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.
She then addressed the concept of “wandering attention,” a phrase coined by psychologist William James, who believed taming wandering attention produces an excellent education. Jha agrees. Wandering attention is a central issue in brain conditions such as ADHD, but it also refers to losing one’s focus. To test our ability to manage selective attention and resist distraction, Jha asked us to close our eyes, select one aspect of our breathing, and focus on it. I thought about coffee, the Lincoln biography I’m reading, how I would get home from the event, etc. She prompted the audience to “gently return our attention” and remarked that we probably weren’t aware that our thoughts had wandered – often a subconscious action caused by the way our brains are wired. She told us that mind wandering can have harmful effects on a person’s well-being when manifested as “rumination or worry” but, positive effects when expressed as “constructive internal reflection.”
Clancy Blair, Ph.D, professor of applied psychology at New York University, focused his discussion on executive functions, the biochemical processes that occur between lymphatic structures in the brain and the pre-frontal cortex, and the effects of stress on children. Stress that, like mind wandering, can have harmful or beneficial effects on an individual, and has a motivating effect only when normal stressors are managed properly and neuroendocrine hormones don’t surpass a personal threshold. Stress physiology that involves hormones and glucocorticoids from the hypothalamus affecting the pre-frontal lobe and vice versa is complex, and yet to pinpoint the social and emotional causes of excess stress may be equally as complicated. Executive functions are affected by genes, stress physiology, environment, and other aspects of a person’s life, but are also shaped by them. It is a highly reciprocal relationship.
Blair argued that in many cases, severe poverty and reactive parenting are primary stressors for young children and affect their ability to learn. He added that “the environment shapes brain development in ways appropriate for the context.” Children who are constantly under stress have biochemical and physiological responses that are appropriate for survival, yet not ideal for learning. In “low quality environments,” children have abnormally high baseline levels of cortisol and other stress hormones that don’t peak drastically during highly stressful situations, unlike their counterparts from “high-quality” environments.
To Blair, resilience or coping with stress by exerting control over a seemingly uncontrollable situation is the most important solution for improving executive functioning. Many programs Blair and Jha mentioned, including Tools of the Mind for Kindergarteners, SMART and CARE for adults and InnerKids, for K-12 students, have shown promise for improving attention and executive functioning. Mindfulness training and other techniques will not only improve school-aged learning but also, as Jha put it, “reduce suffering” for diverse groups of people, from returning war veterans, to college students, to adults and seniors. Its potential is huge, she believes. To learn more about upcoming events at the New York Academy of Sciences, visit their website.