Surprisingly Successful Approach for Students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning: Blank Slate Theory vs. Innate Human Potential
Teach Smarter, Not Harder, to Increase Students’ Social Emotional Learning

Socrates and John Locke are influential philosophers separated by 2,000 years. They are also separated by very different assessments of inborn human capabilities.

When educators want to succeed at students’ mastery of numbers and the alphabet, Locke’s “Blank Slate Theory” is completely relevant and valid. But Locke’s perspective that young children lack humane instincts, valid insights, reasoning abilities, and collaborative problem solving skills evaporates when held against experience-based research and current brain science.

It’s more than obvious to anyone who lives or works with very young children, that each is born with personal likes and dislikes. Research at major universities confirms the fact that children also come into the world with the very skills and capacities necessary for successfully navigating the social-emotional challenges presented by their own personal likes and dislikes.

The theory of mind that young children acquire in preschool years provides conceptual foundation for metacognitive skills required in school.
Research shows that shared-thinking experiences create better learners. Metacognitive skills are initially developed during preschool years.

Research also shows that by age 4 – under the right circumstances – children are (1) willing and able to communicate ideas and feelings, (2) listen to peers’ ideas and feelings. They are also more than willing and able (3) to adapt what they discover about peers’ ideas and feelings to improve their own responses / interactions, for everyone’s benefit, including their own, rather than just their own benefit – without repetitive interventions from adults. 

Perspective-Taking Skill Shapes Social Emotional Success

Perspective-taking in visual form.

We’ve all got our own perspective. Each has some degree of  validity, but perhaps not the whole picture. Perspective-taking, which includes but is not limited to empathy, is the #1 skill with the greatest potential to shape the most broadly beneficial outcomes in business, politics, and religions; in other words, perspective-taking is the most significant foundation of any successful interaction. Enabling and empowering 4 and 5 year olds to connect with, and exercise, their natural born perspective-taking skills results in measurable social emotional learning and development. Established tools like play and team sports create the interactions that help young children see the world from others’ perspective and provides spontaneous opportunities to exercise and apply their ‘hard-wired’ perspective-taking skills.

Facilitated, intentional shared-thinking opportunities provide educators with an easy-to-implement format for teaching smarter, not harder by expanding beyond the happenstance of play and sports to accelerate and coalesce  social emotional learning.

The Kids’ Own Wisdom Approach

So how do educators provide young students with the numerous advantages of perspective-taking without adding excess preparation and work to their days? 

In the next 7 blog posts about Social Emotional Learning we will describe:
  1. Why facilitation is educators’ easiest and most successful approach to developing students’ social emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
  2. Three benefits of developing learners’ self-awareness and self-trust.
  3. Brain science of self-regulation for learners’ accountability and agency.
  4. How to build belonging in the classroom, which includes both shy and challenging children.
  5. Why the communication that happens without words, is as powerful as words, and why young children need to share this understanding.
  6. How to create SEL opportunities that release neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, emotions, attention and focus.
  7. The school readiness benefits of consistently exercising young children’s critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills.

Brain Science Prioritizes Feelings Before Students Can Learn

Feelings dominate students' attention. Build belonging for everyone's success.

When students feel successful, educators feel successful.  To arrive at success, we educators must acknowledge the neurobiological fact that all brains are wired to process experiences through feelings before they’re ever able to think, reason and actually learn.

Brain science of FEELINGS BEFORE LEARNING

Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… The pre-frontal cortex of our young students’ brains will not be fully formed until their early 20’s. Meantime, their amygdalae, formed at birth, are continually engaged – scanning for feelings of safety and security. 

Feeling undervalued = Emotional HIJACK

When children don’t feel safe, which can include feelings of not being ‘seen’ or respected or acknowledged, they’re highly susceptible to amygdala hijacking, which most commonly presents as lack of engagement / cooperation, resistance, defiance, hot tempers, insecurities, and isolation.

All attempts at reasoning are futile! We all know it… yet how many times have we tried to force our way past that hard and immutable fact?  When young children’s prefrontal cortex has been overwhelmed by their amygdala’s reaction to whatever it is in their environment that makes them feel undervalued, no progress can be achieved until that underlying trigger has been genuinely, collaboratively and constructively addressed. 

Fear and stress look like anger when …

… negative experiences cause emotional responses that prioritize – though granted, not very efficiently: self-preservation, however that is personally defined (and protected) by each child. Along with the amygdalae going into overdrive, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, cortisol and adrenaline contribute to the mix.  

Making best use of this physiology lesson

Hopefully, this information can help us separate outward behavior from negative judgements about, and reactions toward, our students. Hopefully, this information can motivate us to identify and implement real, and truly nurturing solutions that, with consistency, provide positive experiences that help to make our students feel genuinely safe and valued… if for no other reason than the fact that we all need, want and deserve to feel safe and valued… and, oh yes: a whole lot more learning will happen during the school year. 

Build belonging for learning to happen

One very powerful way to build an authentic sense of belonging for our students is to provide them with consistent opportunities to preemptively experience shared values with their peers. This is not achieved, in any deep and life-altering way, with lectures, songs, posters, or puppets – SORRY.

It is, though, achieved with facilitated shared-thinking opportunities based on an approach that honors a Socratic method of engaging students’ creative and collaborative problem-solving abilities around challenges that are relevant to all of them.  Discovering shared values, insights, concerns, feelings and solutions goes a long, long way towards building belonging – a need that, when satisfied, to whatever degree – counter-balances the fear, anger and stress that short circuit students’ ability and willingness to engage in learning.