prepare them to properly weather the storm.  

A decade of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research has provided evidence of the negative impact that childhood adversity has on the cognitive development of children. This is timely information given the recent announcement that, for the first time in history, more than half of children coming into U.S. public schools are coming from poverty – and there is a strong correlation between poverty and adversity. And new Adverse Childhood Experiences studies are shining a light on collective, racial and generational trauma. 

The pandemic, which is driving more students online, is creating unparalleled mental health challenges for children, including isolation, depression, lack of engagement and apathy. Students are now being forced to figure out how to “fit in” to these new online communities – leading to heightened emotional states of fear and anxiety. 20 million students across the country at this time have been out of school for almost a year, adding to existing traumas a healthy dose of food and housing insecurities, loss of jobs, and loss of the safe and connected places schools provide for so many of our children and youth. 

Collectively these conditions are causing many of our children to come to schools emotionally charged, also referred to as being in a “dis-regulated brain state.” We need to prepare our students – socially and emotionally – to help them through this.   

There has never been a more significant time for social and emotional learning to be prioritized in our schools across this nation. If we were meteorologists hovering above and looking at this convergence of pressures systems – we’d say to ourselves: ‘Wow – we are looking at a perfect storm.’  

Enhancing with Emotional Intelligence and Academic Success

Research shows there is a direct correlation between emotional intelligence and academic success. The greater a child’s emotional intelligence, the better their academic performance will be, and the more likely they will be prepared to enter the workforce and become a positively contributing member. 

However, the reverse is also true. When we see a child struggling emotionally – as evidenced by behavior outbursts, the inability to self-regulate and the inability to connect with teachers or peers – it should be a warning signal to all adults that without intervention, this little one will likely have a hard time finding his or her way in the world – let alone to a fulfilling job and/or meaningful role in life.     

Enhancing with Educational Neuroscience (EN) and Applied Educational Neuroscience – and learning

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience states, “Education is about enhancing learning, and neuroscience is about understanding the mental processes involved in learning.”  

Or said another way, Education is about what children learn and the process used for instruction. 

Educational Neuroscience (EN) is about how children learn and the brain science behind the process of learning. 

Applied Educational Neuroscience (AEN), a certificate program offered by Butler University, takes this to the next level. In addition to teaching basic brain science content – the what, AEN also provides the how – the strategies, practices, and methods needed within classroom and school environments to assist in the learning process. AEN is the exploration of why these strategies work. What is happening in the child’s brain, neurologically, when we apply these techniques that place them in a brain state capable of learning?

So, What’s the Difference between SEL and AEN?   

Almost all SEL curricula in the market today align with CASEL’s 5 core competencies: Self Awareness, Social Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making. These competencies include concepts such as identifying emotions, empathy, compassion, perspective-taking, social norms, critical thinking, etc. Each of these competencies is critical in children learning the social and emotional skillsets necessary for them to succeed in life.  

AEN focuses on the brain science behind the learning process. This includes both the what – content such as neuroanatomy of the brain, brain state, triggers, stress response, etc., and the how – strategies and tactical methods such as breathwork, movement, self-and co-regulation, etc.  

Whereas SEL may teach a child that breathing will help them to calm down and become less agitated, AEN will explain the brain science behind why breathing works. Additionally, while SEL teaches the importance of critical thinking, AEN provides the techniques necessary to place a child in a brain state capable of critically thinking.   

Understanding this distinction oftentimes provides a huge breakthrough for students. Instead of simply applying what they are told to do, (i.e. “breath, breath, breath”), knowing the brain science behind breathwork actually empowers them to be proactive in this practice. Because they now have the insights and tools necessary to control their emotions instead of their emotions controlling them. This is very exciting and liberating for students. And although applying AEN strategies in the classroom environment is effective in helping teachers move their students into a brain state capable of learning, these are also valuable skills students can take with them to become more powerful in the real world.

Both SEL and AEN are better understood when students are given ample opportunity to practice these new skills through repeated role-playing and modeling and when they are encouraged and motivated to incorporate these strategies into their social and emotional armor.    

In our next installment, we’ll look at the merging of SEL and AEN concepts, the teacher’s role in this process, as well as the role of the student in his or her own wellbeing.

About the author

Lane JaBaay is the founder and CEO of The H2 Group – an EdTech Company dedicated to the social and emotional development of children. The H2 Group develops highly engaging educational curricula using immersive techniques of storytelling, gameplay and animation to educate kids in SEL and motivate them to pro-social action. Lane is certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience from Butler University. Her curricula, called SHAKTI Warriors, has been implemented in some of the largest school districts in the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago, greater DC and now Indianapolis, where she calls home.

Follow Lane JaBaay and SHAKTI Warriors on Twitter @ShaktiWarriors

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