Data Backs Our SEL Movement!

Summer 2015 has been a good season for Social and Emotional Learning on our local district level. We’ve been busy with curriculum writing, collaborating to put on an awesome Whole Child Every Child institute, rolling out SEL for the Anderson and Lanier vertical teams, and getting ready for school year ’15-16 with 100% of AISD schools participating in Social and Emotional Learning!

webb middle school

SEL is getting a lot of national attention lately as well, with new reports from on-going studies showing the deep effects and concrete benefits that intentional, integrated social and emotional learning has for students and society.  In several articles, Austin Independent School District is featured prominently as an early leader in the Academic and Social and Emotional Learning movement.

This article, “Teaching Skills to Improve Grades and Lives,” is in the “Fixes” section of the New York Times.  It was published on 7/24/15.  Here are some excerpts:

In the early 1990s, about 50 kindergarten teachers were asked to rate the social and communication skills of 753 children in their classrooms. It was part of the Fast Track Project, an intervention and study administered in Durham, N.C., Nashville, Seattle and central Pennsylvania. The goals were to understand how children develop healthy social skills, and help them do so.

[…]

This month, researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Duke published a study that looked at what had happened to those students in the 13 to 19 years since they left kindergarten. Their findings warrant major attention because the teachers’ rankings were extremely prescient.

They predicted the likelihood of many outcomes: whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teachers’ scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.

[…]

These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness — strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.

It goes on to cite various studies that support how critical Social and Emotional Learning is for students across the board, and does mention Austin ISD as an SEL pioneer!

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Referenced in the previous article, this PBS News story and this report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation both discuss the implications of the FastTrack study, which tracked the life events of several hundred kindergarten students who had been “scored” on their level of social and emotional competence.  Both articles point to the capacity for every student to learn and practice social and emotional skills, and how this intentional learning has strong benefits that echo through the rest of each individual’s life.

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For another perspective, the Committee for Children recently published “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning,” which digests the findings from this study done in collaboration with Columbia University. In short, the study finds that “The average return on investment for all six SEL interventions analyzed is 11 to 1, meaning that for every dollar invested there is a return of 11 dollars. In summary, SEL is well worth the cost.”

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Basically, we’re getting lots and lots of good press because supportive data just keeps rolling in.  Let’s be #AISDproud of the intentional, innovative, valuable Social and Emotional Learning that our district is working to bring to 100% of our students!

To Sleep…Perchance to Dream

Hello there, SEL fans!  I’m your friendly new blogger, Katie Cameroneil.  I became part of AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning team this past July, and boy am I glad to be here!  I’ll be posting weekly, usually on Fridays, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the most interesting, useful, smart and tasty tidbits the world has to offer related to Social and Emotional Learning.  I give you my first blog offering (bloffering?)…I hope you find it dreamy.

We talk a lot in SEL about the amygdala.  The amygdala is our primal brain, and the center of strong emotions and self-preservation.  When we are really angry or afraid, or so happy we get choked up, our amygdala is firing all over the place.

Luckily, when we’re awake and doing day-to-day things, we have our frontal cortex—our rational, logical brain—to keep us from doing anything crazy!  We may have really strong feelings sometimes, but we generally don’t hurl ourselves on the

floor screaming, or attempt to fly, or run howling through the streets.   Good thing we have our frontal cortex to keep society (mostly) civilized!

That’s when we’re awake…but what about when we’re asleep?

Excuse me…Your Amygdala is Showing

Research shows that the amygdala is highly active when we’re dreaming, while the frontal cortex is basically turned off  (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  The amygdala can run wild with feelings and emotions, with no interference from the logical cortex (Big Think Editors, 2014)!   This is why dreams can seem so vivid, colorful, intense and even really scary (Big Think Editors, 2014).  Dreams can even stick with us, the emotional experiences coloring our day.   The amygdala is a powerful influence in our brain, and unchecked, it can come up with some pretty wild scenarios.  Often the activity from the amygdala during dreaming radiates into other parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which could explain why dreams sometimes seem to have a linear or logical story structure (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  But, for the most part, dreaming is the amygdala’s time to shine!

Luckily, our brains are also usually equipped with mechanisms that prevent our physical bodies from acting out the events of our dreams.  So, dreams are very complex brain functions (Cromie, 1996).  Why do we have them?  Why do we appear to need sleep and dreams?  Guess what—scientists don’t know yet (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  All they really know is, good sleep appears to be vital to having a high quality of life, and that extreme sleep deprivation can be fatal (Cromie, 1996).  So what could this mean?

Dream On!

Could it be that sleeping gives the frontal cortex a time to rest and rejuvenate, at the same time allowing the amygdala to get some unfettered free time to explore feelings and fears (Big Think Editors, 2014)?  Neuroscientists have also shown that tell-tale signs of learning occur in the brain during sleep and dreaming (Nir & Tononi, 2010), perhaps demonstrating that the wandering amygdala can present scenarios to our brains, however crazy, that help us become more functional humans during our waking hours (Cromie, 1996).  Could dreams allow us to deepen our empathy and perspective-taking skills?  The latest sleep and brain research is seeking the answers to these questions.

In conclusion, thank your amygdala for creating our dreams, and thank your brain for being such an amazing tool.  And next time you have a dream, keep in mind that it has possibly enhanced and enriched your brain’s experience.   Even though they are ‘just dreams,’ they affect the brain in a very real way.  So sleep well, and keep on dreaming!  Happy weekend!

Works Cited

Big Think Editors. (2014, October 14). Big Think. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from This is Your Brain on Dreams, with Michio Kaku: http://bigthink.com/think-tank/this-is-your-brain-on-dreams-with-michio-kaku

Cromie, W. J. (1996, February 8). Research Links Sleep, Dreams and Learning. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from The Harvard University Gazette: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/02.08/ResearchLinksSl.html

Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010, January 10). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from National Institute of Health Public Access Author Manuscript: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2814941/