Earlier this year, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a grant from the Wallace Foundation, came out with a 350 page analysis of SEL Programs in the USA. Entitled Navigating SEL from the Inside Out, it dissects 25 leading SEL programs for elementary school that are implemented either during and after school. Many of the programs include a pre-school component.
The SEL Programs identified as most effective included:
- Sequenced activities to teach skills
- Active engagement of students in learning skills
- Focused time on specifically targeted SEL skills
I was struck by how kinesthetic these three qualifiers of efficacy are and how few kinesthetic learning strategies were mentioned. The programs that were more physical activity based were not seen as supporting emotional processing, character, or mindset. Yet, statistics point to 80% of children as being kinesthetic learners. Per their own evaluation, the authors point to whole child engagement as being the best teacher yet they don’t seem to value that engagement as much when it is body oriented.
In my opinion, the perceived gap between body and mind in the learning process not only does a dis-service to children, it also disempowers them, especially early learners who are developmentally oriented to the body. What’s missing in SEL programs for young children is an understanding that all learning happens in the body and that all SEL skills must be practiced in the body to be mastered.
We developed the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum to bridge this gap and to offer educators a way to integrate body and mind for more successful development, learning and social-emotional skills. Children build character, manage emotions, and embody determination through what they do, experience, and practice physically.
The authors also noted four organizing principles shared by high-quality SEL programs, which are:
- Create a safe and positive environment for children and adults
- Support the development of high quality relationships between children and adults
- Offer developmentally appropriate, relevant and engaging activities for children
- Provide opportunities for direct skill build
The paper explains that SEL Programs are only effective when they are integrated into the mission and practices of the organization. The curriculum and activities must be aligned with the school goals, as well as lived and modeled by teachers and administrators. In my experience in ECE, another missing piece is the embodied EQ of the educators and care providers. How do they model self-care when they’ve never been taught or supported in practicing it? How can they help children become aware of and integrate their own body-mind state with specific techniques if they’ve not been taught any tools themselves?
Another reason we started MwMYA is to provide teachers with the education and practice they need to increase their own mindfulness, self-care, self-regulation, compassionate communication, and social-emotional intelligence. To teach a high quality SEL Program, they need to embody both an understanding of the brain and body as well as a set of skills and tools they can practice, model, and teach.
SEL Teaches Character
In 1995, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman published the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which launched the SEL movement. The case he presents and validates with preliminary evidence is that:
- Character matters
- Character can be taught
- Character improves academic, social, and professional achievement
Since then, all subsequent research shows that SEL does, in fact, enhance children’s academic success while preventing problems such as mental health disorders and violence. Social-emotional competencies, as defined by the list below, empower kids to grow self-aware and confident, to manage difficult emotions and impulses, and to embody empathy, which translates to not only improved behavior but also test scores.
Daniel Goleman’s 5 Social Emotional Learning Skills:
- Emotional self-awareness — knowing what one is feeling at any given time and understanding the impact those moods have on others
- Self-regulation — controlling or redirecting one’s emotions; anticipating consequences before acting on impulse
- Motivation — utilizing emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoy the learning process and persevere in the face of obstacles
- Empathy — sensing the emotions of others
- Social skills — managing relationships, inspiring others and inducing desired responses from them
To understand how these 5 components of social-emotional intelligence (aka: EQ), affect learning, we must also look at brain-based research. SEL is all about developing neutral awareness and thoughtful choices (aka: mindfulness). To be able to respond rather than react, children need to cultivate the executive functions of their neocortex (frontal lobe of the brain) as well as the heart-centered intelligence of their mid-brain limbic system, which houses meaning making and memories. SEL helps children move out of their lower, automatic “reptilian brain” thinking and into higher, rational thinking and regulation, by establishing rules and activities that promote safety – physical, emotional and social – and teach respectful, kind and compassionate ways to think and behave.
SEL Shapes the Brain
Classrooms that include SEL are organized around the principles of respect, kindness, and empathy. SEL teachers and lessons engage students in learning and practicing how to embody those qualities. This kind of environment encourages optimal brain development as well as social connection and collaboration. In other words, SEL affects learning by shaping children’s developing neural circuitry, particularly the executive functions. As children feel safe and learn how to inhibit disruptive emotional impulses, they exhibit greater self-confidence, better behavior and enhanced memory. They enjoy the learning process and thus, readily engage and fully immerse themselves in gaining new information and skills.
We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience. –John Dewey
How to teach social emotional learning
To teach social-emotional skills, educators and parents need to build in time for children to imagine, experiment, and reflect on their experiences and choices, just like any other subject matter. This includes:
- Discussing conflicts and trying out different ways to resolve them
- Naming and being with feelings/emotions inside oneself & expressed by others
- Playing with how to manage big emotions and have compassion for self & others
- Experimenting with sharing, negotiation & collaboration
- Practicing how to be neutral and curious enough to really let in the thoughts, beliefs and values of others without having to defend your own
- Reflecting on the results and feelings from all of the above before, during & after
Being a Mindful Model
To learn social-emotional skills, young children must be safe and encouraged to explore, make mistakes, and viscerally feel. They need a safe, empathetic, and playful environment that provides them with strategies, tools, and reflection around the development of self & emotional awareness, self-care & regulation, social awareness, empathy, and cooperation. You, teacher or parent, make this possible by being a mindful model & compassionate mirror:
- Emotionally honest, self-regulating, available, curious, and responsive
- Clear with expectations and guidelines. Consistent with appropriate consequences.
- Calm when angry. Caring when frustrated. Compassionate with everyone including yourself.
- Supportive with instruction & acknowledging of efforts. Never mock or shame.
- Give choices and respect wishes. Reflect on results. Don’t micro-manage.
- Ask questions that help children solve problems and self-regulate on their own.
- Be culturally aware and respectful.
The Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum gives you everything you need to teach SEL and fulfill most other standards.
Practicing meditation enhances your ability to be the mindful model & compassionate mirror. When you practice focusing your attention, rather than letting it jump around, you move into in your higher neocortex brain and your para-sympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, and out of your lower survival, automatic brain and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. You reset your mind-body into an optimal state.
Most of us are programmed to do, act, accomplish. We do not value being, reflecting, processing. Even in the face of all the research that tells us the value of mindfulness practices, it’s hard for most of us to choose to take the time. We have too many things to do! But if you want to improve your capacity to teach SEL, it’s a requirement.
Social Emotional Learning is about developing the ability to:
- set and achieve goals
- feel and show empathy
- establish and maintain relationships
- make responsible decisions
- understand and manage emotions
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Standards list the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive skills woven into and necessary for functioning well in everyday life – at home, at work, and at school – for everyone.
Though they differ slightly from state to state, these standards define social-emotional intelligence, which is really just the academic and neuroscientific breakdown of the attitudes, behaviors, and actions that make someone good to themselves, nice to know, and pleasant to work with. Because all the research shows that social and emotional competence is fundamental to academic and personal success, SEL is an essential and integrated part of every pre and primary school curriculum.
CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, supports educators and parents in understanding and cultivating SEL standards through these 5 competencies:
- Self-awareness – the ability to
- Identify one’s own emotions
- Accurately perceive oneself
- Recognize one’s strengths & limitations
- Embody a confident, positive, growth mindset
- Self-management – the ability to
- Control impulses
- Manage stress
- Set goals
- Organize one’s thinking and tasks
- Social awareness – the ability to
- Understand other perspectives and values
- Be empathic & kind
- Appreciate diversity
- Respect others
- Relationship skills – the ability to
- Communicate clearly & listen fully
- Engage & cooperate with others
- Build healthy relationships
- Negotiate & resolve conflicts
- Responsible decision-making – the ability to
- Identify & solve problems
- Analyze & evaluate situations
- Receive feedback, self-reflect & self-correct
- Embody ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms
How do movement & mindfulness activities support SEL?
1.Reinforce Mind-Body Balance & Integration
In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, encourage lots of active movement and sensory play for children. Why? Because the body is constantly providing useful information to the brain. They define being emotionally intelligent as knowing how to listen to and to use that information to both self-care and connect with innate wisdom. All child development experts agree that it is through play that children start to understand their thoughts and feelings as well as to practice how to appropriately interact with others.
In combining active play with self- reflection and self-care, the Movement & Mindfulness Bundle helps kids be more cooperative and resilient. The yoga adventures and self-regulation techniques enable them to understand their feelings, embody ways to control impulses, and manage stress to do their best.
2. Reset the Nervous System to Optimal State
The body and the mind are inextricably linked and our mind-body state dictates how available and/or able we are. Movement & mindfulness activities enable kids to regularly destress and reset their nervous systems such that they can connect, learn, and make smart choices. The more children move and play, the less stressed and more cooperative and learning ready they are. The more children learn how to slow down, relax, self-reflect, and self-care, the more they learn how to shift their own body-mind state.
In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, M.D. describes research showing that physical activity sparks biological changes that increase the brain’s ability to learn, adapt, and perform other cognitive tasks. Exercise builds brain cells, lifts mood, and ameliorates the detrimental effects of stress.
3. Explores the Range of Emotions
Playful exercise and sensory awareness encourage children to explore their natural reactions and impulses. In the Movement & Mindfulness Bundle, the yoga stories invite children to move, pretend to be other animals and objects, try on a variety of emotions, and experiment with specific mind-body activities as self-regulation and social skills. The process of being everything in and acting out the story helps kids develop an awareness of the range of human experience. By naming these feelings and working with shifting them, kids start to be able to tame the bigger emotions that can sometimes overwhelm their young systems. Practicing self-care and regulation as play at a young age lays a foundation for social-emotional competence.
How you hold your parents matters. When you judge, disrespect, or reject one or both of them, you are doing the same to yourself. Since you are literally of them and from them, it’s vital to your well-being and inner peace to accept them as they are, even if only in your heart.
This truth was highlighted for me recently by my teacher, Mark Wolynn. He cited a Harvard Medical School study that showed surprising correlations between the quality of one’s parental relationships and the quality of one’s health later in life.
In the 1950s, researchers asked 21-year-old students to describe their relationship with their parents using the scale: “very close,” “warm and friendly,” “tolerant,” or “strained and cold.” Thirty-five years later, those same students, now 56 years-old, were asked about their health.
- 91% of participants who stated that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, alcoholism, etc.
- 45% of participants who reported that their relationship with their mother was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
- 82% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.
- 50% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
- 100% of participants who stated that their relationship with both parents was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.
We all know from personal experience that our family relationships have a big impact on our childhood development. These statistics point to the fact that that impact actually lasts a lifetime. Implicit, as well, is the life enhancing value of compassionate completion with our parents at any age.
When I say compassionate completion, I mean that you realize that whatever you blame them for was not personal. You are able to see your parents as flawed, traumatized humans, like yourself, who did the best they could with what they received from their parents and life events. You accept that they cannot give what they didn’t get and that you got enough. You don’t try to change what was, you simply decide to change how you hold it. Your parents aren’t going to be any different, but when you change how you hold them, your relationship with them will too.
Maybe they are available and healthy enough for you, in person, to let them off the hook, thank them for all they did do for you, and enjoy a transformed relationship. Maybe they are passed, or mentally ill, or unsafe to be near physically and you can, in your own mind and heart, complete with them by understanding what they went through and why they behaved as they did. Changing your inner image of them, shifts how you hold them. Having compassion for what happened to them and caring about what they went through will enable you to acknowledge that what they did wasn’t about you, it was about them. When you no longer take what happened personally, you can leave their suffering with them and free yourself from perpetuating unhealthy and unloving dynamics.
I used to hold my mother as selfish and uncaring. Growing up, I could feel she was not seeing me. I took it personally and, as a result, judged and rejected her. We had a polite, superficial relationship at best. Then, through the Family Constellation work, I came to a new understanding of what was behind her behavior. Now, I see her as the one who cared the most. We share a sweet, warm, fun bond that feels like a miracle in my life.
My mother had an older sister who died the same day she was born. The death of their first child, after a seemingly normal, healthy pregnancy, was so painful for my grandparents that they never talked about nor told their later children of their older sibling. Because they couldn’t bear to be with the trauma of her passing, they also couldn’t look at and include her as part of the family. So, my mother looked instead, which is why she couldn’t see me. Understanding that my mother was unconsciously identified with her excluded sibling made so much of what I went through with her suddenly make sense. (Learn more about systemic dynamics and exclusion)
In changing how I hold my mother, I dramatically changed how I feel inside my own life. Opening to the bigger picture allowed me to open my heart to her. With that came a floodgate of love, growth, and healing for me in all my relationships.