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Social, Emotional, and Character Development: The Heart of Student Learning

| Maurice Elias

Tim Brennan is the Founder of the DREAMER Institute for Connective Living. He is also a life-long public educator and has been pursuing a deeper understanding of the importance of social, emotional and character development (SECD) well before he was familiar with those terms. I believe his perspective adds important depth to our collective understanding of SECD and what it means to learn authentically and well.

Tim Brennan
Credit: Tim Brennan

I interviewed him and the highlights are below, followed by contact information if you want to learn more about the institute and his work.


Edutopia: You have developed an inspirational message about seven sources of energy that people need to live a balanced and fulfilling life. The message seems relevant to teachers, administrators, and teens. Can you say a little bit about what you would want each of these three groups to know about your philosophy and approach?

Tim Brennan: Adults and children have a balancing system that gets us through the day in what many people call our "comfort zone." That balance comes from a series of interconnections among diet, rest, exercise, awareness, meditation, expression and renewal, what I call The DREAM+E=R Way. When children are approaching the process of learning, it can help teachers and administrators become aware that the physical hunger of a youngster who has not had breakfast may manifest itself as apathy or low aptitude. A child who tries to satisfy emotional hunger with food may become obese. Only when the basic balance system feels comfortable and nourished can educators lead students into new territory of higher learning.

To learn is to change on the basis of experience. Teens experience changes, all at once and of every kind, learning not just when they are sitting in the classroom, but during every waking moment. Only about ten percent of learning takes place at the conscious level. The important feelings that get attached to what is learned, that later create emotion and action in the learner, happen at the unconscious level. If life is out of balance, we humans often retreat to past mental programming. If we feel confident, we are more likely to move into new territory and to grow, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as well.

How did you develop your ideas?

During the 1960's as a high school English teacher, I found my students fascinated by Plato's "Parable of the Cave," from The Republic. They found useful the idea that we are prisoners of our own ideas and that we are free to move beyond our present level of knowledge whenever we choose, simply by becoming aware of it. I would ask my students, and, later, the teachers, administrators and board of education members in my DREAMER Institute workshops, to close their eyes and picture a tree. Then we would open our eyes and compare notes. It was revealing that given a seemingly simple, concrete image such as that of a tree, the variety of responses was amazingly different. That got me started on the path of finding out -- beyond whatever was directly in front of us -- how we come to believe and think as we do. And I realized how much educational leaders, in particular, must do to understand the perspective of the students and staff members in their charge.

Among all of your ideas, I found your points about rest, meditation, and expression to be most intriguing. Would you speak to each of these and provide some practical suggestions for educators and teens?

Rest, the feeling of safety in stillness, is the first prerequisite for achieving human balance. Our young men and women in the armed forces are given time for sleeping every day, no matter how close to the enemy action they may be. But to rest, they are removed from the front and sent somewhere safe for "R and R." Many American children, like cakes that should be allowed to bake slowly in a warm oven, instead get the heat turned up and the time cut back. On the outside, they may look finished, almost crusty. But inside, they have not had time to coalesce. Under stress they are likely to collapse. Teachers and administrators who make their schools and classrooms safe for everyone, who offer times of quiet reading or listening, who value the emotional release of recess in the schoolyard and productive conversations in the classroom; may find that, over time, regular periods of safety in stillness can lessen visits to the discipline office or even the child study team.

Meditation, often described by the many prominent scientists who practice it as "like coming home," can cleanse and refresh the mind. In the bewildering burst of information that is 21st-century teen life, students may feel as if they are on a ship with no captain, no rudder, just an endless stream of change and stress causing unending pitching and rolling. Schools that offer periods of meditation, even ten minutes a day, have seen great progress in the areas of discipline and school climate. Times of quiet reflection on what has been learned in a given class period, a day at school, or a given unit of study, serve a similar purpose. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Expression brings our inner selves to light. Learning what we value, what makes us feel important about the work we do as educators can help keep us on track and help us present our genuine selves to our students. What's more, role modeling is still the most powerful form of teaching on this planet. As Aristotle said, "The soul never thinks without a picture." Allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way is important to them (drama, music, art, writing, speech, video) helps us educators see what is on their minds and sheds light on the values underlying their thoughts. Students can do most of the talking in the classroom, to the benefit of all.


Tim's work reminds me that SECD cannot be disconnected from our physical well-being, in the broad way that DREAMER captures. For children to learn anything -- social-emotional skills as well as academic skills -- in ways that will renew them and become part of their everyday identity, they need the right balance of diet, rest, exercise, awareness, meditation/reflection, and opportunities for expression.

I hope it will broaden your view of how to understand children who are having difficulty and what it might take to help them, as well as what we need to build into our school climates normatively to support student learning.

You can email Tim here. His book, Life in the Balance: The DREAMER Way is available in print and electronic versions through all major book sellers.

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Comments (17)

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parent of 2 high school girls twins 16 yrs. old

I will certainly try this

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I will certainly try this method of inner-peace with my teens
thank you!

I enjoyed reading this blog.

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I enjoyed reading this blog. It really reflects many things that I wish my school could implement. I think everyone needs a set amount of quiet time whether it is to read, write in a journal about whatever they'd like, stretch, or lay their heads down. It is amazing what some students bring to school with them that they carry around in their minds and hearts. Sometimes school is the last thing they are concerned with and as educators we need to take further steps in better understanding our students and ways we can help relieve their stress in school not concerning school work.

Students just as teachers

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Students just as teachers come to school with numerous emotional problems. I too agree that reflective time would be a good way to allow them to organize their thoughts. This too would also limit the number of discpline problems in the classroom.

Educational Speaker, Writer and Coach

It is very true, we do need

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It is very true, we do need to "understand the perspective of the students and staff members in their charge." All too often we inadvertently take students out of their "comfort zone" by treating them differently. It is our unspoken communication that the student assimilates and uses to create his/her self image as learner. In class meditation, reflection and subsequent discussions can help many students to correct these images. It also works for teachers wanting to change the incorrect messages they are sending.

Quote: Terry Smith: I was

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Terry Smith: I was wondering if you could elaborate upon the concept of extended stillness. What types of activities do you utilize? Yoga? Guided meditation? Are there particular resources which you would recommend that might be useful to a teacher who values the concept but does not necessarily have the skills set to implement extended stillness experiences on a daily basis throughout the year?

For those interested in the concept of stillness, especially in adolescence, I strongly recommend the work of the PassageWays Institute at passageworks.org . The late Rachael Kessler, of blessed memory, articulated brilliantly the importance of stillness in the life of adolescents. Stillness, contemplation, knowing one's own thoughts, feelings, and deep beliefs, one's Laws of Life, reflection on what is happening, what has happened, where one is going, on one's spiritual/existential beliefs.... all these are essential parts of healthy adolescent growth and all have a proper, developmental place in schools. The PassageWays approach focuses this learning around time of school transitions, especially into and out of high school.- Maurice Elias

Terry Smith: I was wondering

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Terry Smith: I was wondering if you could elaborate upon the concept of extended stillness. What types of activities do you utilize? Yoga? Guided meditation? Are there particular resources which you would recommend that might be useful to a teacher who values the concept but does not necessarily have the skills set to implement extended stillness experiences on a daily basis throughout the year?

Terry Smith: I was wondering

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Terry Smith: I was wondering if you could elaborate upon the concept of extended stillness. What types of activities do you utilize? Yoga? Guided meditation? Are there particular resources which you would recommend that might be useful to a teacher who values the concept but does not necessarily have the skills set to implement extended stillness experiences on a daily basis throughout the year?

Thank You!

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As a high school student, I have participated in social and emotional learning in the classroom. I think this is extremely important, especially at a young age. Students often focus only on academics, but social and emotional learning is arguably one of the most important courses a student can take. This is the only course in school that focuses on a student's character, and works on educating their heart.

I am particularly high energy, so sitting and meditating has never worked well for me, but discussions, role playing, team building exercises, etc. are helpful ways to teach social and emotional learning in the classroom for students who may not be able to sit still for very long.

Lily, we don't hear often enough from students, in this blog and elsewhere on Edutopia where we speak about education. Please encourage your classmates to get into the conversation, as you did. It can only help!

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

We take 15-30 minutes after

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We take 15-30 minutes after lunch each day. Some students use it to catch up on work, others read silently, some just rest. It's one of the few times each day when conversation is not allowed.
Many of our teachers use yoga daily, and Dr. Montessori herself taught a mindfulness game that is commonly played in early childhood environments. It's called the Silence Game.
We find that using quiet transitions helps students manage their energy more effectively. Interpersonal conflicts often arise during transitions between activities. It's a good time to practice SEL skills. Transitions are also good times to check in with individual students and check for signs of stress.
Many teachers do this instinctively, but we ought to develop a heightened awareness of what we are doing to promote social and emotional health so that we can be more systematic and apply the principles as broadly as possible.

Primary Special Educator

I think meditation and

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I think meditation and reflection are also valuable for younger children. The counselor at our school regularly does a yoga/relaxation group for students. Younger children often get caught up in the busyness of their parents lives and feel some of stress that rubs off on them. I see more and more children who are off balance, especially children of divorced or separated parents. They go back and forth from household to household often without consistency in routines and rules. They live a sort of chaotic life. School becomes the place where they are "grounded". They know what to expect, they are safe, and they get regular meals.

As a teacher, I am constantly working on balancing. I find Tim Brennan's work very enlightening.

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