Archive for July, 2012

Enriching Evidence-Based SEL Curricula with Daily Contemplative Practice Routine

I recently attended a conference in San Francisco called “Learning and the Brain – Educating the Whole Child,” attended by more than 1,400 teachers, principals, administrators and health workers in the education system. The speaker program was terrific, and I heard speaker after speaker lecture on the neurophysiological impact of education and upbringing on the developing child.

The scientific understanding of how young people learn, make decisions, relate to others, and develop their neural networks is rapidly expanding. Both the social/behavioral and neuro-scientific evidence seems to be piling up to the point where we now have really good theory and application for how best to teach our children for optimal citizenship, fulfillment, and achievement in life.

The overall conclusion is that social and emotional learning theory and curricula should play an important role in how we attempt to reform our educational system. In short, students do best when the following factors (among many others) are present:

  1. Good early childhood parenting (sufficient stimulation, attachment, and especially being read to).
  2. Good classroom management techniques on the part of the teacher.
  3. Working to increase relevance and salience of the material to the students.
  4. Providing a safe school experience.
  5. Promoting an optimistic, empowered, and curious classroom experience.
  6. Expecting achievement levels that challenge students but fall within their capacities as they develop.
  7. Providing a trusting student teacher relationship with teachers who can embody social and emotional intelligence.
  8. Helping students understand their emotional life and the emotional life of other students.
  9. Helping students develop earned confidence in their ability to solve problems and overcome challenges.
  10.  Creating school leadership that is supportive of whole child development and creates a positive school environment.

Obviously there are many other factors besides the ones listed above, but these and other factors tend to develop the brain and nervous system toward higher levels of integration: right hemisphere integrated with left, limbic integration with cortex, executive functions integrated with inner brain functions, etc. As Dan Siegel and others are demonstrating, good relationships and stimulating surroundings have a dramatic, positive, and integrative impact on the developing brain and nervous system. Further, the level of brain/nervous system integration conditions behavior and character and mediates access to the potential for human achievement in all domains.

I listened to the speakers at the conference make the persuasive case that our approach to education should track with what we now know is going on in our brains and nervous system. I also realized that the approach they recommended mirrored pretty much all of the theory, tenets, and approaches of SEL curricula.

Thus the importance of including SEL curricula in schools.

At the same time I was realizing just how important the relationship and environmental components of education were to successful social and academic outcomes, it also occurred to me just how challenging aggregating those factors is going to be, how expensive, and how difficult it is going to be to sustain them over time. The good principal retires, the next teacher doesn’t care, funding is cut, a parent gets arrested or divorced, the great teacher is overwhelmed with classes that are too big, bullies will always be with us, attention is fragmented more and more in our society, the test score is all, teachers are too stressed to teach and kids are too stressed to learn, etc., etc.

As I began to more deeply understand how the brain develops, it occurred to me the ancients faced this same dilemma many centuries ago. They intuitively understood what brain science is only now supporting; that the way we relate to each other and the fabric of our environment makes a big difference in developing our capacities for power, accomplishment, and fulfillment in life. For this reason almost every wisdom tradition teaches ethical conduct, service to others, compassion, loving kindness, community participation, etc. At the same time, they realized the world and other people form an uncertain abode. While attempting to develop a positive environment or improve the world was a worthy aim, there were so many fluid factors in play that one should not rely solely on the relationships and outer world to create positive outcomes in life. Parallel attempts at developing a positive inner environment could be used as a powerful assist.

They suggested that one could make progress toward neurological integration (healthy brain) by the daily practice of inner meditation methods that turned down the stress response and trained the attention. The theory is that regular practice of these methods trains the same or functionally equivalent brain structures as do good relationships and a positive environment. Adele Diamond’s recent work supports this premise (see attached article). Regular meditation practice improves executive function just like good relationships and positive environment do. If you can’t get all the external factors lined up to create the optimal brain development, you can still work toward that same optimal brain development through daily efforts to calm the body and train ones’ attention. Both outer supports like good relationships and positive environment and inner practices that calm the nervous system and train attention seem to improve brain integration and executive function. Executive function seems to be key to unlocking positive social behaviors, the ability to sustain attention, making good life decisions, and ultimately perhaps academic achievement.

Having advanced this premise, it must be said that humans are complex, and that no one approach seems to work for everyone. It seems intuitively obvious that our efforts to test, refine, and promulgate SEL curricula are valuable, and more evidence is rapidly accumulating that this is so. It also seems obvious that our efforts in that arena depend on a great many variables coming together and staying together in the life of our young people, thus posing significant operational challenges in scaling SEL programs. Why wouldn’t we try to match our efforts in the SEL domain with sustained efforts to provide young adults ways to develop their own brain in the proper way, through stress management and attention training meditation practices?  We may find that the addition of daily practice to SEL curricula is more empowering, more effective, more sustainable, and cheaper than we think.

Insert Empathy Here

Empathy. It’s not something you’ll find taught in schools or practiced in politics, business or the courts, yet it is an essential component to life. Empathy is so fundamental to human development that people without it can be classified as psychopaths. It is a part of psychology that has not been studied until fairly recently but is one of the most precious resources on the planet.

There are two types of empathy, affective empathy (the ability to have consideration and sympathy for other people) and cognitive empathy (the ability to understand situations by reading people’s facial expressions, their way of speaking or their demeanor). A lack of affective empathy will tend to lead people to dominate or abuse others while a lack of cognitive empathy can make one an easy target for bullying because of an inability to properly respond to each situation.

We assume children will naturally develop the ability to empathize and sympathize with people, but this could not be farther from the truth. How a child is raised will have great influence over their ability to empathize and function normally. The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory and memory consolidation, and the neural systems that respond to threats are impaired in children of abuse and neglect. The same holds true for people who are constantly under stress, the hippocampus will become irreversibly damaged.

Even if children are raised in a loving relaxing home they can still develop an empathy impairment through hyper-connected lifestyles. In fact, millenials score up to 40 percent lower on empathy tests than previous generations, the lowest scores coming after the year 2000. Through exposure to violent media and the trend toward virtual relationships, children can develop a decreased capacity to feel empathy. “In addition to missing facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, today’s digital addicts may miss signs of deception and insincerity in-person,” says Government Executive John K. Mullen. He also asserts that over-reliance on technology can diminish valuable social skills, such as the ability to make eye contact.

Before we go off and blame video games and technology for everything, we have to point out parental responsibility. Lots of kids play violent videogames and spend hours in front of the TV and grow up with a full capacity for empathy so obviously parenting plays an important role. However, parents are also increasingly distracted by technology. In some homes where both parents work full-time, children miss out on their one opportunity for face-to-face interaction (exacerbated by parents glued to their smartphones at home) and are being raised by televisions and the Internet. It is any wonder that these kids don’t understand authentic relationships? They are being raised by the media and taught that worth is defined by looks and that violence is no big deal.

Violence and bullying in school also affects how well children are able to empathize. One study done in Korea on 2,232 pairs of twins age 12 found “The average empathic ability quotient of the children who had no experience of school violence was 5.06 while the bullies and their victims were 4.22 and 4.24 respectively. Children who had both suffered bullying and acted as bullies had the lowest rating at an average of 3.64.” As professor Kim boldly asserts, “Education only focused on English and mathematics cannot solve the school violence problem.”


Once the importance of empathy is realized we can begin to fix the structural problems in the system. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen puts it best, “Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, politicaldeadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbor. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.”

What will you practice with your 1440?


Announcing the 1440 Challenge Semi-Finalists

After weeks of reading, deliberation and not a few restless nights, we have narrowed the 1440 Challenge‘s 168 entries to 20 semi-finalists. The challenge (so to speak) for us was choosing just 20, but the effort itself was rewarding because we were able to experience this budding community’s enthusiasm.

We also were grateful for the chance to review some truly fantastic ideas. Not all of them fit into our work directly, but our thanks go out to everyone who participated. When selecting the semi-finalists, we kept in mind four criteria from our submission guidelines:

  1. Was the submission in line with 1440 Foundation’s mission?  We’re looking for ideas that promote or teach the relationship skills of authenticity, trust, empathy and self-awareness in the spaces of education, wellness or the workplace. It was important to the foundation that one of the specific relationship skills be the main focus of the entry and not a byproduct of a specific program.
  2. Does the submission have the potential to scale? Can the project or program be rolled out nationally or internationally? Not all entries in the top 20 fit this bill, but scalability does help ideas reach as many people as possible — people who might benefit from or be amenable to learning and sharing these relationship skills. Social networks and smartphone apps certainly offer the opportunity to spread ideas quickly; however, technology isn’t a tonic that magically makes a program or project reach the masses. The quality of the ideas themselves mattered mosts. You’ll notice a few curricula in our top 20 we feel will scale well.
  3. Can the submission reach people beyond active participants in these fields? It was important to us that the idea have the potential to be accessible to those people who don’t actively practice some of the techniques we often mention, such as mindfulness. Part of spreading these relationship skills means reaching new people not just energizing those who would already be prone to the practice. Again, not every project or program selected will appeal this widely, but it was a consideration.
  4. Finally, the idea needed to be sustainable. 1440 wants to support ideas that can ultimately sustain themselves. We are eager for the best ideas to make the mainstream.

Regardless of whether you’re idea made it into this top 20 list, we hope all of you stay in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter, and other communications channels so we can see how your projects and dreams grow. When possible, we’re also happy to point you in the direction of others who might share your goals or organizations that can provide additional support.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the semi-finalists listed below. (Please note: Individual entries in a contest app on Facebook cannot be viewed on a smartphone. You’ll have to use a computer or iPad to see the entries. We apologize for the inconvenience.) Now, in no particular order: