The children coming into their second grade classroom that morning arranged their chairs in a circle for a daily ritual: Their teacher asked every child to tell the class how they felt (unless they didn’t want to share this), and why they felt that way.
This simple exercise in a New Haven, CT elementary school was the first time I saw a lesson in emotional literacy.
Naming emotions accurately helps children be clearer about what is going on inside—essential both to making clearheaded decisions and to managing emotions throughout life.
Self-awareness—turning our attention to our inner world of thoughts and feelings—allows us to manage ourselves well. An inner focus lets us understand and handle our inner world, even when rocked by disturbing feelings. This is a life skill that keeps us on track throughout the years, and helps children become better learners.
For instance, when children tune in to what engages them, they connect with the intrinsic motivation that drives them. If a child is just following the teacher’s goals for what she should learn and not thinking much about her own goals, she can develop an attitude that school is all about other people’s agendas—and fail to tap her inner reservoir of motivation and engagement. On the other hand, attuned teachers can use students’ interests to excite them.
Self-awareness also has an ethical dimension. As we go through life, the sense that we are on course with our values becomes an inner rudder. In our life and career this can blossom into “good work”—a potent combination of what engages us, what matters to us, and what we can accomplish successfully.
In the school years, the equivalent is “good learning”—being engaged with what enthuses us and what feels important.
How It Works
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continually grow and shape itself through repeated experiences, throughout life and particularly in childhood. The brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature; it doesn’t take its final shape till the mid-20s. Particularly during our early years, our experience—and the neural networks this activates—either strengthens this circuitry or winnows it.
For example, studies show that our minds wander about 50% of the time on average. At Emory University, volunteers were told to focus on one target—and of course after a while it would, of course, wander off.[i] But the volunteers would notice when it wandered, a moment of “meta-awareness,” and bring it back.
In this exercise, every time your mind wanders and you notice it has wandered, you re-focus on the target. In theory, each time you bring it back, it’s like a repetition of a triceps curl—but in the mental gym you’re strengthening the circuitry for focusing, for salience, for ignoring distractions.
Such neuroplasticity in action presumably happens with all of the circuitry for social and emotional learning. The circuits for empathy and for managing yourself internally develop and grow throughout the childhood and teen years, and they can be cultivated so they develop along the best lines. That, from the perspective of brain science, is what SEL aims to do.
The ability to be mindful of impulse, to stay focused and ignore distractions, can be enhanced by the right lessons. This is especially important for doing well in school. The brain’s centers for learning operate at their peak when we are focused and calm. As we become upset, these centers work less well. In the grip of extreme agitation, we can only focus on what’s upsetting us – and learning shuts down. For these reasons, students learn best when they’re calm and concentrated.
[i] Wendy Hasenkamp et al., “Mind Wandering and Attention During Focused Meditation,” NeuroImage 59, no. 1 (2012): 750-760. The study found that the longer volunteers had been practitioners of mental exercises like this, the greater the connectivity in key attention circuitry.
Adapted from Daniel Goleman’s LinkedIn page.