The need for neuroeducation
Supporting SEL in the COVID-19 environment
By Karon Schnitzer | November | December 2020
I am sure you have asked yourself on numerous occasions, “What will it be like when school resumes?” Without a doubt, this pandemic is wreaking havoc and causing a variety of levels of trauma for our children and adults. This pandemic has shaken the American education system to its core. Our schools have been closed since as early as March. This is trauma! This is what is known as a “collective Adverse Childhood Experience” and it has directly or indirectly impacted everyone. ACEs are traumatic events that occur before the age of 18 and include all types of abuse and neglect, parental mental illness, substance use, domestic violence, divorce, even incarceration. It is critical to understand these experiences because they can affect a student on a variety of levels. It can affect their attention, decision-making, how they learn, and even how they respond to stress. Children who experience traumatic events may be displaying unusual and certainly undesired behaviors; they may even have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. In education, this means that we cannot afford to primarily focus on the academics that have been lost and passively sit back and ignore the social-emotional learning needs of our students. We must be proactive in addressing the needs of our students and their families, as well as our teachers and administrators. A big question is: How can school systems support students who already have existing mental health conditions as well as students who might emerge from this pandemic with mental health conditions? I believe part of the answer is for us to equip ourselves with knowledge about neuroeducation. A major objective of neuroscience education is to teach children how their brains work. The Stanford University Project for Education Research That Scales conducted a study on this topic. The study revealed that the students who are explicitly taught about having a growth mindset, which is the belief that intelligence is malleable, as well as how their brains learn, were able to achieve their unique future goals. They also noted that students’ motivation increased, and they experienced more positive results compared to students who did not receive this same instruction (Paunesku, Walton, Romero, Smith, Yeager, & Dweck, 2015). Neuroeducation provides an opportunity for both learning and teaching. As parents and educators, we can use this information to provide cognitive learning environments that foster student self-regulation within a growth-mindset culture. We can also learn from this research on how to create cognitive experiences for students to learn about the importance of challenges, feedback and learning from mistakes. Finally, parents and educators may have a better understanding of the critical role that emotions play in all our learning. Overall, children show great interest in the brain. Several surveys indicate the need for more thorough school programs on this subject. Many scholars strongly believe that education about the brain should start at elementary school in the primary grades. By teaching students at an early age how their brains work, we can continue to stimulate new ideas as they work their brains. A “retooling” of their brains is necessary if we are going to create empowered self-regulated thinkers. When children do not understand how their brains work or how they can retain material, they can develop negative perceptions about themselves as learners. Such as a faulty assumption that they are bad at a subject or that they suffer from performance anxiety. Knowledge of how one learns is equally crucial.

A big question is how can school systems support students who already have existing mental health conditions as well as students who might emerge from this pandemic with mental health conditions?
What are the neurological, cognitive, and emotional developments of our brain and how do they work together to enhance or deter learning from occurring? These questions are answered in my book, “Back to Basics: Understanding the Brain Basics Behind the Behaviors” (2020). Before school closures, many districts were beginning a social-emotional initiative that focused on SEL lessons for students. Unfortunately, many teachers did not see great importance in SEL and it would often be left out of the school day due to “not enough time in the day.” The truth is that learning cannot happen unless the SEL and behavioral needs of students (and adults) are addressed. The focus of schools reopening must include providing effective SEL learning strategies for staff and students. Students and educators could benefit from having a greater knowledge of the emotional development in our brains. Emotions are a set of cognitive and physiological processes that constitute a person's automatic evaluative reaction to a perceived, remembered or imagined circumstance. Emotions influence brain systems for cognition, therefore changing thought in a characteristic way. Even when solving the easiest academic problems, this involves emotion as well as a cognitive process. When a learner is feeling relaxed and not feeling anxious, they can control what information makes it into the limbic region and it can continue on to neocortex region. When a learner is feeling sad, anxious, frustrated and even bored, the brain will filter that information from the environment to the reactive brain. Here in the reptilian region, the reaction will be to fight against the information as a negative experience, to ignore it altogether or to avoid it, which will cause the learner to daydream (Immordino-Yang, 2016). I am sure you can relate to this, especially with homeschooling/distance learning now in full force. Remind your learner of the brain basics that are occurring. Remind them to relax and refocus. Researcher Amanda Moreno believes that mindfulness exercises help kids to remain attentive and recover more quickly if they become unsettled (Deruy, 2016). If the learner is feeling overwhelmed, the reactive brain will simply take over. By using techniques of mindfulness, a learner can learn to calm their brain. When a body receives oxygen, this shrinks the amygdala and expands the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is like a guard dog for your brain; it also can be viewed as a central train-routing station. It routes information according to a learner’s emotional state. When the feelings of fear, anxiety, or boredom are present, the amygdala’s filter takes up excess energy from the brain’s available nutrients and oxygen. The brain reacts to this by going into survival mode, which will block any new incoming information into the neocortex region. Unless the learner can restore a calming mood through breathing, they will not learn very much this particular day (Zull, 2002). Think about our current time, we can assume that our children are experiencing much fear, anxiety and boredom at this time of distance learning and so many changes. Mindfulness may be able to help them stay focused and stay calm.
Once the student is calm, they must be motivated and engage themselves sufficiently, they must recognize the degree of complexity required to accomplish the task, and then make judgments about whether these efforts are worth the while to accomplish this task. This is a cognitive journey where the student is emotionally evaluating whether each cognitive step is bringing them closer to a correct solution or if it is leading them down an incorrect path. This emotional interplay creates reasons for the student to engage in the solving of the problem. Reasons may include pleasing their parents, the rewards of simply solving a problem or even the avoidance of punishment or the teacher's disapproval (Immordino-Yang, 2016). Mindsets also frame the running account that is taking place in one’s head. A fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is constantly focused on judging. On the other hand, a growth mindset internal monologue is not about judging themselves and others in any way. “But they are attuned to its implications for learning and constructive actions: What can I learn from this? How can I improve? How can I help my partner do this better?” (Dweck, 2016 p. 224). Basic emotions such as anger, fear, and happiness are cognitive and psychological processes that involve both body and mind. Emotion is played out in the end and can also be displayed through characteristic changes on the face and in the body. These changes are felt in the body and the brain through processes we call emotions via the neural systems (Blakemore, 2018).

As we move ahead and look for new ways to move the learning forward, we must remember it is human nature to want to feel loved, to be valued, and to relate to others.
Research shows that parents and educators play a profound role in promoting students' social-emotional skills and beliefs. Again, one such way is by teaching students how to be mindful. During the 1970s, the biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the term mindfulness and he defines it “as a state of mind: the act of paying attention ‘on purpose’ to the present moment, with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.” Though many definitions exist, simply put, mindfulness means being present with moments and experiences as they are. There are countless classroom benefits including better stress physiology and cognitive control. Schonert-Reichel, Oberle, Lawlor, Abbott, Thomson, Oberlander, and Diamond (2015) completed a study and reported many more benefits: “Greater empathy, perspective-taking, emotional control, optimism, school self-concept and mindfulness. Students also showed greater decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and peer-rated aggression, and they were rated by their peers as more prosocial” (p. 52). A growth mindset also encourages students to approach “focus” as a practice, while examining the root of their distraction. Rather than coming from a place of shame or blame, this enables students to be more curious and aware of what they do and why they do it. Mindfulness also builds community and allows time to set or return to attention. It allows students some reflection time to explore their emotions and the relationship to the challenges before them. Intentional, mindful classroom and at-home practices allow students to self-examine how they show up to learning each day. It equips them with tools to reflect on experiences and their feelings and allows them to have space to choose how they will respond from a place of empowerment. It is through mindfulness that students can build tools to learn, explore, and grow with openness and to develop a sense of curiosity both in and out of the classroom (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). Though these have been unprecedented times coupled with many stress triggers, it could also be the tiniest bit possible that, in terms of child development, something good could come of it: A way to press the reset button on child anxiety. Yes, even during these anxious times and perhaps precisely because of them, our children can begin to relax and become, ironically, freer, under lockdown, than many kids have ever been before. This can also be a time of great innovation for our children. As for the parents who may be worried that all this non-academic time is dooming their kids’ futures, research finds that the kids who have more free time to create and structure their activities develop stronger executive functioning skills. Our executive function skills are skills like planning, problem-solving and follow-through. Kids whose lives are more continuously structured by adults do not have as many opportunities to develop these skills.

When disruption occurs, like our new way of living, learning is inevitable. This is because novelty causes our brains to react. We find ourselves to be alert because we are in new territory, we need to recognize and take hold of this unique opportunity. Like us, our children are navigating new territory: solving new problems, adapting to new environments of learning and new circumstances of social distancing and they are muscling through, literally; this is neuroplasticity taking place each day because they have no choice. Knowing this idea of neuroeducation may also protect our teachers from burnout. Teachers who possess social and emotional competencies are more likely to stay in the classroom longer. Teachers with high levels of social competence are better able to protect themselves from burnout by developing and managing nurturing relationships with their students, managing behavior in their classrooms and online, and serving as behavioral role models for children and regulating their own emotions.

Adult self-care is another critical focus; if you are not well, you cannot help others. During this very challenging time of swimming in uncharted territories, it is important to allow yourself to be OK with making mistakes, too. Remind yourself, just like we remind our students, that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn. Teachers would benefit from being very reflective after each lesson: “What went well? What would you do differently if you could?” Remember to be kind to yourself; you have suffered a lot during this time as well, so take time for mindfulness and reflection. As we move ahead and look for new ways to move the learning forward, we must remember it is human nature to want to feel loved, to be valued and to relate to others. The only way that we will make it through this difficult time is if we do it together. Therefore, parents and educators must be OK with prioritizing relationships, social-emotional learning and healthy human connections. This means that we must spend even more time ensuring our students have the skills and ability to manage relationships with peers (and adults) and to maintain those relationships over time.

A recent study involving more than 8,000 secondary students implemented a “happiness” curriculum that emphasized 10 non-academic life skills, like mindfulness, interpersonal relationships and self-efficacy. The study indicated that student well-being and standardized test scores were “significantly boosted by the ’happiness’ curriculum” (Walker, 2017, p. 189). Learning more about neurological, cognitive and emotional developments and how the three developments interplay with one another may provide educators with an advantage to successfully teaching their students in all academic areas. The educational system could be seen as a “brain business,” yet, many educators are just beginning to make connections to current research and how it can be applied in the classroom.

Neuroeducation is not a new phenomenon. Some describe it as “techniques gleaned from research in neurology and cognitive science used to enhance teacher instruction” (Connell, 2005. p. 29). Immordino-Yang (2016) reminds us, however, that emotions play a critical role in our learning as well. She shares that there is a complex connection between emotion and learning. Marcia D’Arcangelo states: “Our emotional system drives our attentional system, which drives learning and memory and everything else that we do. It is biologically impossible to learn and remember anything to which we don’t pay attention” (p. 24).   Neuroeducation may hold the answers to provide the best possible strategies to enhance learning and to better understand behavior. The application of neuroeducation strategies may improve the ability to learn or enhance the learning skills of all learners. This field of neuroeducation has grown tremendously and it is reasonable to expect its research and applications to teaching and learning will continue to expand. Whether we are still in this pandemic challenge, or we have successfully moved forward, parents, educators, and students who know neurological, cognitive and emotional processes hold great potential for advancing learning — wherever that learning may be taking place. At the center of this stance is a deep belief that equipping students to take charge of their learning reduces dependency and empowers children. By teaching students at an early age how their brains work and using mindfulness to help calm anxious feelings, we can continue to stimulate new ideas as they learn how to self-regulate and to foster a greater sense of self, regardless of what crazy circumstances may come their way next.
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Karon Schnitzer is an associate principal in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.
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