MARCHing Orders: Executive Functioning!

Go ahead and put your index finger horizontally right above your eyes, straight across your brow line. It’s okay, nobody’s looking. Like this:

Got it? Great! Your index finger is less than an inch away from your frontal cortex – the seat of your executive functioning. Think about that for a moment: one inch, 2.2cm, 1/12th of a foot. Then, see if you can count how many windows are in your home by memory. Think for a moment about the last conscious decision you made, or choice to calm yourself down in a heated moment, or to-do list you wrote down, or events on your calendar. Whew! That’s a lot of cognition you just did! [Thinking = cognition] You also just did a lot of meta-cognition. [Meta-cognition = thinking ABOUT THINKING] You did all that in the executive functioning part of your brain!

You may now feel free to take your finger off your forehead.

Executive Functioning: What is it?

There are many definitions of executive functioning out there, and for our Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning purposes, we stick to this one:

These are considered the kinds of brain functions that are unique to humans; the “higher order” cognitive activities that represent our capacity to actively make decisions based on data synthesized from our senses, emotions, and experiences. When we feel like we are thinking really hard, or when we practicing self-management, we are using our executive functioning skills; and these skills can be developed in both adults and young people!

How can we grow executive functioning functionality?

Great question! Since we are in the business of educating young people first and foremost, the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child offers this perspective:

Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

The Harvard CDC offers these activity guides to help educators plan for executive function development in classrooms from early childhood through adolescence! Furthermore, they even offer this guide to building adult executive functioning skills, since we’re the ones who are supposed to model these things for the young people we have the privilege of teaching. Thanks Harvard!

If you need a super concrete, quick guide to classroom systems and structures that support executive functioning, here’s a great list of 10 tools from Edvocate. And, if you’re sitting there, maybe with your finger still stuck to your eyebrows, wondering how you personally handle various aspects of executive functioning, don’t worry – here is a self-assessment that breaks it down, so we might gain some insight on our own strengths and growth areas.

[A personal aside from your devoted SEL blogger – Bullet Journaling has helped me get my own executive functions in better order! My brain needs systems, and this is a system that works for me! PLUS it gives permission to doodle, which can help some folks, like me, with focusing attention, which is – you guessed it! – an executive functioning skill.]

How do you plan to March into executive functioning this month, for your students and yourself? Let us know in the comments, and/or tag us on social media @austinisdsel! In closing, we offer the musical insight of that international expert on executive functioning, Cookie Monster, to help summarize our topic:

See y’all next month, functioning executives!

Explore Your Emotional Intelligence in February

You were wondering how to say “I love you” in four different languages from countries in Africa, weren’t you? 🙂

We are always happy to provide our readers with novel linguistic information, cheesy sonnets about self care, impassioned compassion posts and earnest treatises on the power of relationships on human [and other] brains. And this month, we shall be considering…

Emotional Intelligence! What is it?

Learning about how you connect with others, and considering how others connect with you, is working on emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is associated with the core SEL competencies of social awareness and relationship skills on our SEL wheel! Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional intelligence” back in 1995; check out his framework!

Emotional Intelligence Applies in Many Contexts

This Positive Psychology article outlines several different emotional intelligence frameworks and skill sets for both personal and professional situations, while this Harvard Extension resource provides four curated emotional intelligence self-assessments! The Compass Points activity from The School Reform Initiative gives participants the chance to examine their emotional needs and preferences in group work situations, and is appropriate for students as well as work colleagues. And, here is a concrete compilation of resources to grow emotional intelligence in the classroom from Edutopia.

Showing Appreciation is Emotionally Intelligent!

But for all this scholarly emotional intelligence talk, it’s February after all: the month associated with expressions of appreciation and care. How about printing a set of affirmation cards to hand out to students and colleagues? Or, you could show appreciation for the world and check out Nice Things to Do, a site full of free or inexpensive ideas for to just generally doing nice things!

But Wait, There’s More!

Part of developing emotional intelligence is understanding how we move through layered perspectives, cultures and stories in a diverse society with complex socio-political and racial dynamics. That goes way beyond just commemorating black heroes and reviewing history lessons during a single month out of the year!

February, as Black History Month, offers the opportunity to consider our cultural proficiency within the context of our emotional intelligence, and examine our classroom and personal practices. Check out Zaretta Hammond’s Four Must-Haves during BHM, and consider this list of 28 concrete action items from the NAACP, one for each day of February. Also, from Zaretta Hammond comes an article warning against some classroom pitfalls during Black History Month, and providing some more ideas of how to create a welcoming and culturally-responsive classroom all year round. If you’re in Austin, consider attending Austin Justice’s Black Art Matters event to support and showcase local artists of color! And, if you’re an educator, don’t miss out on the upcoming cultural proficiency and inclusiveness trainings.

Show Us Your Emotional Intelligence!

How will you discover and grow your own emotional intelligence this month, and show appreciation for your students, colleagues, and world? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We appreciate y’all!

SEL Plays an Integral Role in Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices

In 2010, Austin ISD leadership noticed the distinct differences in the demographics between its staff and students, along with disproportionate rates in both special education and disciplinary referrals. As a result, the district committed to providing ongoing, meaningful professional learning opportunities for staff to engage in critical self-reflection on their interactions with students, staff and families in a manner that considers the diverse needs of all.

In growing our understanding of student needs and learning what evidence-based practices were being used at state and national levels, Austin ISD’s cultural proficiency and inclusiveness team, led by Angela Ward, PhD, Administrative Supervisor for Race & Equity in Austin ISD, began to dive into restorative practices.

Nurturing Identity-Safe Spaces

Restorative practices offers the opportunity to create culturally responsive communities, focusing primarily on building relationships & maintaining positive connections with students and families. In 2017, Austin ISD was awarded an Education Innovation & Research Grant to support whole-school implementation of culturally responsive restorative practices, which took efforts around nurturing identity-safe spaces for staff, students, and families to the next level.

“Over the years, we’ve learned our staff need to develop a critical consciousness, understanding their view of the world impacts those around them,” states Dr. Ward. “They need to understand their role in creating a sense of belonging in their classrooms and work environments for others to feel safe, welcome and included.”

It’s an Inside-Out Approach

Critical consciousness starts with self-awareness, the first of the social and emotional learning competencies. Ultimately, Dr. Ward shares, culturally responsive restorative practices work is at the heart of social and emotional learning. The two work hand-in-hand.

It takes all of us building each of the competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, executive functions and responsible decision-making) to effectively create safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging and equitable learning environments.

Dr. Ward concludes with a message for educators to remember:
“Your unique perspective plays a vital role in our ability to all grow as equity-centered social and emotional leaders.”

January 2020: Be a Relationship Skills Visionary

Welcome to the 2020 Spring Semester, SEL fans! Coming back into the classroom community in January after the holiday break is the perfect time to consider our next core competency: Relationship Skills. Per CASEL:

Social Beings Learn Relationship Skills

Since humans are hard-wired to be social animals, the idea that we have to intentionally learn and practice relationship skills might seem a little bit counter-intuitive. I mean, aren’t we just in relationship naturally? Well, truth is, we participate in relationships for better and for worse! But, growing our relationship skills purposefully via our self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness can help create meaningful connections with important people in our lives. In the context of education, cultivating and modeling relationship skills in the classroom is a crucial aspect of building a safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environment.

Growing Relationship Skills

Since the core of relationship skills is building trust, this summary of Zaretta Hammond’s ideas for tapping into the brain chemistry of connection are some concrete ways that educators can hone their own practice of relationship-building with students. And, Edutopia’s series of four video interviews with neuroscience researcher Patricia Kuhl addresses various aspects of developing relationship skills in the classroom environment. Further, this collection of practices and resources from ASCD [Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] provides insight into classroom management, class culture-building and student-family interactions, all with a relationship skills lens.

Relationships = Learning = Human Being

Learning is an essential element of being a human, as is connecting with other humans. Therefore, teachers continue to be the visionaries for humanity, exploring how learning and relationship skills are intricately enmeshed. How will you work on your own relationship skills in 2020 and help your students to build relationships among each other? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! Happy New Year!

Social Consciousness Leads to Connection

Social Awareness is important for December social outings.

Happy December SEL fans, and welcome to the Fall 2019 homestretch! We invite you to explore Social Awareness with us this month, as it is perhaps the most party-full time of the year. Cultures all over the world have celebrations and festivals around the Winter Solstice and to mark our next trip around the sun. Practicing our social awareness skills can help us navigate these gatherings and prepare us for yet another year of interacting with each other!

What are these social awareness skills?

The definition from CASEL above frames our district’s work to build social awareness capacity for students and staff, and these skills are crucial in creating culturally-responsive learning environments where all students feel seen and welcome. Even beyond the classroom, social awareness skills are increasingly the most valuable professional skills around. According to Forbes, fully six of “The 12 Most Important Skills You Need to Succeed at Work” are directly related to social awareness. More than ever, companies are hiring based on capacities like leadership, communication, negotiation, and empathy. In an age where many jobs are becoming automated, it’s the people-to-people skills that require – well, highly-skilled social humans!

How can we build student and adult social awareness?

Consciousness is at the core of social awareness, and the ability to be truly present with other people, as well as with the self, can be practiced through mindfulness exercises. Empathy, perspective-taking, and cultural proficiency and responsiveness are all skills which can grow by practicing mindfulness.

Restorative practices are community building structures that support student and adult social awareness skills. Restorative community-building circles encourage deep listening to others’ stories and encourage participants to speak their own truths by creating brave spaces in which to hear and see each other. These practices have ancient indigenous roots, and are currently used in schools and other community spaces around the world to build social awareness and promote listening and healing – including here in Austin ISD!

Check out these fantastic, concrete strategies for creating a classroom practice for social awareness skills. The Parent Toolkit has a whole section dedicated to helping develop social awareness skills for each grade level, great for caregivers and educators! And, don’t miss this list of 8 Steps to Improve your Social Awareness from LinkedIn, for adults out there trying to be social in the world. Because let’s face it, we all are at some point!

Connecting and Self-Caring

If we can grow our own social awareness, and then teach and model social awareness skills for young people, we help ourselves and each other build a strong foundation for essential human connection.

How do you plan to work on social awareness skills through December and into 2020? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! Happy, merry everything! We encourage you to practice radical self-care this season. See you in the new year!

Cultural Proficiency and Responsiveness: Know about it in November

In Austin ISD, our definition of cultural proficiency is “…when an adult understands that their personal culture and background impacts the students they work with.” Our definition of inclusiveness is “a way of being that shows respect, understanding and acceptance; in which diversity is valued as an asset within the AISD community.” Austin ISD has made a public commitment to cultural proficiency and inclusiveness throughout our district; indeed, it is the foundation of our SEL wheel.

Cultural proficiency is an inside-out approach to examining classroom practices and educational environments; it is the professional educator’s process of examining biases and lived experiences that filter interactions with students, families and colleagues. As we grow our cultural proficiency, we can create ever more culturally responsive classroom environments; working to ensure that every student who walks into our classrooms and schools throughout our district will find safety, connection, engagement, and challenge. Per the National Equity Project‘s definition of educational equity, we strive to:

  • [Ensure] equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor
  • [Interrupt] inequitable practices, [examine] biases, and [create] inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children
  • [Discover] and [cultivate] the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

So, how do we do it?

Cultural proficiency is a complex personal journey, one that Austin ISD supports with a series of professional learning opportunities presented by and in collaboration with our Office of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness. There are many relevant books that address cultural proficiency for educators, like this excellent list from the Corwin Press. And, of course, Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain offers a framework for developing classroom practices via self-reflection and a working understanding of neuroscience; check out her teaching style self-assessment chart!

Hammond also suggests classroom systems and practices that create the foundation for positive relationship building and safety. By increasing the brain’s connecting hormone, oxytocin, and decreasing its stress hormone, cortisol, we create environments conducive to learning with these trust-builders:

Want more concrete ways of building cultural responsiveness into your classroom? Check out this resource on designing a relationship-based learning environment!

Looking for more information on building cultural proficiency, increasing educational equity and actively working toward becoming an anti-racist educator?

How will you build your own cultural proficiency and increase cultural responsiveness in your own educational environment? Let us know in the comments, share your favorite resources, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We’re grateful for you – Happy Thanksgiving!

Self-Management is a Practice

Self-management starts with self-awareness. Understanding the state of our body and what energy we bring to a situation helps us to know what we need to manage. Learn more about the first SEL competency of self-awareness in our recent posts.

In this video, Teri Wood, Ph.D., Trust Based Relational Intervention and Brain Development Coordinator for Austin ISD, dives into the importance of self-management in our everyday relationships and tools to help us regulate and manage our energies.

Self-Management in Austin ISD

According to our 2018-2019 student climate survey, data shows that 88% of our students are aware when their feelings change, and 77% of those same students are able to use tools & practices to calm themselves down. These are great self-management results for our student population. Of course, there’s always room for growth, but that goes for people of any age!

As adults and educators, we need to remember that the energy we bring into schools and classrooms impacts the students with whom we interact. Here are a few simple steps to help you manage your energy like a boss:

  • Take a moment to slow down and notice your feelings.
  • Use the tools and practices you need in order to regulate your bodies. This can range from a walk and talk, stretching, breathing techniques, or using a fidget to get your body centered and your mind back to the present moment.
  • Be open and honest with those around you. Let others know when you’re feeling anxious or low energy, etc. This is especially important in the classroom, because students will notice.
  • Don’t forget to practice self-compassion through the process.

Self management is a work in progress because we, as humans, are a work in progress. Don’t forget to practicing self-compassion. Some days will be easier than others!

We are all learning socially and emotionally every day. #WeAreSEL

Motivation for Self-Regulation

Do as the octopus do?

October sometimes bears the dubious distinction as one of the toughest months of the whole school session – new year novelty has worn off, high-stakes academic content can feel pressing, and Thanksgiving break is a mere mirage on the vacation horizon. Stress can ramp up, frustrations can flare – and therefore, October is the perfect time to segue from Self-Awareness to Self-Management on our SEL Wheel.

[For the record: an example of a non-human animal who demonstrates extraordinary invertebrate self-management gets a special celebration on October 8th: World Octopus Day! We can all learn from the unorthodox intelligence of the octopus: it can control both the color and texture of its skin for camouflage or communication, use objects from its environment in clever ways for hunting or defense, and make split-second decisions for itself based on the information gathered from each of its semi-autonomous arms. These shell-less swimming chunks of protein have had to develop a lot of self-management over the millennia to avoid predators and effectively reproduce, and all with a decentralized nervous system! Essentially, octopuses learn collectively as an individual entity, which is kind of how classrooms function, am I right? Let’s hear it for octopuses as classroom metaphors and self-management exemplars! But I digress…]

Self-Managment and the Brain

Human self-management skills afford us the capacity to make plans, stay engaged with tough or tedious tasks, regulate our emotions and choose our actions. Self-management has long been associated with the logical, thinking, focusing part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex. However, another, older part of the brain – the one that has a lot to do with our ability to feel empathy with others – has recently been shown to contribute to self-management as well. The research suggests that the very brain structures that allow us to take the perspectives of others also let us think about how our future self would be impacted by our actions in this moment. Thus, we can make choices that benefit our future self, even it’s not the easiest thing for our current self! As explained by The Atlantic Science article,

Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/self-control-is-just-empathy-with-a-future-you/509726/

How do we build self-management brain power?

Self-Management skills are crucial for both adults and young people, and classrooms are amazing places to explicitly learn, practice, and model these vital skills:

How will you practice, teach, and model self-management skills in your educational environment this October [and beyond!]? Also, how will you celebrate octopus self-management on October 8th? Let us know by tagging us on social media @austinisdsel, and leaving your comments below! See y’all out there, self-managers!

Self-Awareness: The Mind-Body Connection

In support of our monthly theme of self-awareness, Meagan Butler, Austin ISD secondary counseling coordinator, shares a brief video to help us build an understanding of how our bodies function and the importance of the mind-body connection. 

Through the video, Meagan describes the role of the vagus nerve and its impact on different areas of the body when we are experiencing different emotions. For example, when we are stressed, we might noticed our stomach feeling upset or our heart rate increase. The Atlas of the Human Body article, shares maps of the body experiencing different emotional experiences. It’s no wonder we would have different bodily sensations with regard to different feelings.

Train Your Brain

Through a few simple practices, you can help your mind understand your emotions and the impact they have on your body.

SIFT
A four step strategy from Dan Siegel called SIFT, encourages you to take a mindful moment to notice your sensations, images, feelings and thoughts related to a particular emotional experience.

BODY SCAN
Doing regular body scan check-ins with yourself throughout the day or during particularly high or low emotional moments are another good way to begin understanding your mind-body connection. Use Meagan’s “Recognizing Body Sensations and Checking in with your Body” checklist to begin your practice.


“Looking deeply requires courage.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

The World of Difference A Breath Can Make

Ultimately, with what we understand about our emotions and the impact they have on the sensations in our body, we can use that information to hack our brains and disrupt negative feelings in our bodies. So, when we are noticing our body react to feelings of stress or nervousness or frustration, we can take a few intentional, deep, slow breaths and introduce a sense of calm back into our bodies. Your vagus nerve will thank you!

The First Step: Self-Awareness

Welcome back, Austin ISD SEL fans! We’re back with another school year full of exploration and discovery. Your favorite blog about Social and Emotional Learning in Austin ISD [and beyond!] is a hub for resources and an invitation to address the inquiry:

HOW DO WE CREATE SAFE, INCLUSIVE, CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE, ACADEMICALLY ENGAGING, AND EQUITABLE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS IN WHICH STUDENTS GROW THEIR SEL SKILLS?

Great question! Let’s get to work y’all.

This year, our blog will address the six competencies rooted in and illustrated by the Austin ISD SEL wheel. The wheel is divided into three primary areas, centered around the learner. The learner, from young student to adult educator, will engage in experiences that grow these competencies throughout their lifetime. In a safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging and equitable learning environment, we are all able to fundamentally integrate our competencies to the higher level of understanding, which encompasses the skills in the outer ring of the wheel.

We’ll start with the first skill in the top right of our wheel: Self-Awareness!

WHAT IS SELF AWARENESS?

The concept of self-awareness is complex and multifaceted, with definitions ranging from neuroscientific to theological. According to Austin ISD’s Social and Emotional Learning goals, self-awareness involves

[Developing] skills to have knowledge of one’s emotions, [developing] an accurate and positive self-concept, and [recognizing] individual strengths and external support systems.

Our district defines this skill set as:

• Recogniz[ing] emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior.
• Assess[ing] personal strengths and limitations, and recogniz[ing] that these are not fixed.
• Understand[ing] own cultural and personal identity and how it may inform perceptions of others.

The Center for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)’s definition for self-awareness is

The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”
– Identifying emotions
– Accurate self-perception
– Recognizing strengths
– Self-confidence
– Self-efficacy

https://casel.org/core-competencies/

How can we support our students’ development of self-awareness?

Edutopia offers strategies and resources around creating classroom environments that grow self-awareness, because

Scientists believe that self-awareness, associated with the paralimbic network of the brain, serves as a “tool for monitoring and controlling our behavior and adjusting our beliefs of the world, not only within ourselves, but, importantly, between individuals.” This higher-order thinking strategy actually changes the structure of the brain, making it more flexible and open to even greater learning.

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-metacognition-in-classroom-marilyn-price-mitchell

Giving students the vocabulary to identify their feelings and moods and establishing class time for checking in on feelings can be a concrete way to build self-awareness in classroom environments. Many educators have successfully incorporated a feelings check-in practice in their classroom using variations of a feelings wheel like this one:

Finally, the concept of mindfulness is a natural companion to the development of self-awareness skills. This Berkeley Greater Good article discusses how mindful self-awareness is key to building empathy, and offers research and resources for developing those interlinked skills. Also, our own James Butler‘s mindfulness newsletter that comes out on a monthly basis is chock full of concrete classroom practices to build mindfulness and self-awareness for educators and students.

How are you planning on helping your students grow self-awareness skills in SY19-20? How do you plan to grow your own self-awareness and reflection practices? Let us know on social media @austinisdsel, and leave us comments below!