A New Resource to Help Students Thrive: Social Emotional Learning and the Brain

2020 has been a stressful time for all of us. Some mornings I’ve been afraid to turn on the radio or TV for fear of hearing of another crisis. Even with the good news of a very promising vaccine in the works, we’re still experiencing the second wave of Covid 19, signs of social unrest, and post-election strife.

On the front lines are educators, students, and parents. Many are trying to teach or learn remotely. Most are trying to protect themselves from Covid by wearing masks and social distancing. Parents and caregivers are juggling work, managing financial constraints, and trying to help provide learning support in virtual, hybrid, F2F and blended models.

And all of us long for the day when we can be together again without constantly observing stringent safety protocols. As we await that day, we continue to work and strive and care and do the best we can.

That’s why it’s so important to be ever mindful of the social and emotional needs of children and those who serve them. A new resource arrived in October with tips to augment what we’ve already written about SEL (scroll through our blog index to see pertinent articles from recent months).

Marilee Sprenger, who taught for 25 years, studied under brain-based teaching pioneer Eric Jensen, and is now a consultant specializing in topics related to the brain and learning, is the author of a just-released book titled Social Emotional Learning and the Brain: Strategies to Help Your Students Thrive (ASCD, 2020).

You can “browse” the book here, compliments of ASCD, peruse the table of contents, read the Introduction and Chapter One, and access a study guide. The introduction highlights key concepts and offers an overview of each chapter.

I was struck by this early passage from Sprenger:

I’m worried about the kids. According to John Medina (2017), young humans today could live to be 115 to 122, under ideal conditions. Perhaps those conditions include healthy eating and getting enough exercise, but they must certainly also include lower levels of stress, positive relationships, family ties (within the family you were born into or the family you create), feeling empathy for and from others, and having a sense of belonging.

Social-emotional learning addresses all those conditions. Furthermore, SEL improves academic achievement by an average of 11 percent, increases appropriate social behavior, improves students’ attitudes, and reduces depression and stress (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

To further encourage you to check out this helpful guide to understanding the relationship between social-emotional learning and the brain, I’ve pulled some proven ideas from the book that might be useful and highlighted them here.

Worried about a Student? Try 2×10

For students who you don’t know well or believe may be at-risk, try this simple strategy introduced by Ray Wlodkowski. Spend two minutes each day for ten consecutive weekdays talking with that student. Ask questions, identify the student’s interests, but don’t use that time to talk academics. You’ll begin to build rapport with that student as you find out what makes him/her tick.

Morning Meeting Check-Ins

For elementary students, if you have morning meeting, consider using these questions and others that you develop as icebreakers. Periodically reserve five minutes for secondary students to do the same (p. 71):

  • Say a phrase, using five or fewer words that describes your day yesterday.
  • Finish this sentence: “The best news I’ve had in this past week is _______.”
  • Finish this sentence, “When I was little, I thought I wanted to be _________.”
  • Name one skill you have that no one in this group knows about.
  • Finish this sentence: “The next time we meet, we should ________________.”

As I wrote this, a few additional ideas popped up:

  • If I could go anywhere in the world, it would be __________________.
  • My favorite fictional character is ________________________.
  • If I could meet someone alive or dead, it would be _________________.

If… Then…

Each chapter in the book concludes with tips related to that chapter’s specific topic. As an example, in the self-management chapter, the author offers five tips (p. 111).

While not all of the exercises can be done remotely, many can be adapted for your students who are learning from home. For example, brain breaks could be given in your virtual learning space by playing music or showing a brief and appropriate exercise or dance video. A pair of socks can substitute for a stress ball.

For older students, suggest the Pomodoro technique when they are studying offline. This technique simply invites the student to read or study silently, away from social media and television, by setting a timer for 25 minutes. At the end of the 25 minutes, they can take a brain break. There’s even a link to online timer they can use. Sometimes simple can be powerful!

An Abundance of Resources

These few suggestions listed above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to useful SEL strategies included in the book. They range from social media norms, to a list of good questions to use to promote active listening, to guides for better decision-making, and more.

If you’re looking to add to your SEL toolkit, this book can be a valuable resource. Stress will be with us, even after Covid-19, and learning how to manage it – both for ourselves and for our students – is a critical tool for successful life.

Marilee Sprenger’s recent article, SEL & the Brain: Every Student Has a Story, highlights five key SEL competencies.