In our homepage powerpoint, we site the work of Paul Zak. His research shows how stories stimulate both cortisol, which focuses attention and oxytocin, which activates empathy. By actually changing brain chemistry, stories are powerful motivators and teachers. Check out the explanatory video at the bottom of this page!
As teachers, we all know the vital importance of the ability to attend, and to self-care and regulate, so that our mind-body states can attend. Attention and self-regulation are like muscles. If untrained, the mind and feelings wander all over the place all the time. If trained, however, focus, filtering, prioritizing, concentration, analysis, reasoning, emotional intelligence – all executive functions of our higher level thinking neo-cortex brain – are strengthened. And like all skills, attentional, emotional and behavioral control takes practice. We must build it from the inside out with activities and repetition.
Stories, movement and embodied mindfulness activities are more needed than ever in supporting children in developing these skills. Why? Because mutli-tasking and digital distractions are producing students unable to comprehend the same texts that students previously mastered without problems. According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence researcher and expert: “Digital natives need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.” He finds that the ability to focus, be mindful and reflective, is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success, and even health. He advocates, like so many others in the fields of brain and behavioral science, that it’s time for schools to start teaching kids how to pay attention by using more exercise and mindfulness practices daily.
Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University conducted a longitudinal study on concentration with over 1,000 children in New Zealand. They tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, when those same children were adults age 32, they looked at how faired in life. The ability to concentrate, which requires well-being and self-regulation, was the strongest predictor of success.
The message here is that, as early childhood educators, our job is not to manage children but to support them to learning how to manage themselves through the activities and curriculum we choose. Given this evidence, the question is what can we do differently or better to do that? Are we using stories effectively? Are we cultivating empathy? Are we integrating movement and mindfulness to support executive function and well-being? What are best practices? How can we educate and support ourselves in implementing them?