Photo: Courtesy of Turnaround for Children

In a recent principal training session, a participant raised his hand and asked: “How can I afford to invest in social-emotional learning when my students have fallen so far behind?”

The real question is whether we can afford not to invest in practices that support students’ social, emotional AND cognitive development right now. If we really care about student success, then we need to honor the biology of our brains — our interconnected centers of emotions, focus and learning.

It is no exaggeration to say the past five months have been horrible. The pandemic abruptly disrupted all aspects of our lives, leaving most of us isolated, frustrated and impatient — and some of us lonely, depressed and even unsafe. Then the murder of George Floyd once again poured salt into the racial wounds that this country tries so unsuccessfully to hide.

Against this backdrop, are we really expecting kids to come back to school and settle down to the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic? Science responds with a resounding no.

We know this because the science about how the brain develops and responds to stress is clear. We can anticipate that young people will be distracted and unfocused because of the turbulent environment we are in.

The disruptions we are experiencing create stress, which causes cortisol to flood the limbic system of our brains — stimulating our emotion center (the amygdala) and distracting the parts of our brain that manage learning and memory (the hippocampus) and attention and concentration (prefrontal cortex). This imbalance is why we feel so distracted and unfocused with each new piece of bad news.

Fortunately, science gives us some good news — our brains also respond to another hormone: oxytocin. Also known as the “love” hormone, oxytocin comes from trusting relationships and safe, calm and predictable environments. It is why connecting with friends and family, even if virtually, makes us feel better. It is also why doing things like tuning into what we’re sensing at the moment and exercise help us calm down and focus.

When students come back to school — through distance learning or in-person — we can help them best by ensuring a steady flow of oxytocin that calms their brains and allows them to learn. We can do this by doubling down on a new set of Three Rs: Relationships, Routines and Resilience.

Good educators already know how to do these New Three R’s. They understand the importance of relationships and take the time to get to know every student individually and help students connect to their peers.

Experienced educators are also skilled at setting up routines that establish safe and supportive environments. They give clear, simple directions and model expectations with their words and actions.

Building young people’s resilience is another priority. Successful educators intentionally create engaging, collaborative activities that fill young people’s brains with the oxytocin that counteracts their stress and trauma. Since these educators know students well, they are attuned to their emotional states and needs and can respond with the supportive words, guidance and practices that help them learn how to manage and regulate their emotions.

All of these practices are based on the way the brain develops and learns.

Educators don’t have to do this work alone. In California, a robust network of organizations is already partnering with more than 4,500 schools across the state to provide after-school and summer programs. With state and federal funding, these programs share their youth development expertise that, at this critical time, can enrich and strengthen districts’ efforts to focus on the New Three Rs.

And the afterschool programs’ young, diverse staff can naturally serve as role models, while helping to address the challenge of maintaining low student-to-staff ratios. Districts that bring these partners into the planning process early can maximize their contributions.

With the governor’s recent announcement requiring distance learning in most California school districts, expanded learning programs may have more flexibility to provide in-person activities for students. (See the California Department of Education/California Afterschool Network’s Fireside Chat for the latest guidance.)

So, take time to spread some oxytocin: laugh, play, listen and connect with your students so that they are ready and able to learn their reading, writing and arithmetic — and of course, keep laughing and playing, too.

•••

Katie Brackenridge is a partnership director at Turnaround for Children, a national nonprofit organization that distills scientific knowledge about how children develop and learn into integrated tools, resources and strategies for educators, caregivers, school leaders and school systems. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Jenessa 2 months ago2 months ago

    I would really love to see even one article about teachers taking care of themselves. This is the most scolded and lectured at profession I’ve ever been apart of.

  2. Gladys Morales 2 months ago2 months ago

    Our County delivered the HCSD Trauma/Mental Health Awareness training to almost 3,000 of its team members, and this article supports everything we were taught. I am so excited to hear that there is an outstanding awareness of the importance of focusing on the whole child and making sure that they are mentally and emotionally ready to learn. It's going to take a little bit of time to go back to the "normal" if … Read More

    Our County delivered the HCSD Trauma/Mental Health Awareness training to almost 3,000 of its team members, and this article supports everything we were taught. I am so excited to hear that there is an outstanding awareness of the importance of focusing on the whole child and making sure that they are mentally and emotionally ready to learn.

    It’s going to take a little bit of time to go back to the “normal” if we ever get there, but this approach will certainly help. As an educator, I am excited to start this semester with this new approach to teaching, and can’t wait to delve in the new three R’s: Relationships, Routines, and Resilience. Thanks you for an awesome article.

  3. Kristin L Beasley PhD, 3 months ago3 months ago

    What a great article! Loved it and it is so spot on. We absolutely need to focus on love, safety and emotional stability at school, not academics. We are growing and changing as a country, community and as individuals. We will be better if we harness our brain and embrace each other and change! Great job Katie Brakenridge, I loved you article. ❤ Dr. B
    http://www.drbconnections.com

  4. Robert Bartlett 3 months ago3 months ago

    Controlling a student's behavior in hopes of eliciting a certain hormone seems nebulous. Teachers already know the benefits of routine, relationship, and rapport These benefits have been proven through qualitative and quantitative behavioral research. They are applied in the name of research-based interventions. And what about dopamine? Teachers need to artfully induce stress such that it will activate memory and attention. It's not cortisol or oxytocin. It's not distressed or relaxed. Motivation will play a … Read More

    Controlling a student’s behavior in hopes of eliciting a certain hormone seems nebulous. Teachers already know the benefits of routine, relationship, and rapport These benefits have been proven through qualitative and quantitative behavioral research. They are applied in the name of research-based interventions. And what about dopamine? Teachers need to artfully induce stress such that it will activate memory and attention. It’s not cortisol or oxytocin. It’s not distressed or relaxed.

    Motivation will play a role in inducing manageable levels of stress: dopamine is what a teacher really wants to see. We should avoid any sense of inducing hormonal intoxication that will quiet the student down. If I was challenged to induce high levels of oxytocin in a student, I would let them use their iPhone to view Facebook when they should be on task. I’m sure their oxytocin would rise quickly, and it would be hard to lure them back to the task. Moreover, I believe oxytocin is a response to pain and not a mode of relaxation. Hopefully, school is not that painful. Oxytocin is what makes some students so attracted to escape behaviors. It explains why escape behaviors are so resistant to intervention. The student craves the feeling of release associated with oxytocin. Positive discipline rooted in behavioral research will probably get you further than brain science.