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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Playground Neuroscience: Connect and Redirect

Barbora Bridle

Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

"She makes my life miserable every day!" cries Madison, one of the girls in my fourth grade class. She sinks her chubby frame onto the bench next to me, and folds her arms dramatically over her uniform. A pout curls her lower lip and tears twinkle inside her eyelids as she dashes a fierce glance sideways at Hailey, who is still blissfully hanging upside down on the monkey bars.

As the adult, and her teacher, of course I have to respond and help Madison deal with this playground problem. Several options start taking shape in my mind. I can:

  1. Put my arm around her shoulders and sigh, "I know. Friendships can be really hard!"
  2. Help her develop a strategy for mending her friendship.

What’s the best tack to take? Is there a "right" way to deal with this playground drama in the ten minutes we have left in recess?

Logic or Emotion?

Most teachers, myself included, are well trained in teaching academic skills and strategies for tackling intellectual problems. We can teach our students how to summarize a passage, add fractions, investigate a scientific inquiry. However, in cases like Madison's, we aren't faced with an academic problem. When it comes to these situations, we are often untrained in supporting the emotional development of children.

I was happy to find a very simple scientific explanation of and satisfying answer to the question of how to deal with such playground dramas. According to neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, M.D., there is and easy and precise strategy that we -- teachers, parents, adults -- should use in these emotional cases. By proceeding according to these scientific findings, we will guide a student to navigate this emotional issue, help wire her brain to be prepared for dealing with similar future scenarios, and improve our connection with the child. In his book The Whole-Brain Child, Dr. Siegel calls the strategy "connect and redirect."

In order to understand this strategy, let's start with a basic review of brain structure and function. Our brain has two hemispheres, the left and the right, which are connected through a pathway of nerves. Although no task, action or thinking process is conducted only in one hemisphere, each hemisphere has an expertise, or a type of processing which it dominates. Allow me to oversimplify. The left hemisphere tends to dominate linear, literal and logical thinking. It likes to solve puzzles, especially using order and reason, and serves us in linguistic expression. The right hemisphere is often thought of as the more creative side of our brain. It dominates non-verbal communication, emotions and creative expression through activities such as art or dance.

So what does this have to do with Madison's and my dilemma?

Empathy First

What happened to Madison is that her brain's right hemisphere (the emotional one) has taken over control and is not communicating with her left (more logical) hemisphere. She is flooded with emotions, which leaves little space for the logical reasoning of her left brain. Although it may be tempting for adults to respond to an emotional child in a way that brings logic and reason to the blustery situation, this approach will most likely lead to frustration for the child and the adult. When Madison is flooded with emotions about the incident with Hailey, it will not do any good to proceed with choice number two, which is analyzing the problem. Analysis and strategic thinking are activities dominated by the left brain, to which Madison currently does not have access.

According to the "connect and redirect" strategy, I must first use my right brain (empathy) to connect with hers. I should proceed with choice number one: acknowledge and empathize with Madison’s feelings, using words such as, "Boy, friendship sure can be hard. I know how bad it feels when my friends make me cry!" Such display of empathy will allow Madison to "feel felt" and relax a little. Once she has calmed down, the left hemisphere is more available to participate in this crisis. When I see that Madison is no longer overwhelmed by emotions, I might try the other tack. In this situation, it might not be possible until several hours later, or perhaps the next day. Only when the emotional flooding has subsided and the child has calmed down, can I redirect her by helping her analyze what went wrong in the incident with her friend and guide her to find a strategy for mending the friendship. By connecting with the right brain and redirecting with the left, I integrate both sides of Madison's brain, training the neuropathways to do this independently somewhere down the road.

We have all experienced this kind of situation before, whether we've seen it in ourselves or in others. In fact, adults also get flooded with the emotions of our right brain. You might remember when you felt upset, and your spouse tried to make you feel better by way of a logical explanation. Did it work? Probably not. This is not news under the sun! But there is something powerful about understanding the science of why this works. When we have such understanding, we are more likely to use it.

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Barbora Bridle

Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school
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Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com

Thank you so much for talking about these important ideas Barbara. We do teachers a disservice by not giving them more training in how to relate and respond to the social-emotional challenges their students face everyday. As educators, we have an amazing opportunity to help students acquire self awareness and provide them with some tools to deal with these issues as they grow forward. Thanks again.

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

Teaching emotional intelligence is a different ballgame. This is where good parenting has its strongest impact on intelligence and I believe if someone is very emotionally intelligent they will naturally become academically intelligent.

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

Good point Karen. Sometimes it surprises me how emotionally intelligent kids are. In fact last spring one of my students used the phrasing "he doesn't read social cues well." Wow! not only are they picking up on social cues, they also have the metacognition to understand and evaluate their importance!

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

I completely agree Rusty! I got my initial teaching accreditation from Cal State Fullerton many years ago, and I thought it was an excellent program. It was really exploratory and hands on, and I felt as prepared as I could be. The only thing I really wished we had, was a course on exactly this: social emotional learning. And I haven't seen much in the way of these in terms of professional development either. Have you? I know there are workshops and classes, and certainly a lot of literature, and also Responsive Classroom is big in this field. Aside from that, I haven't seen schools really take a comprehensive approach to educating their teachers about the importance of social emotional learning.

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com

Thanks for your response Barbara and I think schools are starting to see the need for teaching social skills. I know Maryland has a strong PBIS program going and other states are following suit. That being said, not a lot is being done to give the teachers the tools they need at this point. Unfortunately, I think we assume that teachers are relational experts already. One of the things I love about my show is that teacher tell me all the time it gives them permission to talk about SEL issues which is sometimes all they really need. Thanks again and keep the flame burning.

Mary Bliden's picture
Mary Bliden
Music Education Major at Westminster Choir College

As a current 'teacher-in-training', I'm disappointed that we don't get this kind of education. Although I thought the left-brain, right-brain theory was debunked ages ago, I appreciate the spotlight on an often overlooked subject.

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

Most of the emotional development a child goes through happens in the home. Parents that have happy marriages tend to have very emotionally intelligent children.

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

I agree, Mary. We should include social-emotional learning in teacher preparation. I wonder if there are any programs that do. Have you heard of any?Social-emotional well-being accounts for so much of what happens in the school life of our students. If our students don't feel comfortable, safe, open, receptive, their brain is not fully available for learning.

I believe that the part of the left/right brain theory that has been debunked is that the hemispheres perform one type of task (creative or logical) exclusively. The idea that a person is either right-brain or left-brain dominant is hugely oversimplified. Both sides of the brain work together to perform a task but each one has centers that specialize in certain functions. I am certainly not a neuroscience expert but I found this article to be helpful. http://blog.uberbrain.net/2013/03/brain-lateralization-logical-left-vs.html

Barbora Bridle's picture
Barbora Bridle
Director of Professional Development at a DC area independent school

I agree that emotionally well developed adults tend to have and raise children who are also well balanced in their social and emotional well-being, and furthermore, that this tends to translates to academic success. As an educator, I believe it is my job to educate students in all the domains that lead to successful and fulfilling life, which includes academic, social, emotional, and (if you work in a religious setting) spiritual domains. What do you think?

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