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Social and Emotional Learning Empowers Children

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s note: The below is a response to a critique of MindUP, a social and emotional learning program pioneered by actor Goldie Hawn. I have covered this program in other blogs (see list below) and in a feature in Scientific American Mind (visit “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control”). I hope this debate prompts reflection on how to best encourage healthy social and emotional development in our children.

By Rebecca Calos

Courtesy of Dark Dwarf via Flickr.

MindUP is an evidence-based curriculum that fosters social and emotional awareness, enhances psychological wellbeing, and promotes academic success. Students are instructed in basic neuroscience, which demonstrates that the reflective part of their brains can be hindered by the emotional, or reactive, part. Students learn that developing greater self-awareness can help regulate the reactive part of their brains and make it easier to reflect and to think things through.

Students are taught MindUP’s “core practice” to increase their ability to regulate their emotions and temper their reactivity. For two minutes, three times a day, students are asked to focus their attention on their breath. When their mind wanders, they are asked to return their attention to their breath. This mindful effort of refocusing on breath has been proven to increase executive functioning in both adults and children. The core practice increases mind and body awareness, and children routinely report that they feel refreshed and calm after the exercise. Students who engage in the core practice regularly are better able to attend in class, are more effective learners and are more compassionate human beings.

In her critique, Tina Olesen, a school teacher in Canada, equates MindUP’s core practice to “Buddhist-style” meditation, and warns that students engaging in a few minutes of deep breathing are in danger of experiencing a terrifying “sensation of being disconnected from one’s body.”  In fact, the core practice increases mind and body awareness, and children routinely report that they feel refreshed and calm after the exercise. Olesen claims that this practice interferes with “a child’s innate self-regulator,” when in truth, the core practice enables children to recognize their “self-regulator” and more readily access it even in times of stress and anxiety.

Mindful awareness is the state of focused awareness of your own mind; it is attending purposefully to the here and now without judgment. The idea of developing an awareness of the mind without judgment has, at times, been misconstrued to mean that children are being asked to ignore right from wrong, or even worse, to abandon their moral center. This is far from the truth. Essentially, “without judgment” means to free oneself from the agony of what has happened or the dread of what is yet to be. By taking a minute to focus on the here and now, and simply be aware of how you feel at this moment helps a child to regroup and go forward in a more positive and productive manner—in accordance with his conscience and moral standards, not in spite of them. A child who is able to attune to his inner voice is much more capable of recognizing what is morally right and thus to develop a moral character. MindUP’s core practice helps rather than hinders this process.

Courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

By cultivating self-awareness and learning about how their brains work, students are more able to express genuine kindness toward others. Studies show that toddlers are innately kind; yet many appear to become less so as they grow older. Why? One reason is that as we age our attention is increasingly drawn away from an inner awareness to an external world of social pressures, material rewards and anxiety over the future. This external “noise,” makes it harder for us to heed our inner voice and attune to our emotions and the emotions of those around us. Mindful awareness opens one up to one’s own emotional reality and makes it possible to recognize the emotional needs of others.

One important component of MindUP is to encourage children to cultivate happiness. This is not, as Olesen suggests, to drown out reality with pleasurable feelings, or even to ignore sadness. Rather, children learn how to harness happy memories as means to persevere in the face of adversity. Through mindful practice, a child can become more aware of what might be causing pain or anxiety and therefore be better able to respond to this inner turmoil in a productive manner. A happy memory can help a child strengthen his resolve to overcome challenges and to move forward in a positive direction.

Mindful awareness opens a child up to a world of possibilities. Children learn, in the MindUP program, the true meaning of optimism. Optimism is not rainbows and gold stars and sweet treats, but the belief that there is a solution. Optimists continue to struggle even against overwhelming odds because they are problem solvers and as such, their brains actively seek out new connections and possibilities. Optimists not only see the glass as half full, but as one that is continuing to be filled. The message that MindUP gives children: our world may present us with seemingly insurmountable problems, but through concentrated effort and a positive mindful awareness, together we can create a brilliant future.

Rebecca Calos is the Director of Programs and Training for The Hawn Foundation

For more on MindUP:

  1. Goldie Hawn Plunges into Brain Science
  2. The Education of Character: Teaching Control with a Cotton Ball [Video]
  3. The Education of Character—Stoking Memory with Stones [Video]
  4. The Education of Character: Your Brain in a Coke Bottle [Video]
  5. The Education of Character: Jumping Jacks for the Mind [Video]
  6. The Education of Character: Carefully Considering Craisins [Video]
Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. NotAgain 2:11 pm 11/27/2012

    Ms Wickelren, it is no surprise to me that your apparently supportive application of threatening concepts such right and wrong would evoke critical responses from the SA readership. In doing so you are suggesting that morality exists. Nothing could be more threatening to those who believe that there is no such thing. After people cannot do wrong, they can exhibit behavior that needs to be displaced by the currently politically correct behavior. So if one child hits another child with a stick, it is necessary remove all sticks from the playground. If a child falls off a swing, it is necessary to do one or more of the following to the available play environment: add child-safety harnesses to the swings, remove the swings, change the playground surface to a material from natural, recoverable/environmentally-sound, fair-labor produced material, or cease outdoor play. Alternatively, eliminating the production of children altogether would be ideal. This could easily be done with the help of government supported health care mandates.

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  2. 2. rshoff 12:33 pm 11/28/2012

    Generally I feel that curriculum should focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, and sciences. Throw history in for good measure. A safe, warm, dry environment for learning should also be considered in the formula for leaning. Nutrition, physical activity, and creativity are all extremely important too but should be dealt with in the social arena and at home, not in public schools. The school system cannot take on the children’s entire welfare. To attempt simply erodes the core curriculum for all students.

    There. Sounds rigid.

    Having said that, I could have benefited from learning mindful awareness throughout childhood. So I won’t criticize these brief minutes out of each school day for structured ‘time-outs’.

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  3. 3. turtle2258 10:04 pm 11/28/2012

    I don’t know what “Not Again” is taking about or for which article. It’s not about this one. And this article was only posted by Igred Wickelgren, not written by her. It was written by Rebecca Calos which was a wonderful response to Tina Olesen’s article that was “overkilling” morality and misconstruing what “MindUP” is about. That article wasn’t written by Ms Wickelgren either. Both articles are debating each other and NEITHER one was Wickelgren’s words. Only the first paragraph introducing what the articles were about belonged to Wickelgren. I could’nt finish reading Ms. Olesen’s article, it bothered me too much. And to check my speculation that she had MindUP’s philosophy misunderstood, I wanted to read Rebecca Calos’ response to Lisa Olesen’s comments before commenting on Olesen’s article. Are you confused too, “Not Again”? First you begin with morality. Then you go on to safty issues, then so-called enviromentalism and then extreme government mandates worse than China has on making too many children. I don’t get it. The above article says very little about morality, unlike the goofy article that she was responding to. Of course the government teaching ANYTHING could be contrued as imposing their will on people, even academia. So what’s everyone so concerned about? “A thought that sometimes makes me hazy: Am I or are the others “crazy?” I read that somewhere. To me, it applies here.

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  4. 4. bucketofsquid 2:35 pm 11/29/2012

    Since “NotAgain” is clearly a jackass, please remove that post.

    Focusing on ones breathing is the foundation of meditation. When I limited myself to simple meditation the experiences were good. When I drifted into the “new Age” idiocy, I began to have some nasty experiences such as physical disconnection and other mental issues. When I learned that I could easily overcome the disconnection I felt stronger and healthier than I had before. When I moved back to simple meditation I again had only good results.

    I am interested in the educational/developmental backgrounds of Ms. Hawn and Ms. Calos. Aside from an acting career and a fancy title, respectively, why are either of them qualified in any way to interfere with the education systems of Canada and the USA? Ms. Calos is particularly suspect because she mentions studies of toddlers that claim they are naturally kind. I have never encountered such a study. I have seen several studies that show quite clearly that toddlers are just barely on the good side of outright sociopathic behavior. My personal experiences with hundreds of toddlers provides a fair chunk of anecdotal support to the actual science.

    I was going to say that I have no objection to meditation being taught in schools but then the main example of a nation that teaches meditation to children is Tibet which was a nasty little backwater where a solid caste separation kept the unclean from regular society. Fortunately Tibet was a paragon of science and technology innovation that, um, well gee, Tibet was a primitive backwater until the brutal Commies came along.

    I would like to see studies on the impact of teaching children meditation before endorsing or condemning the practice. When ever people selling something extol its virtues and don’t address possible negative results it is pretty obvious that they are liars. On the other hand, I have yet to see anyone, anywhere experiencing a bad impact from simple meditation.

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