Social-emotional skills are vitally important to the health and well-being of our children, but for decades they’ve been labelled “soft skills” and all but ignored in most classrooms. This despite the fact that any teachers worth their salt will tell you that how a student feels dramatically affects his/her ability to learn.

Happily, neuroscience is finally providing scientific proof that students who are anxious, fearful, hungry or angry are unable to learn well – literally. This is because negative emotions provoke the fright-flight-freeze response in the lower part of the brain, and shutdown higher cognitive functions.  But don’t take my word for it, watch this simple, two-minute video explaining how it works by a pioneer in the field of neuroscience, Dr. Daniel Siegel:

The other exciting development in neuroscience has to do with the brain’s plasticity, meaning its ability to change in response to experiences and training. Dr. Richard Davidson (the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison) does a superb job of explaining neuroplasticity in this presentation entitled, “Well-being Is a Skill.” However, it all boils down to four scientific discoveries:

  • The Brain Changes and Shapes Itself in Response to Experiences
    Even though the brain is malleable and responds to training, most of us are simply reacting to the world around us. It’s important to realize that we can teach and give our children opportunities to practice healthy responses to adversity. A challenge then becomes a chance to learn rather than something to be feared and avoided.
  • Genes are Dynamic
    How our genes regulate and express themselves is dynamic.  Davidson suggests we think of genes as having volume controls. The extent to which a gene’s volume is turned up or down, or even on or off, can be affected by experience.
  • Bi-directional Highways Exist Between Body and Mind
    The brain and body are interconnected and impact each other. Davidson calls these connections “bi-directional highways,” and the health of one directly affects the health of the other. It should come as no surprise then that people who are physically healthy tend to feel better emotionally and mentally. Likewise, we are discovering that by consciously directing our thoughts and feelings, we can affect our physical health.
  • Innate Goodness
    Human beings are born innately good. This means that even a six-month old baby, given a choice between a kind, warm hearted experience and one that is aggressive and selfish, will always choose kindness. It is interesting to note that Davidson compares this innate propensity for kindness to our inborn capacity for language. In order for children to develop language they must be immersed in and have plenty of opportunities to practice their language skills. The same is true for empathy, kindness and compassion. Children need to be part of a compassionate community that will nurture and encourage them to practice and strengthen their social-emotional skills to become kind and caring adults.

If you are like me, much of what I just explained seems obvious. It makes sense because it is what “feels” right, and is what we as parents, teachers, mentors and friends have seen and experienced with our own children. The fact that science is finally able to support what we know intuitively is just icing on the cake. However, it is icing that has the potential to make a huge difference in what and how our children are taught.

Those of you who have met me or read one of my books know how passionate I am about this subject. I believe that the health and well-being of the planet and our species depend on raising our kids to be creative, outside the box thinkers. They need to see and appreciate the value of differences, be willing to roll up their sleeves and collaborate, and see mistakes as opportunities to learn. Most important of all they need to get to know their own hearts and minds, to understand that the inevitable kerfuffles and snafus of life are just part of being human. – Jena Ball

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