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.
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