Make a Move: How the Brain Responds to Movement-Centered Social and Emotional Learning

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By Kalli Siringas

Imagine the brain as a building set on a strong foundation. As we develop, our brain structure is sustained through levels of care, support, environmental factors, and flexibility to change. A wide range of factors can affect our body and mind’s ability to adapt, change, and grow, but education has the unique opportunity to set foundational patterns of brain structure through active, meaningful, and social and emotional learning environments created in the classroom (Immordino-Yang et al., 2018).

Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

Learning how the brain develops can provide educators further insight into how to intervene or better support students. By creating opportunities for students to engage actively and socially in safe environments, educators can foster a supportive atmosphere for brain architecture to develop   (Immordino-Yang et al., 2018). Through the lens of individual life experiences and social circumstances, students’ brain networks form new neural connections in age-appropriate ways, connecting physically and emotionally to their surroundings.

The executive functioning area—the prefrontal cortex—is associated with regions involved in planning, decision-making, abstract thinking, and emotional regulation (Gogtay et al., 2004). This area is also aligned with emotional reward and sensitivity as well as in-depth interests while developing brain plasticity. Setting the groundwork for students to thrive and illuminate their prefrontal cortex in the classroom is supported by an active and challenging environment where students feel safe to go outside of their comfort zone. Through a set of routines and activities that encourage social and emotional growth on the same level as academics, students will be able to engage their executive functioning area, raise academic achievement, and see interpersonal relationships grow (Lee & Riordan, 2018).

Student-led dialogue creates alterations to neurotransmitters that stimulate nerve growth factors, and this growth is more likely to occur when educators incorporate student-to-student conversation or movement in the classroom.

“Miracle-Gro for the Brain”

Our brain is malleable and constantly evolving. White matter makes up the deeper parts of the brain and contains nerve cells and fibers that are responsible for information transmission or wiring (Newman, 2017). Recent studies have shown that white matter can contain as much plasticity as grey matter, where actual processing of information occurs—especially if movement is involved (Colmenares et. al, 2021). Walking or dancing for 10 minutes a day over the course of a few weeks can increase memory performance and slows deterioration in older adults. Exercise produces a protein within the body that psychiatrist John Ratey refers to as “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the role it plays in improving learning ability (cited in Snider, 2008). By incorporating exercise and movement in a classroom, student memory, alertness, and engagement will increase (Wilson & Conyers, 2014).

This same principle also applies to student dialogue. Studies have shown that when students talk about their work, it increases retention and performance (Zwiers, 2014). Encouraging the class to put lessons into their own words fosters student autonomy and enhances learning. When students are moving around and actively learning and communicating with one another, more oxygen flows to the brain and accelerates the processing. Student-led dialogue creates alterations to neurotransmitters that stimulate nerve growth factors, and this growth is more likely to occur when educators incorporate student-to-student conversation or movement in the classroom.

Interactive Learning Structures and the Brain

The brain is like a muscle, and in order to strengthen its ability, it needs regular exercise. Studies have shown that just a single physical activity during the school day can improve a student’s ability to focus for up to two hours (Farmer Kris, 2019).

Interactive learning structures are straight- forward hands-on activities that offer an effective way to keep students engaged and actively learning in the classroom. An interactive learning structure creates opportunities for students to move while maintaining structure and purposefulness. An interactive learning structure also allows classmates to interact and foster feelings of belonging and community, leading to a more positive classroom environment (Cherry, 2020).

Allow students to practice skills while they are still fresh in their mind by asking them to immediately demonstrate, share, or reflect on what they have learned. This will also provide the brain a short break while students practice new skills, which studies have shown helps with retention and improved performance (National Institutes of Health, 2021). Partner talks, small groups, and whole groups can be an effective approach when using interactive learning structures.

Teacher Talk Versus Student Dialogue

When learning is kept active in class, new information will be better retained by students. Encourage student dialogue or prepare lesson plans that facilitate discussion and monitor student interaction. Problem-solving is also more likely to become easier with teamwork and discussion.

Dynamic and flexible learning environments are created by focusing on student-led conversations that are versatile and relatable. Movement and meaningful student dialogue keep students engaged, inspiring intrinsic motivation. Social learning also plays a pivotal role in students retaining information for longer periods of time and enhancing their attention during and between lessons (Zwiers, 2014).

Teacher language is a powerful tool in the classroom. When teachers model a new skill and speak briefly and directly, it instills confidence in students that they have faith in their learning abilities. Setting expectations for students’ roles from the beginning of the lesson will provide structure while giving them space to practice and collaborate. Following up with reminding questions continues to create opportunities for students to learn on their own. Modeling skills or lesson plans for students rather than simply narrating during a demonstration allows students to think critically for themselves and concentrate on how they would apply the skill.

How to Move for Memory

Incorporating movement into the classroom involves preparation. With lesson planning, consider what you feel comfortable incorporating into class so that expectations are clear to students and they stay focused on the task at hand. Here are three examples of interactive learning structures:

Snowball. Students form a circle. The instructor poses a question to the class and provides a sheet of paper for each student to respond on. Once students have written their responses, they crumple up their paper and throw it like a snowball into the middle of the circle. Each student chooses a snowball to read aloud to the class.

Gallery Walk. Create a gallery space in your classroom. Have students display their small-group work and choose where they would like their pieces placed and why. Hanging students’ artwork on the walls encourages student autonomy and confidence. Educators can provide structure and focus for the walk by creating a collective starting point for observation and asking classmates what is surprising or interesting to them about each work.

Jigsaw. Engage students in a task that requires them to communicate with their peers. For example, create groups of three and ask each group to read an article twice, once with those who read the same article and once with those who did not. Ask students to write down what they understand about both reading assignments, and have a whole-class discussion on key points of the article.

Over time, educators can connect the dots between the brain and movement-centered social-emotional learning for students to apply in and out of the classroom. Not only will this new engagement increase learning retention and spark student-led conversations, but their education is more likely to be versatile, inspired, and active (Zwiers, 2014). By utilizing interactive learning structures, students will be able to optimize their learning—and have fun doing it.

Kalli Siringas is a writer and editor for Center for Responsive School’s Fly Five curriculum, creating content and resources for adult SEL. She is involved in musical theater for children and most recently her work as a journalist was featured internationally with support from the Pulitzer Center.