Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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

January 14, 2011

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.

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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