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We Don’t Need More Buy In, We Need to Make It a Priority

Athea Davis |
June 18, 2024

Over the years I have had to come up with some creative ways to connect mindfulness-based social and emotional learning (MBSEL) to almost every content domain and to the goals and purpose of what teaching and learning and education are fundamentally about – teaching students the academic and character skills to become civic-minded, critical thinking, problem solving, active agents making a positive contribution to human life, and the world.

Somehow, no matter the angle I take, the dot I connect or the spin of the moment, after many years of doing this work, I still get pushback that MBSEL is a sidebar, not the main bar. While many teachers and leaders and students have been positively impacted by having MBSEL integrated into their classrooms and schools, and while the data continues to grow showing that MBSEL (Cipriano, Wood, Sehgal, Ahmad & McCarthy, 2024) helps students achieve academic and character success (civic-minded, critical thinking, problem solving agents of their own lives), and have the skills necessary to engage in an unknown future with the proliferation of artificial intelligence, mindsets and policies not conducive to support MBSEL are main roadblocks.

I’m not sure we need more data to prove that as social emotional beings we need MBSEL to be wholly successful. This is one main reason I never understood and still don’t understand this idea that “educators and leaders need more buy-in to have MBSEL integrated into their schools”. We need more buy-in about ourselves, how we function, and learn? SEL is happening all the time because our nature is social and emotional. It’s just not happening well in many cases – not strategically and not effectively.

Ask any teacher of almost any grade level today and you will hear a host of issues occurring in classrooms – increases in anxiety, behavior issues are out of control, lack of focus and attention, dissonance between home life and school life, disrespect, and a mental health crisis in young people that is at unprecedented levels (Haidt & Rausch, 2024). On the school’s and teacher’s side, retention and overall well-being are huge issues as many teachers are also facing unprecedented levels of burnout.

Back to this thing called MBSEL for a moment. As a mindfulness educator, I advocate for the integration of mindfulness-based teaching and practices along with the five social emotional learning competencies espoused by the Collaboration for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL), which are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The mindfulness-based teaching and practices integration is key because the skills of mindful breath and movement for instance teach us as individuals how to cultivate the five CASEL SEL competencies. For instance, when a student learns a mindful breathing tool, they are learning to become more self-aware of their thoughts and emotions because noticing what’s happening internally is part of the practice, and once they learn the breathing tool and practice it effectively they can manage their emotional and cognitive states by regulating their energy (i.e., if I notice I’m angry or distracted, I can practice a breathing tool to help me calm my emotion so I can manage it with more care or re-focus my attention so I can complete my work).

Like any content curriculum, SEL curriculums vary in their nature and approach. This is a good thing, because there’s not a one size fits all program as we are culturally diverse so our needs will lean on a diverse array of approaches. Traditionally, SEL curriculums and programs don’t integrate mindfulness as part of their learning goals. Many focus on character or some, but not all the five CASEL competencies. For purposes of clarification, I am underscoring that classrooms and schools need more than just SEL programs, they need mindfulness-based SEL programs to meet and surpass the goals of education, and their own personal academic and life goals as mindfulness skills give students the vital inward tool to notice and train their attention, which also enhances their self-awareness and social awareness (impacting the other CASEL domains as well).

Back to our nature and this idea of why we don’t need buy-in for MBSEL. I’ve already stated that we are SEL. Humans are social and emotional beings – how we grow, how we learn, and how we adapt is largely transmitted through our social environments. Moreover, Dr. Immordino-Yang, a professor of psychology, education, and neuroscience, has researched and written extensively that our emotions drive learning (Immordino-Yan, Darling-Hammond & Krone, 2018). I’m going to elaborate on this point for a minute, because I really want to emphasize the magnitude of Dr. Immordino-Yang’s findings.

Our emotions play a central role in how we construct and deconstruct meaning - concepts, individual and world problems, and self-identities. This is the essence of human ingenuity and creativity.
Our emotions play a central role in how we construct and deconstruct meaning – concepts, individual and world problems, and self-identities. This is the essence of human ingenuity and creativity.

What she is saying about emotions driving learning is that our emotions play a central role in how we construct and deconstruct meaning – concepts, individual and world problems, and self-identities. This is the essence of human ingenuity and creativity. Dr. Immordino-Yang states, “…it is the way the brain is used, especially  how a person thinks, feels, and relates to others, that strengthens and tunes these dynamic networks over time.” She goes on to say that the major brain networks core to SEL work together to “support a broad range of mental capacities” like emotional regulation, perspective taking, and motivation. These networks work together to help students integrate their social, emotional, and cognitive functions to “operate well in the world and leverage SEL capacities to take advantage of learning opportunities.”

I will summarize the networks as explained by Dr. Immordino-Yang (Ibid).

Executive Control Network

The Executive Control Network is a critical brain network in learning because it’s responsible for attention, holding various information in the mind, and helps us focus on  and complete goal-directed tasks. This brain network also helps us regulate our emotions and impulses.

Default Mode Network

The Default Mode Network has a variety of jobs that “involve internally directed, interpretive, and reflective thought, for example when remembering past experiences, imagining hypothetical or future scenarios, or deliberating on inferred, abstract or morally relevant information”. The DMC is how we emotionally make meaning from past social emotional encounters, “processing social and self-relevant beliefs, and assessing others’ emotional motivations, feelings and qualities of character”.

Salience Network

The salience network is like a judge. It “weighs emotional relevance and perceived importance and urgency of information to facilitate switching between mindsets supported by the inwardly focused, meaning-oriented DMC and those supported by the outwardly focused, task-oriented ECN. This network is recruited for “gut feelings, intuitions, cravings, and subjective emotional experience”. Its main function is to process “subjective emotional interpretations and motivations” that are key to learning.

It’s important to understand these three brain networks because they play a critical role in teaching and learning. An optimal learning environment will integrate SEL into the academic activities that call on these three brain networks.

For purposes of ease in understanding these brain networks, I’m going to call the Executive Function Network the “Doer”, the Default Mode Network, the “Thinker”, and the Salience Network, the “Evaluator”. I also want to underscore the importance of cultivating emotional safety for these networks to work well together. This is where the most obvious impact of SEL is seen. The adult in the room is the one with the most power, most developed brain, and the one that can set the stage and bolster the evenness of tone. How an adult shows up energetically in the room matters. This is one of the key drivers for SEL in education.

We train teachers in the art and science of teaching, but we are missing the mark not integrating SEL into teacher training, and into the culture of classrooms, schools and education.
We train teachers in the art and science of teaching, but we are missing the mark not integrating SEL into teacher training, and into the culture of classrooms, schools and education.

We train teachers in the art and science of teaching, but we are missing the mark not integrating SEL into teacher training, and into the culture of classrooms, schools and education. The teacher’s cognitive and emotional energy in the room can facilitate effective learning or inhibit it. And while we want to ensure we are teaching students the academic skills they will need to succeed in the future, we must also teach them the character foundation, mental frameworks, and emotional underpinnings that are integrally connected to the academics they are learning, and consequently to the meaning they make of their learning, their identities, and their place in the world.

As we think about learning objectives and goals, and culturally responsive learning and engaging activities, student success and school accountability, we also have to think about the core drivers of the students and the adult teaching in the room. This means we need to integrate evidence-based SEL practices that help activate and connect the Doer, Thinker, and Evaluator brain networks. That might look like having opportunities for mindful brain breaks that include breathing and movement, reflection exercises that not only give opportunity to the task at hand, but how the particular academic concept might impact one’s beliefs and motivations about themselves, others, and the world, and how one might use their intuitions in the learning process to gauge relevance and importance of the information being learned.

It matters not just what we are learning, but who and what we are being formed into in the present moment and who and what we are becoming in the process of learning. Who we are from the inside out impacts the world in great ways. A quick read through world history will give us note of this – thinking of Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Dr. Immordino-Yang says it best, “[We must] systematically develop dispositions to query [our fundamental emotional drivers of perception] when they are not serving us or the world well.” (Immordino-Yang, 2023). Mindfulness-based SEL integration will help us do that, but only if we start making it a priority.

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Cipriano, C.,  Ha, C., Wood, M., Sehgal, K., Ahmad, E., McCarthy, M. (2024) A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of universal school-based SEL programs in the United States: Considerations for marginalized students. Social and Emotional Learning: Research, Practice, and Policy.

Haidt, J. and Rausch, Z. (2024) It’s Time to Free the Anxious Generation. After Babel.

Ibid.

Immordino-Yang, M., Darling-Hammond, L., Krone, C. (2018) The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: How emotions and social relationships drive learning. The National Commision on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

Immordino-Yang, M., Darling-Hammond, L., Krone, C. (2019) Nurturing Nature: How Brain Development Is Inherently Social Emotional, and What This Means for Education. Educational Psychologist, 185-204.

Immordino-Yang, M. (2023) How Emotions and Social Factors Impact Learning. Huberman Lab Podcast.

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Athea Davis
Athea is a mindfulness educator, author, and podcaster helping students, educators, parents, & leaders de-stress for success.

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