“Maslow before Bloom”—we hear it all the time. The idea that educators should meet students’ basic needs for safety and belonging before turning to challenging academic tasks is one that guides the work of many schools.
In this era of high-stakes testing and inflexible curricula, that’s not as easy to do as it sounds. The need to do 45 minutes of preplanned reading instruction, followed in lockstep by 45 minutes of math, leads many teachers, especially newer ones, to conclude that they simply don’t have the time to plan for brain breaks, or to check in with students regularly to make sure they’re feeling OK.
Research indicates that’s a mistake, though. Child psychiatrist Pamela Cantor told Edutopia in 2019 that “when we’re able to combine social, emotional, affective, and cognitive development together, we are creating many, many more interconnections in the developing brain that enable children to accelerate learning and development.” Making time to integrate social and emotional learning into academics, in other words, is a better way for schools to achieve their goals than a focus on academics alone.
This year, that will take some extra preparation and thinking. Prioritizing personal connections and students’ ability to manage their emotions was hard enough in physical classrooms, but it will be harder during distance and hybrid learning. Most of the strategies here—a toolkit drawn from high-quality research and from the experience of successful teachers—can be integrated into both physical and virtual classrooms throughout the day.
It starts before students enter the room: Taking a few minutes to personally greet every student at the beginning of the day, or the beginning of each class in middle and high school, can bolster students’ feeling that they belong to a community of learners. A 2018 study showed that positive greetings at the door increased academic engagement by 20 percentage points, and decreased disruptive behavior by 9 percentage points—adding as much as “an additional hour of engagement over the course of a five-hour instructional day,” the researchers said.
When students are working at home, there’s no door to stand in, of course, but you can create a short daily video to say hello, or use a tool like Zoom—which has a virtual waiting room feature—to queue kids up and then welcome them to class one by one. Alternately, you can adapt the 5x5 strategy—in which a teacher spends 25 minutes talking to five students for five minutes each—using the phone or video meetings via Zoom or Google Meet.
Once students are in your classroom, taking a few more minutes for non-academic chat involving all students can build a vibrant community, while giving you a window into whether each student is emotionally prepared for academic work. Students might discuss things like a question of the day—What’s your favorite pizza? or If you could have a superpower, what would you pick?—before describing how they feel by naming their personal roses and thorns, or by dropping a simple thumbs up, sideways thumb, or thumbs down into your chat feature.
Your Social and Emotional Toolkit—Use It All Day
Getting off to a good start primes students for learning, but the need to regulate emotions, find inner calm, and be socially connected will crop up throughout the day—just as it does for adults. Your toolkit of social and emotional strategies enables you to check in with students and help them self-regulate, recharge, and reconnect throughout the day.
If anyone tries to tell you that giving students a short break is wasting time, you can share the research supporting breaks: Students lose focus over periods of direct instruction—for elementary students this starts after about 10 minutes—so shorter lessons with brain breaks in between boost a student’s ability to stay on task and allow for better consolidation of recently learned material.
To shake students out of a rut, longtime Edutopia contributor Lori Desautels uses brain breaks that get them out of their seats, like giving them each two small Dixie cups and some water, and having them pour it back and forth from cup to cup a few times—then having them close their eyes and keep going for 30 seconds to see who has the most water left at the end. There’s, um, some cleanup required.
If kids have been focused for a long time, try a more involved, more intensely kinetic break that works at home or in the classroom: A H.Y.P.E the Breaks video from Hip-Hop Public Health can help students learn a little dance choreography and get in lots of movement. You can take advantage of the power of dual encoding by sneaking some content into your dance routine—Code.org has a dance party coding tutorial that links dance steps to coding algorithms, for example. Alternately, you can just give kids time to sit, relax, and chat happily with their friends.
Part of building your social-emotional and well-being toolkit is having a tool for all occasions. When kids are feeling antsy, Desautels recommends using focused attention practices to help them regain their calm. Try different ways of focusing on breathing, such as inhaling for four beats, holding for four, and then exhaling for four, or visualizing colors as students inhale and exhale—if a student is upset, for example, they might exhale red.
There is some lingering controversy around mindfulness, but the research is increasingly clear: According to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general, mindfulness helps to regulate the parts of the brain associated with the stress response, and is “associated with reduced levels of cortisol and other stress hormones” while positively influencing “the physiological indicators of an active stress response, like blood pressure and heart rate.” Burke Harris uses mindfulness with kids as young as 3 years old.
At Codman Academy in Boston, second grade teacher Lindsey Minder leads her students in a guided mindfulness activity after lunch: “The impact of the mindfulness practice is really this general sense of them being more comfortable and confident with themselves and their varying needs,” Minder says, “and decreases in anxiety around academic work.”
In high school, teacher Aukeem Ballard incorporates a mindfulness activity in his classes once a week for four to seven minutes—a guided focus on breathing followed by a brief reflection with a partner. You can instead opt for a shorter activity used more frequently: Middle school administrator Michael Ray recommends that students regularly relax by kneading play dough or oobleck, both of which can be made cheaply at home.
Periodically, your toolkit will get a real test when a student becomes frustrated and lashes out. Resist the temptation to jump to a punishment, if possible. Instead, try to seek out the underlying causes and teach the child how to return to calmness. Sometimes, just asking a student if they want to step out and get some water may be enough to de-escalate. A more proactive strategy is to set up a peace corner in the classroom—a non-judgmental, dedicated spot in the room where students can go to spend a few minutes either calming themselves down or naming and describing their feelings on a prepared form.
Never Give Up on Recess
It feels like recess is constantly under siege from the pressures of overscheduling, but play is a powerful, natural opportunity to de-stress, connect socially, and give the brain vital time to process and consolidate learned information.
The pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom says that recess should be scheduled for 45 minutes to an hour every day, rather than the more common 20 minutes. That’s not always possible, of course, but it does reinforce the importance of giving kids free rein to play. And the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that unstructured play is essential to kids’ well-being.
School systems tend to give up on recess by high school, but the way our brains process information—and the need for deep social connections—doesn’t change. While brain breaks and movement breaks may look different at different age levels, they’re still needed. That’s why Montpelier High School in Vermont initiated MHS Unplugged—as in, unplugging from the curriculum, and from screens. In this 15-minute break, kids can practice an instrument, play outside, do a little art, play cards. It’s a brief chance for them to have some say about what they do.
You may face pressure to focus on academics, but putting Maslow before Bloom isn’t antithetical to learning—research demonstrates that it’s a way to support better learning. Build a toolkit and use it judiciously throughout the day, in accordance with your read of your students. Using Maslow regularly will help them to Bloom.