If the brain connects social, emotional, and academic learning, why don’t we do so more intentionally?

By: Dale A. Blyth, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota


The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development recently released an excellent new report entitled  The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: How Emotions and Relationships Drive Learning.  The report summarizes and illuminates the growing understanding of how the brain develops and functions generally and especially during learning.  Not surprisingly it notes that brain development supports learning but also that learning supports brain development.


One thing I found particularly interesting was the discussion of how what makes us human is not fully spelled out in a more elaborate set of genes than other creatures but rather the flexibility and dynamic way our interactions with the environment – social and physical – shape who we are.  It is a dynamic process of learning from and with others, the opportunities and experience we have, and the ways we feel about these that most shapes our learning and who we become.


I am no brain surgeon nor any kind of neurological scientist, but this report presents a cogent and clear understanding of how multiple factors come together in the brain at different stages to support the types of integrated learning that takes place.  Better understanding how the brain develops and evolves connections between our social, emotional and content dimensions of learning helps make the case for using more integrated then separated ways of teaching and supporting children and young people – as well as adults. It both directly and indirectly reinforces the need for a more multidimensional understanding of how learning takes place and a more systematic approach to the ways we drive, support and create opportunities for learning – all learning.


From an assessment point of view, it left me understanding better why I have felt it is so important not to just measure a couple of isolated social emotional competencies (e.g., grit, growth mindset) but to think more about how a set of such competencies work together – get connected — to support a person’s success in school, careers, and life. Perhaps even more importantly, it makes very real the importance of relationships and experiences in learning environments that are the very building blocks of brain development and healthy human development.


Particularly worth noting is the final section of the report that delineates five educational implications from what is known – from implications for sleep, nutrition, and physical activity to emotional well-being, social relationships and belonging.  But perhaps most important in this day and age is what the authors describe as cultural well-being and the importance of “broader roles, group affiliations, and identities that situate a person within a group and provide a sense of shared history, values, lifestyle and purpose” (page 13).


I urge you to check out this report and consider its implications’ for how you individually and we collectively support the development and learning of all our children and youth.  Does the way we operate in our practice, our school systems, our youth programs, and our country support the growing connections the brain is making or too often separate that which most needs to be understood together to be used successfully?


Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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