Formal education often does not address the social and emotional backgrounds of children and their ability to learn, according to Ingrid Wickelgren, moderator at a recent New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) event titled Social and Emotional Learning: Preparing our Children to Excel. She argued that parents and other caregivers send children to school, assuming that the teacher will pour math, reading, and science into their tiny little brains. Bam! Done! In reality, learning is infinitely more complicated—some students are better-behaved, pay closer attention, complete homework assignments, and others don’t. The level of learning, she pointed out, is due to differences in executive functions such as attention, memory, planning skills, problem solving, and task switching in the brain. While being presented with new information and skills, children should also be given better ways such as mindfulness and other mental training to absorb and learn that information.
One of the event’s speakers, Amishi Jha, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, focused on the concept of mindfulness, defining it as “a mental mode characterized by attention to present moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.” At first, I wondered: Is she suggesting that we don’t use our brains to think? Am I “mindful”? Jha said mindfulness can train our brains to function more efficiently and calmly, without analyzing or thinking about the past or future. Most importantly, it can improve attention and other executive functions.