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.
Recently, my teacher sent me this article by Gabor Maté: How to Build a Culture of Good Health. Read it! It beautifully explains the holistic, relational, developmental nature of health that I think we’ve all experienced at some level but never had words for:
Ultimately, healing flows from within. The word itself originates from “wholeness.” To be whole is much more than to experience the absence of disease. It is the full and optimal functioning of the human organism, according to its nature-gifted possibilities. By such standards, we live in a culture that leaves us far short of health.
I’ve been studying biodynamic craniosacral therapy and meditating 30-60 minutes a day for over a year now. In the process, I’ve come to embody a new level of self-trust, presence, and health. It has strengthened my ability to be neutral and allowed the deeper forces that created and sustain me to build potency. In Dr. Mate’s words, I’ve been doing this:
Give yourself, as best you can, what your parents would have loved to grant you but probably could not: full-hearted attention, full-minded awareness, and compassion. Make gifting yourself with these qualities your daily practice.
Now, instead of gripping to protective identifications, I am being moved toward greater fluidity, resilience, awareness, and metabolism. It’s not always pleasant. I’m resolving long held imprints. I cry almost every time. But my tears are cleansing; they do not reinforce any victimhood. Instead, they dissolve old fears that no longer make sense. My personality is less rigid. My window of tolerance is widening. I can see others more clearly. I am able to sustain my own coherence more powerfully. And I can resource myself more effectively.
As educators and parents, we are often at a loss as to how to help our children. More and more, we see how trauma and dysregulation impact them negatively. We try to soothe, cajole, convince, manipulate, force, explain, etc. We want them to feel alright and know that everything will be okay. But resolving trauma and truly embodying self-regulation is an inside job. To teach children how to meet their fears and feelings in a healthy way, we must be regulated and model metabolizing our own experiences. To connect them to their inner health forces, we must meet them, as we meet ourselves, with authentic presence and love.
Adults need to know, even if their physicians often do not, that their health issues are rarely isolated manifestations. Any symptom, any illness is also an opportunity to consider where our lives may be out of balance, where our childhood coping patterns have become maladaptive, exacting costs on our physical well-being. When we take on too much stress, whether at work or in our personal lives, when we are not able to say no, inevitably our bodies will say it for us. We need to be very honest with ourselves, very compassionate, but very thorough in considering how our childhood programming still runs our lives, to our detriment.
To take advantage of the metabolic forces of our own health system, we need to grant ourselves the time and the space to process our own mental-emotional-energetic experiences and make conscious choices that serve our higher intentions. To prevent chronic stress from making us sick, we must stop valuing accomplishment over well-being. And yes, I know that’s challenging inside of … A materialistic culture (that) teaches its members that their value depends on what they produce, achieve, or consume rather than on their human beingness. Many of us believe that we must continually prove and justify our worthiness, that we must keep having and doing to justify our existence.
Choose to re-prioritize. Put your health first and your do-list second. Spend time being, processing, loving yourself. Give yourself the gift of meditation this holiday and open the door to expanding your consciousness, embodying self-regulation, and accessing the intelligence of your own system. Your children will thank you!
To me, the mindfulness movement has wonderfully enhanced our learning how to self-care, self-regulate, and be responsible for our own well-being and mental health. Because it encourages us to rest back, widen out, and notice without judgment, it also invites us to move out of a pathology paradigm and participate in a health paradigm. It doesn’t focus on what’s wrong. It strengthens our ability to be with what is and motivates us with science validated reminders that enjoying its benefits takes practice. Regular practice slows us down, expands our consciousness, and reconnects us to our greatest asset – our health system.
When I say your health system, I am talking about the bigger forces that literally created you and are continually monitoring, metabolizing, eliminating, maintaining, integrating, and renewing you. You are a metabolic miracle, truly. Your pursuit of mindfulness is a doorway to greater access to your innate health and healing power. Every time you meditate, move into greater awareness, or relax deeply, you allow and support this system to process, balance, and re-calibrate you. The more you practice, the more space and fluidity in your system, and the greater ease and well-being you experience.
My point is that each of our systems is infinitely intelligent and always moving us toward greater health based on the present circumstances and consciousness. Just as after eating a big meal, you don’t go running because you know your body needs time to digest; in our busy, demanding lives, we can’t just go-go-go. We need to give ourselves time to metabolize the stressors and reset our nervous systems to maintain health. Like a hot bath, mindfulness supports our greater health intelligence to work with and metabolize for us.
As you make lifestyle changes and explore how to bring more mindfulness and wellness into your homes and classrooms, where are you coming from? Are you focused on what’s wrong and how to fix it or stop it, which often creates more constriction and diminishes flow and health? Or are you making time and space for your and your students’ systems to function optimally? Can you stop seeing something wrong with you or them, and instead allow, feel, and attend to what is expressed? When seen through the lens of health, everything that arises is for greater health. Can you embrace and be responsive such that what arises can be seen, heard, and processed in the service of greater health?