Opal School, we value and pay attention to not only children's academic and
physical development, but their social and emotional development. Social and emotional development is so
important, because it connects all areas of development. In this post, we share a few ideas from current brain research that
influence our work.
research helps us to know how important social and emotional development is to
learning. What we remember is
connected to the emotional center of the brain, because it gives meaning to
everyday events. We cannot use or
access information that is meaningless.
Meaning and emotions are closely connected.
know that children are in a state of mind optimal for learning when they are in the state
of "Relaxed Alertness". Relaxed Alertness is when a person experiences
high challenge and low risk at the same time. They are in a state of joy, and learning is optimal. This is a state of mind that we try to
nurture at Opal School. In this
state, children are open to new information and their mind is busy making meaning.
contrasts with Relaxed Alertness. In a Downshifted state of mind, a child's brain shuts down and rejects new information. This is when a child will go to old
patterns of behavior; it is directly related to fight or flight. In Downshifting, response is based on fear or anger, anger being the secondary
emotion for feeling hurt or afraid.
At this point, a child is no longer engaged in learning. When the emotions of fear or hurt are
present, this changes the brain's ability to think or problem-solve. This also happens when classroom work
seems meaningless and boring.
Both Relaxed Alertness and Downshifting are natural processes, and one is not better
than the other– it's just the way real-life is. Our role as teachers is in creating an environment that
allows for children to be in a state of relaxed alertness and to help children
through a process we call emotional coaching when downshifting has occurred.
This story will illustrate:
It was a beautful fall day and my group of new first graders and I had taken a hike into Hoyt Arboretum to play. When we arrived in the Lower Meadow, the leaves on the ground inspired a joyful and collaborative pile up.
The group made a quick agreement and promise to one another not to jump in the pile until it was finished. And the meadow was filled with the sounds of laughter and happy anticipation — sounds of connectedness and friendship and the pleasure of being part of something big and important and fun.
As the pile got bigger, it became harder to pile the leaves on top.
And when Jaden came along with her arms full, she lost her balance as she reached for the top, and fell in.
Oh, how quickly the sounds of the meadow changed. Accusations flew and Jaden began crying. A terrible shift in the air. I was sad and angry, too. How could the group turn on Jaden so quickly? How could she find a moment to clarify what happened? How could she express her own frustration with having fallen in? It was a horrible thing to witness — the jump to conclusions of the group. The flash of assumptions. The loss of joy.
So I said to everyone, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Do you hear how different things sound suddenly? Do you feel how different everything feels? Does everyone else notice that? What can we do? Does anyone have ideas?"
By this time, Jaden was sitting on the ground, continuing to cry. That sound pulled everyone in to find out more.
As they listened, they found out what had really happened. I encouraged them to share their perspectives, but was careful not to tell them how they should be feeling, only to mirror back to them what I observed happening. It only took a moment. Jaden was heard and they were re-engaged with their master plan.
They self-organized into a line and everyone took a turn jumping in. (And no one bumped into that tree!) A return to the joy and the sounds of a happy, sunny afternoon with new friends and partners.
So let's revisit that story to see how illustrates the concepts of the emotional coaching process as described by the Talaris Institute.
saw a community of learners experiencing joy and fun together (Relaxed
happened – an incident – Jaden fell down in the pile of leaves and everyone is
The teacher supported the children using a process called Emotional Coaching, a
researched-based way to help children and adults handle their feelings.
Start with yourself. The teacher recognizes her own
feelings first, her frustrations and thinks about how she is going to handle
this. She calms herself before she responds to the children.
Connect children to their
The teacher reflects back to the children that they were so joyful. And she asks,
“What are you feeling now?” “What changed?”
Listen with empathy and
honor emotions. She encouraged the children to talk about what was happening without
judging what they were feeling. She supported all voices and expressed sympathy
for the situation and the feelings that accompanied it.
Naming emotions. The teacher helped the children
identify all their emotions and did not tell them how they should be feeling.
Support solutions to
The teacher challenged them with the question, “How do we return to the joy?” She
let them know that they were capable of solving this problem and restoring the
trust they have as a community of learners.
who develop these skills are on their way to becoming emotionally healthy