The Road to Academic Learning Is Paved With Social and Emotional Learning

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By Margie Dorshorst

Some may question why the teaching of social and emotional learning skills is essential for academic learning. Schools are, of course, educational institutions for academic learning. Under pressure to ensure all students achieve at their highest levels, educators may become frustrated with nonacademic requirements and the loss of teaching time. This same frustration has been expressed by some educators regarding the addition of a focus on social and emotional learning in the classroom. Yet an understanding of how the brain learns affirms the essential interconnection between academic learning and social and emotional learning.

The human brain is the organ for learning. When students learn and process information, they are operating at the highest level of mental processing, located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. But the brain is not just a learning organ. The complexity of the neural structures has evolved over time to create more pathways for academic learning, and these neural pathways are supported and surrounded by the same neural networks used for social learning.

Psychologist Louis Cozolino (2013) has proposed that the brain is a social organ and that to survive it requires human connectedness and relationships. He argues that this is why teachers should use social and emotional learning to create a positive social environment for all students to learn and thrive. While creating a positive social environment does require an investment of time, it does not take away from academic learning. Instead, the time investment of social and emotional learning will solidify and maximize academic learning.

Imagine that academic learning is like driving along a road. This is how curricula are designed—step-by-step lessons provide a road map for learning. On this road of learning, each student has their own “vehicle,” or brain. Depending on available

resources, background experiences, mental and physical health, and other factors, each brain has different levels of fuel for learning. With this in mind, curricula can provide a clear and consistent learning road, but the success of the journey will not be the same for every child.

As educators, our goal is to support every student so they can proceed as efficiently and successfully as possible on the road to learning. Through various school assessments educators measure the distance the student has traveled and either ask them to redo the travel on the road (repetition) or provide more intense travel (intervention) on the path ahead. And yet educators still may end up with mixed results if they don’t pay attention to the vehicle of learning—students’ brains.

The neural pathways for social and emotional learning run through the brain stem and the limbic system (emotional brain). Marilee Sprenger (2020) notes that these lower levels of the brain act as filters, with emotions influencing whether learning reaches the highest level, the prefrontal cortex. Both educators and students should be aware of these filters, and educators should provide social and emotional learning supports and structures for students to successfully navigate the learning process.

Social and emotional learning helps to pave the road for learning. By embedding social and emotional learning within the academic learning day, students are provided with the supports and skills to travel the road to learning successfully. Here are four strategies to try:

  1. Build strong adult-student relationships. The brain stem and limbic system can trigger a fight-or-flight response that can impede learning. Make sure each student has a strong connection with at least one adult in the school. Offering words of encouragement and considering students’ perspectives, for example, can show students you care and help develop mutual trust. Strong adult-student relationships can lessen the triggers that may occur in a school setting.
  2. Teach students that all emotions are okay. Humans do not always have control over their emotions. The brain responds to many factors that trigger a variety of emotions. Help students to identify and name the emotions and to learn to respond in ways that are safe and kind.
  3. Teach students how to use self-control in order to open the road to learning. Educators can teach calming strategies, use time out/time and space, or practice quiet time to help students learn how to use self-control. Adults can model calming strategies and disclose their own self-control strategies.
  4. Use positive teacher language to strengthen pathways for learning. Educators can use envisioning language to paint a picture of success, showing faith in students academically, socially, and emotionally. Simple statements such as “I imagine a class that will model attentive listening and respectful body posture when we attend the assembly” can help assure the emotional brain that an important adult imagines their success. Reinforcing language, in the moment, can do the same thing: “I see students practicing self-control by keeping their hands to themselves.”

Embedding social and emotional learning within the context of the learning day not only builds social and emotional skills but also maximizes academic learning. Responsive Classroom practices such as Morning Meeting, Responsive Advisory Meeting, Interactive Modeling, and energizers and brain breaks all provide opportunities for embedded and explicit social and emotional learning.

Making time for social and emotional learning is not only essential for academic learning, it is necessary to ensure students’ brains can learn at their highest level. With social and emotional learning, the road to learning can be smooth and successful for all students!

Margie Dorshorst has served as an elementary principal, speech-language pathologist, able learner teacher, and staff development facilitator in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and has been a consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools for 15 years. Margie has helped create systems that empower teachers and schools to design and implement innovative practices, and she is committed to supporting teachers and schools with the tools and systems that propel all children to academic and social success.