Enriching Evidence-Based SEL Curricula with Daily Contemplative Practice Routine

Posted on: July 26th, 2012 by patton
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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.

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