As a public educator, I aim to share my story with those interested about what really happens inside today's classroom. I hope my stories inspire, educate, and entertain you, as the calling of teaching is never neat or predictable. Please note that my blog content does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or beliefs of my school district or colleagues.
Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of DiscoveryEducation.com
Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown
My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.
"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Teaching Emotional Character
ScieScientists, politicians and celebrities are
remaking schools as gyms for the brain where teachers build the mental brawn
focus on attention, perseverance, and emotional control. Read on; it's a fascinating piece!
Social and emotional learning is designed to
sculpt fundamental abilities such as paying attention and exercising
self-control. In one program, children learn to focus on, and control, their
A tiny dark-haired girl bedecked in a brown
dress with a crinoline skirt sits calmly on the rug in front of her class of
fellow kindergartners; her pink boots, dotted with sparkles, are tucked neatly
under her legs. Wielding a small metal rod, she taps on a triangular chime. At
the tone, her classmates clasp their hands together like a cup, with the back
of one hand in the palm of the other, close their eyes, fall silent, and
proceed to say and do apparently nothing.
Minutes pass. Then the fancily frocked girl
strikes the triangle a second time. Kids begin to open their eyes, and after a
pause a sweet, high-pitched “thank you” emerges from the girl, and she
reassumes her place among her classmates.
In this exercise performed three times every
day in Patricia Morris's class at Renfrew Elementary School in Vancouver, B.C.,
the children focus on their breathing, an activity that hardly seems
pedagogical. Proponents say, however, these meditative bouts hone the ability
to concentrate and to relax, tuning a child's brain for learning and for life.
They are one piece of a program called MindUP conceived by actor Goldie Hawn,
who debuted it in this city several years ago. Today the Vancouver school board
sanctions it, and fueled by success stories, it is spreading through the U.S.
and trickling into other countries.
Hawn's program, which also includes brain
anatomy lessons and strategies spun from positive psychology such as training
in optimism, is one of several curricula aimed at redesigning education. A
burgeoning number of researchers and educators believe that school should
include more than remembering and analyzing information. It also should sharpen
fundamental psychological skills called executive functions that are needed to
plan and carry out goals. Akin to an air traffic-control system that manages
the comings and goings of planes on multiple runways, these brain functions
include the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind (working
memory), to switch mental gears and to inhibit inappropriate responses.
Facility with some of these mental knobs is
closely tied to intelligence [see “Building Better Brains,” on page 59]. Yet
others constitute a gold mine of brilliance that has proved to be more
important to success and well-being than have measures of IQ. In particular,
inhibitory control, also called self-regulation in some contexts, underlies the
ability to pay attention and to act in a way that furthers your goals even when
you really want to do something else. Learning issues afflict large numbers of
children who have trouble focusing, say, or following through in the face of
frustration. “Even more important than your achievement test score is this idea
that if you fail, you'll try again, that you don't need people to bail you out,
that you'll persevere in the face of difficulty,” says developmental
psychologist Dale Farran of Vanderbilt University. “These are the key to the
grades you get in school.”
Beyond grades, the ability to handle emotions
and behave appropriately helps us deal with life. Emotional control buffers
kids against mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. It also
helps them maintain good relationships with others. “Self-regulation is a
critical skill that needs explicit, intentional focus in the school
curriculum,” says developmental psychologist Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl of the
University of British Columbia. “It has such long-range implications for kids'
Attempts to teach executive function, typically
couched as social and emotional learning, have gained political support in
recent years. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning
(CASEL), a nonprofit advocacy group, has allocated $7 million this year to
establish this type of teaching as an essential part of education. Ohio
congressman Tim Ryan, along with representatives Judy Biggert of Illinois and
Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, introduced the Academic, Social, and Emotional
Learning Act of 2011 to “expand the availability of programs that teach students
skills such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, responsible
decision-making, relationship building, goal-setting and self discipline,”
according to the CASEL Web site. This pending legislation is currently awaiting
consideration by the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile teachers are already sprinkling the
school day with breathing exercises, mood meters, demonstrations of distressed
amygdalas, facial-expression cards, and the like, looking for the essential
recipe that will nourish children to become the kind of adults we want in the
world. Data support each ingredient, and initial studies of these add-on
curricula are largely producing positive results. Measuring executive function
in children is still an imperfect science, however, making outcomes hard to
assess. In addition, the active ingredients of these multipart, “cocktail”
interventions are not always obvious, leading researchers to make some guesses
in the programs' designs. Yet many educators are toasting their promise—and the
accompanying possibility of shaping the character of the developing mind.
I Can't Wait!
Back in the late 1960s psychologist Walter
Mischel, then at Stanford University, and his colleagues offered preschoolers
attending the Bing Nursery School a choice: they could pick out a cookie,
pretzel or marshmallow and eat it now, or if they waited a while, they would
get two treats instead of one. Fast-forward to high school: the kids who could
wait for the second treat had higher SAT scores. On average, 210 points separated
the student who could wait 15 minutes at four years old and the one who stalled
only 30 seconds. The patient preschoolers also were better able to pay
attention as adolescents; they found it easier to maintain friendships and were
less likely to display behavioral problems at school and at home. Mischel
trailed this clan into their 30s. He found that the ones who had staved off
temptation as children were thinner and less likely to have had drug problems
From the other side of the globe, last year
psychologist Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University and her colleagues similarly
reported a strong connection between self-control and success in 1,000 kids
born in Dunedin, New Zealand. Every other year teachers and parents evaluated
each child between the ages of three and 11 on his or her levels of aggression,
hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention and impulsivity. These ratings,
along with those from the children themselves, led to a self-control score for
At 32 years old, the boys and girls who had had
lower scores were poorer, had worse health, and were more likely to have
committed a crime than those exhibiting more self-control. Poor ratings were a
stronger predictor of financial troubles than was social class or IQ. In a separate
set of 500 sibling pairs, the researchers found that despite a shared family
background, the sibling with lower self-control was more likely to smoke,
engage in antisocial behaviors and struggle in school.
These studies and others suggest self-control
might be a stable characteristic. Yet Moffit's team noticed that some of the
Dunedin children improved their scores, as measured by a personality assessment
in young adulthood. Mischel, now at Columbia University, and his colleagues
also found that children from low-income families in the Bronx had more trouble
delaying gratification than did wealthier kids from Palo Alto, suggesting that
kids from richer families may be exposed to strategies that facilitate patience
more often. “Self-control is malleable, but it is easier for some than for
others,” Mischel concludes.
Researchers and educators are now testing out
different strategies for teaching these pivotal skills. MindUP, one of the more
promising initiatives, grew out of Hawn's fascination with brain science as a
vehicle for self-improvement. While she was living in Vancouver in 2002, her
thoughts turned to children. She invited educational psychologists,
neuroscientists and teachers to develop a new curriculum with a brain science
scaffold that centered on social and emotional learning. Now MindUP has spread
to more than 75 U.S. schools, nearly 175 in Canada, seven in the U.K., two in
Australia and one in Venezuela.
“What does the breathing do?” Morris asks her
“It calms your amygdala down,” offers one
“It will make your prefrontal cortex so much
smarter!” says another.
Morris's charges have become miniature
authorities on brain anatomy. The amygdala, at the center of the brain, is a
hub of emotional responses, they will tell you. The prefrontal cortex, which
blankets part of the brain's surface just behind the forehead, is the seat of
executive function. It regulates our emotions, thoughts and actions. The two
regions are connected, and their relationship is deep. A storm of emotions
raging in the amygdala can weaken the prefrontal cortex, hampering our ability
to think and to learn. Kids under a lot of emotional stress, a condition more
prevalent in lower-income families, do worse in school because the stress
itself impairs executive function [see “Treating a Toxin to Learning,” on page
The breathing, as the children report, calms
the emotional storm, making the skies for learning blue again. By focusing on
their breath, they are learning to pay attention to moment-by-moment experience
without judging or thinking too deeply about it. This type of dispassionate
focus on the present, called mindfulness, helps to ward off stress that arises
from “time travel” into the remembered past, leading to rumination, or the
imagined future, spawning anxiety. “It helps me as a teacher because I have a
calmer class and I'm calmer,” says Marianne Prins, a gregarious 26-year veteran
teacher who teaches MindUP to third graders at Sir William Van Horne Elementary
School, also in Vancouver.
A large body of data shows that mindfulness
training helps to reduce stress-related diseases in adults. In children, a
smattering of pilot studies indicates that it calms healthy kids and reduces
anxiety or anxiety-related academic difficulties in nervous students. In a 2009
study neuroscientist Kirk Warren Brown of Virginia Commonwealth University and
his colleagues coached teenagers in an outpatient psychiatric facility to
engage in several forms of meditation (sitting, walking and body scan, which
involves systematically focusing on and relaxing different body parts while
lying down). After eight classes conducted over as many weeks, the teens
reported significantly less anxiety, stress, interpersonal problems and
symptoms of depression than did those who did not take the classes.
MindUP seems to accomplish something similar.
In a study presented in May at the Developmental Contemplative Science meeting
in Toronto, Schonert-Reichl and doctoral student Molly Stewart Lawlor and their
colleagues measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in 99 fourth and
fifth graders in four local schools in March and again in June, a tumultuous
month for students as they wrap up their classes for the year. Initially they
saw a healthy hormonal pattern in all the children: cortisol peaked one hour
after waking and then declined steeply during the day. For the kids who
participated in MindUP, the same rise and fall was recorded in June. In
contrast, the cortisol levels of kids in the comparison classrooms were flat
throughout the day, a pattern indicative of chronic stress. “Our hypothesis is
that MindUP buffered kids from that end-of-year stress,” Lawlor says.
The breathing also may burnish executive
function more directly. In this meditationlike practice, kids learn to inhibit
the urge to elaborate on thoughts and feelings that pop into consciousness. The
effort helps them resolve mental conflict induced by competing stimuli, or
goals, a skill needed to prioritize. Such conflict monitoring, an ability
related to attention, has been linked to better math achievement in school,
higher IQ and less antisocial behavior. In a study published in 2007
psychologist Michael Posner of the University of Oregon and his co-workers
randomly assigned a group of Chinese college students to five daily 20-minute
meditation sessions. Compared with a group taught an exercise involving the
relaxation of different body parts, these students showed significantly better
scores on a computerized test of attention and conflict monitoring. In 2011 a
team led by neuroscientist Amishi Jha at the University of Miami reported
similar improvements on this test among 13- to 15-year-olds at a school in
India that offered daily transcendental meditation exercises for one to three
years, as compared with teens in a school that did not offer this practice.
Does It Feel Rough?
On an overcast morning in late February, Prins
dumps a basket of gray stones in the center of a circle of students gathered on
the rug. She calls different students to pick from the pile. After everyone has
a stone, Prins instructs the students to examine theirs for any special marks,
to close their eyes and imagine the rock, and to rub it against their cheeks.
“Does it feel rough?” she asks brightly. Mindfulness also means paying close
attention to the sensory qualities of things—such as the texture, colors,
hollows and ridges of a rock. When all the students put their stone back in the
pile, the minerals resembled anonymous bits of gravel. The students' job: to
find their stone again. In the first round of this rock game the kids had
trouble, but in the second, every student recovered the stone they had
inspected. Mindfulness takes practice.
In other venues, these kinds of exercises, in
combination with breathing, have had measurable effects on kids' executive
function. In 2010 behavioral geneticist Susan L. Smalley of the University of
California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues reported providing training in
mindfulness to 32 second and third graders twice a week for eight weeks. The
training included sitting meditation, along with activities and games that
promote sensory awareness and awareness of others. Teachers and parents
completed questionnaires assessing the children's inhibitory skills, control of
attention, working memory, and emotional regulation before and after the
training. The results indicated that exercising mindfulness significantly
improved these aptitudes on the whole, as well as particular skills, compared
with 32 children assigned to silent reading. The training gave the biggest boost
to those whose capacities were initially weaker, a finding consistent with work
by Smalley's team hinting that mindfulness training could benefit adolescents
with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Kids who are naturally more mindful also perform
better on tests of inhibitory control. In a study published in 2011 doctoral
student Eva Oberle of the University of British Columbia, along with
Schonert-Reichl, Lawlor and their colleagues, asked 99 fourth and fifth graders
to complete a test that asks questions reflecting mindless states such as: “I
do jobs or tasks automatically without being aware of what I am doing” and “I
snack without being aware of what I am eating.” The higher a kid scored on this
test of “mindful attention awareness,” the more accurate he or she was on a
computerized assessment of inhibitory control.
Of course, ordinary school exercises the
brain's executive control centers. You cannot read or do a math problem without
tapping your working memory, training your focus or suppressing your wish to
chat with a friend instead. Yet school is akin to a team practice that drills
sport-related skills but does not maximize an athlete's quadriceps power or
smooth out her running stride. Programs such as MindUP work as speed and
agility training for the brain. “If you teach explicit ways to self-regulate,
you exercise the muscle of the prefrontal cortex—and get spillover into
academics,” Schonert-Reichl says. In her recent study MindUP participants
improved more on computerized tests of attention and inhibitory control than
did kids in the comparison classes. They also had higher ratings in math on
their end-of-year report cards.
These results are not news to teachers. “I
can't stress enough how much this has improved my teaching and the academic
skills of the children,” says Morris, who began using MindUP three years ago.
In 2005, the year MindUP debuted in Vancouver, 17 teachers were trained. That
number has ballooned to 1,000. “It kind of went viral,” Schonert-Reichl says.
“There are wait lists for training. I've never seen anything like it.”
Green Means Go
Decades before Hawn became interested in
education, developmental psychologist Mark T. Greenberg, then at the University
of Washington, made one of the first forays into social-emotional learning.
Greenberg had been trying to help deaf individuals with self-regulation
deficits control their behavior by teaching them words for emotions. He
realized that the strategies he was using—having people sign or talk out loud
to themselves or exposing them to words as visual aids—also seemed to help
hearing children control their behavior. “I was interested in language as a
self-regulation mechanism in preschool,” Greenberg recalls.
In the 1980s Greenberg and Seattle psychologist
Carol A. Kusché created Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), now
used in over 3,000 schools in more than 30 U.S. states and as many foreign
countries. In one part of the curriculum, kids receive small labeled cards with
faces expressing different feelings. They personalize the cards and use them to
communicate their emotions throughout the day. Self-regulation is also taught
explicitly with the aid of a traffic signal. If students face a difficult or
frustrating situation, they focus on the red light, which means “Stop—Calm
Down.” They are supposed to describe the problem and their feelings about it.
Next comes yellow, “Go Slow—Think,” that is, make a plan. Green means “Go—Try
In a study published in 2010 Greenberg, now at
Pennsylvania State University, and his colleagues tested these techniques in
2,937 students, many of them disadvantaged, as they advanced from first through
third grade in schools in Nashville, Seattle and rural Pennsylvania. According
to teacher and peer evaluations, the kids in the 190 classrooms that received
the PATHS instruction became less aggressive and more cooperative and helpful,
compared with those in 180 classrooms that did not include the intervention.
The kids getting PATHS were also more academically engaged—showing more self-control
during school-based tasks, teachers said—than those getting instruction as
PATHS may produce these gains by boosting
executive function. Several years ago Greenberg, along with Nathaniel R. Riggs
of the University of Southern California and their colleagues, tested the
inhibitory control of 318 second and third graders from four schools in
Seattle. In two of the schools, teachers gave 20 to 30 minutes of PATHS lessons
three times a week from October through March. A year later these students had
better inhibitory control than did kids in the two other schools.
Red Riding Hood's Problem
In part because of MindUP, Prins presides over
a few of the school's most anxious children. Almost as soon as her lesson began
one morning, a little boy burst into tears, the reason unclear. “His amygdala
is all shook up,” Prins says. She picks up a two-liter soda bottle filled with
water and sand, turns it upside down and agitates it. “What can we do in our
class when our amygdala is shaken up?” she asks. Some of the kids made a
“peace” sign with their fingers. The gesture means a child needs to take a walk
while his amygdala calms down.
In Prins's class, a diagram of the brain with a
labeled prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, a storehouse for memories,
hangs on the wall. Prins reviews the structures and their roles daily and makes
connections to her lessons. “Red Riding Hood had a problem with her amygdala
with the wolf,” she once told her class. One MindUP lesson for grades three
through five centers on the anatomy and function of a neuron; another is a
discussion of the brain chemistry of pleasure and reward.
Teachers say their students are fascinated by
how their brain works. Yet the main purpose of the lessons is more
philosophical than scientific. “It gives kids a certain level of empowerment,”
Schonert-Reichl says. “They learn they can change their mind.” The exercise of
thinking about thinking, known as metacognition, is designed to give kids
better control over how they think and feel—directing their attention more
appropriately or calming themselves down—in ways that could enhance learning.
Do the neuroanatomy lessons really improve
self-control? “I don't think kids need to know about the amygdala,” says Adele
Diamond, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British
Columbia. “But kids enjoy learning about the brain.” And yet some data hint
that Hawn might be on to something.
Mischel and psychologist Angela L. Duckworth of
the University of Pennsylvania have found that one of the best ways to summon
restraint is to separate yourself from whatever is provoking an emotional response.
Kids who covered their cookie, Mischel says, could linger 18 minutes without
indulging, whereas those who left the treat exposed bit into it in less than a
minute. Teaching children to pretend that a marshmallow was only a picture
stretched out their ability to resist from one minute to a quarter of an hour.
“If they imagine a picture, they can wait as if it were a picture,” Mischel
In a study published in 2011 Mischel and
Duckworth, along with psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan,
and their colleagues established the power of distancing on cooling hot
emotions in children. They asked 110 fifth graders from a public school to
recall a personal experience that made them very angry. Some of the kids
imagined it was happening to them again. Others were instructed to step back
and watch themselves and the event unfold from a distance. All the students
then wrote an essay in which they reflected on their experiences. In their
essays, students adopting the distant perspective dwelled considerably less on
the event's emotional features and included fewer blame statements and more
insightful reappraisals of what happened.
Learning about the brain might help kids
distance themselves from their emotions by putting them in an abstract context.
Mindfulness also involves stepping back from your thoughts and feelings.
Moreover, the use of language, as in PATHS, can put space between the impulse
to act and the action itself.
Kross and Duckworth are now planning to test
the broad applicability of the distancing technique on groups of children in
grades five through nine attending Philadelphia charter schools. The
psychologists will coach the kids to reflect on their actions during different
self-control tasks by encouraging them to either focus on their perspective by
talking to themselves using language such as “I” and “my” or cultivate a sense
of distance by referring to themselves in the third person. Then the
researchers will measure the children's capacity to persevere in a boring work
task (sorting chips by color), wait for a delayed reward (seven dollars in a
week versus five dollars now) and control their anger related to a recollected
For Good Measure
Tweaking the minds of children can be tricky,
however. In as yet unpublished work, Vanderbilt's Farran and her colleagues
tested an intervention called Tools of the Mind, which uses self-talk, visual
reminders and play to improve executive function in kids. Farran's team
randomly assigned the curriculum to 32 prekindergarten classrooms in Tennessee
and North Carolina. They measured the students' executive function and
achievement before and after eight months of the program. Children did show
gains, but no more so than did kids in 28 classrooms that did not offer Tools.
“The measures we have, including teacher ratings, did not show that the program
was more effective than what they normally do in preschool,” Farran says.
Earlier studies had shown benefits from Tools
when the program was simpler, involving 40 activities instead of the 65 now
prescribed. Farran believes this proliferation of elements might be diluting
the effectiveness of the program. A second issue is that no perfect measure of
executive function exists, perhaps because the concept itself is still somewhat
ill defined. That ambiguity has not stopped teachers such as Prins, however,
who see the positive effects of brain training on a daily basis.
Outside of Prins's class in Vancouver, the
slush was melting and water dripped from every branch and gutter. Inside, the
kids did “brain exercises.” Smiling and panting, they touched their right elbow
to left knee. They rubbed their tummies while patting their heads. They did
jumping jacks. The choreography was designed to optimally excite the prefrontal
cortex. Yet the children's faces indicated that the exact moves might not
matter. In Schonert-Reichl's latest investigation, those in the MindUP classes
became more optimistic, had more positive emotions and liked school better than
other students did. And it is well known that the neurotransmitter dopamine,
associated with joy and pleasure, primes the prefrontal cortex for action.
“School needs to be more fun,” British Columbia's Diamond says. “Kids will buy
in. They will learn better.” If the grown-ups succeed in making kids better
thinkers, the kids should get the last laugh.
INGRID WICKELGREN is an editor at Scientific
American Mind and author of the blog Streams of Consciousness at ScientificAmerican.com.