Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series about how findings and solutions from Applied Educational Neuroscience are necessary in improving our approach to the social and emotional development of children.

Educational Neuroscience (EN) and Applied Educational Neuroscience (AEN) are complex studies of the brain processes – all things centered around the science of learning. But like math – most of us don’t need to understand complex subjects such as polynomials and calculus to get through our day. Most of us just need the basics – addition, subtraction etc.   

The same is true for AEN.  In order to benefit from AEN research we don’t need to be scholars in the subject matter. Understanding the very basic, such as: brain structure, brain state, triggers, regulation strategies, etc.  can be extremely beneficial in helping us navigate emotionally complex situations.  


The role of educators in the AEN process

As educators, we must take responsibility for helping children learn ways to regulate themselves if we are to realize the academic outcomes we are striving so hard to achieve. When children come to school dis-regulated, or become dis-regulated during the day - it means they have moved, to some degree, from their prefrontal cortex where cognition occurs, to their limbic system where emotional responses occur. But it’s only when children are operating from their prefrontal cortex that they are able to learn. Therefore, as educators, it’s critical that when children become dis-regulated that we first recognize and understand what is occurring – at the brain level – and then use AEN strategies to assist them in becoming regulated again - placing them back into their prefrontal cortex - also referred to as a brain state capable of learning. 

Modeling  co-regulation and self-regulation strategies to children during these emotionally stressful situations are an excellent way to teach children how to regulate themselves when needed. Connecting with a healthy, regulated adult using strategies involving forms of breathwork and movement are powerful ways to get children out of their limbic system and back into their prefrontal cortex and able to learn. 

Given these brain basics, we can now understand what Dr. Bruce Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy, meant when he made this powerful statement: “Self regulation, or lack thereof, is the major factor contributing to today’s achievement gap.”

Because it’s only when children from a dis-regulated brain state to a regulated brain state can children learn – thereby reducing the achievement gap. 


So when would a teacher use AEN practices in their classrooms?

When teachers are experiencing behavior issues in the classroom – it is a common misconception that if these children were better educated in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) that their behavior would improve. And while that could be partially true, it’s more likely that the solution needed to shift these behavior outbursts is for the teacher to co-regulate the children by using/encouraging some form of AEN strategies or tool (i.e. breathwork, movement, etc.)   

It’s an interesting paradox – children actually need to be regulated (i.e. in their pre-frontal cortex)- before they can learn the concept of self-regulation…  or compassion, or leadership, or any other SEL concept. Equally true, children need to be regulated before they can learn math, science, reading, etc. as well. Simply stated the objective of all educators should be to “regulate... then educate.”   

The illustration below shows the positive impact on learning across all subject matter, including SEL, when AEN practices are implemented. Notice that we continue to use the word “practices” in relation to AEN. That’s because it’s the actual practice of AEN strategies and approaches that make the difference.  Knowing that breathwork works is not the same as actually breathing.   


Do all students need to understand AEN?

The answer is yes. It is becoming increasingly well known that children with high ACE’s scores (Adverse Childhood Experiences) often come into school in a heightened emotional state. Powerful initiatives, such as Trauma Informed Care (TIC), Compassionate Schools, etc. are bringing this awareness to educators and helping them to recognize, understand and respond with compassion to these students. Most educators are well-aware that it doesn’t take much to tip students in these heightened emotional states into their fight/flight/freeze mode (i.e. limbic system).  A simple glance, an inadvertent word, a smell – the simplest gestures can often trigger children. And when this happens, the possibility of learning has gone out the window – at least until the child has come back to a regulated brain state.  

But emotional upsets happen to all of us regardless of our home life, environment, or circumstances. Emotional bullying on social media sites, not getting enough likes on a twitter post, heartaches and letdowns are emotionally unsettling to all children and can send them into a dis-regulated brain state of fear, panic and agitation. And public health experts agree that while actions such as social distancing are necessary to reduce the spread of the pandemic, these actions are causing feelings of isolation and loneliness in students and are increasing their levels of stress and anxiety. Having AEN strategies such as breathwork, movement - available at the ready – either through co-regulation strategies with an adult, or self-regulation strategies by the student themselves - are powerful ways of helping students learn to keep their emotions in check. 


The role of schools in helping kids develop their own emotional and social intelligence

Social and emotional development is a complex subject. Unlike math, science and other core academic subjects, cognitively understanding SEL related terms is not enough. For instance, knowing the definition of self-confidence does not mean a student will be self-confident. Correctly picking out the right answer for “What is an ‘upstander?’” – doesn’t mean a child will actually be an upstander in a bullying situation when called upon to do so.  AEN and SEL, more than any other subjects, need to be experienced in order for it to really be “gotten.” 

Schools need to be intentional and creative in structuring environments for learning AEN and SEL skills. Additional time needs to be prioritized into day or week for children to practice and experience these newfound skills. Establishing the equivalent of project-based learning labs - centered around SEL and AEN concepts – where students work together to develop these skills are perfect backdrops for enhancing emotional and social skills. Afterschool programs, with their focus on enrichment, provide an excellent format for experiential learning.      

Depending on the research you are reading, it takes anywhere from 21 to 66 days to learn a new habit. That is called rewiring a neuro-pathway in educational neuroscience speak. Role playing and more role playing are effective ways in helping children learn new ways to respond to emotionally challenging situations.  It takes time to convert hitting, biting and/or name-calling to breathing, walking away and/or tapping. But it can be done. Neuroplasticity of the brain – another AEN term that means that brains of all ages can be re-wired – makes this possible.    


What does it mean to empower students? 

Empowering students means that we trust, believe and have confidence in them. And more importantly, that we have developed students who trust, believe and have confidence in themselves.  


How can we empower our students?

Children come from all walks of life, therefore there is no standard framework for empowerment. However, self-confidence and belief in oneself are core attributes that need to be developed for one to be empowered.   

Therefore, we must create conditions for children that encourage and motivate them to take on age- and socially-appropriate risks and challenges. We need to help students begin to trust their own judgement over the judgement of their peers.  We need to create opportunities that encourage children to take on more age-appropriate challenges, specifically for the sake of personal development, in safe environments where the stakes are relatively low.  

We need to help children understand that all learning – perceived good experiences and perceived bad experiences – is valuable and needed if they are to learn how to effectively navigate what life has in store for them. 


What does it mean to Rise Above?

To Rise Above means to ultimately understand that your circumstances don’t define and limit you, and equally important, they don’t define and limit others. That you don’t use your circumstances to justify inaction or remaining in the status quo.  

Instead, you use them, potentially as a personal challenge, to motivate you to alter your life trajectory and step into a way of being that is more powerful for yourself and for others.  


Examples of children Rising Above

Kimmie Weeks

Dr. Kimmie Weeks is an internationally acclaimed humanitarian who has worked to alleviate poverty and human suffering in Africa and around the world for over twenty years. Kimmie was born in Liberia 1981. At age 8, he and his mother, were forced to leave their home and marched with many other displaced Liberians to a refugee camp set up in university buildings. A classroom filled to capacity with 30 people became his home. While in the camp, Kimmie became deathly ill - dehydrated due to cholera; he also contracted chickenpox and yellow jaundice. He saw no doctor, no nurse and was administered no medicine except for a few herbs. When other refugees sharing the classroom with them could no longer find a pulse in Kimmie, it was decided, over his mother's objections, that he had died. He was thrown still alive onto one of many piles of dead bodies in the refugee camp. Kimmie's mother refused to accept that he was dead. She searched until she found his body and resuscitated him, beating on his chest and shaking him until he regained consciousness. That same night, Kimmie vowed to dedicate the rest of his childhood and adult life to making the world a better place for children. 

Dennis Cole

As a kid, Dennis Cole would lift his disabled brothers from their bed or wheelchair and put them on the toilet as needed. He would often have to dress and bathe them too. What overwhelming responsibilities for a kid. Dennis has created cassette tapings where he tells his stories, over music, the pain of helping raise two siblings with muscular dystrophy because his single mother was struggling with substance abuse. He didn’t know he was a leader as a kid, but he humbly shares his pain through his words. He teaches us that sometime being vulnerable is a powerful strength. 


How can children use their own circumstances to become empowered?

Self-awareness and self-management, two key core competencies defined by CASEL, are the first steps toward empowerment for all children, and in particular, necessary for children coming from disadvantaged and disenfranchised environments. Although they might not have the full vocabulary, children do have an innate knowledge of what feels right and what feels wrong. It’s seems unfair, almost cruel, for us not to validate their feelings. Only when their feelings are validated can children learn to develop and trust their own internal compass – which is a critical first step in building self-confidence and moving them toward responsible empowerment.  

We must not be afraid to help children understand the challenges their circumstances have presented. This understanding needs to be shared in age and emotionally-appropriate ways. A way that does not instill fear – but instead validates their innate knowledge, instills hope, and simultaneously provides the social, emotional, and motivational tools they will need to navigate the complex road they have ahead of them.  

Research shows that there is a direct correlation between emotional intelligence and academic success. The greater a child’s emotional intelligence, the better their academic performance and the more likely they will be prepared to enter the work force and become a positively contributing member to society. 

However, the reverse is also true. When we see a child struggling emotionally – as evidenced by behavior outbursts, withdrawal, the inability to self-regulate, the inability to connect with teachers and/or peers – it should be a warning signal to all adults that without an intervention this little one will likely have a hard time finding their way in the world – let alone to a fulfilling job and/or meaningful role in life.     


About the author

Lane JaBaay is the founder and CEO of The H2 Group – an EdTech Company dedicated to the social and emotional development of children. The H2 Group develops highly engaging educational curricula using immersive techniques of storytelling, gameplay and animation to educate kids in SEL and motivate them to pro-social action. Lane is certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience from Butler University. Her curricula, called SHAKTI Warriors, has been implemented in some of the largest school districts in the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago, greater DC and now Indianapolis, where she calls home.