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Social and Emotional Learning in Post-Conflict Situations

Photo of Chantha by Thibault van der Stichel

For the past five years, I’ve volunteered at the Cambodian-based NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant. Since its foundation in 1996, Pour un Sourire d’Enfant has turned Cambodian children away from defeatism and a vicious cycle of drug addiction, prostitution, gambling, and violence. These children grew up amid severe hardship in which many of them were abused, prostituted, or orphaned in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide, which occurred during the 1970s. Almost 2 million people were murdered. Ethic minorities were targeted as well as students, doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. There was widespread abduction and indoctrination of children, and many were persuaded or forced to commit atrocities. Now, those kids have grown up, and their kids have inherited the extreme violence their parents suffered. This has created a desperate cycle of violence and poverty, and has made scavenging, prostitution, and drugs the main options that these children have to survive.

The Lasting Impact of the Cambodian Genocide

After the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed, the psychological repercussions were enormous, yet mental health care was ignored for many years. With their harrowing past, a significant proportion of the Cambodian population were inevitably afflicted with a variety of mental illnesses, most commonly depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cambodian parents nowadays drink to forget, consume drugs to alleviate the pain, and use violence as a way to educate their children, communicate their needs, and express their emotions. Poverty, desperation, and a lack of empathy make Cambodian parents force their children to work on the streets, search for plastic at dumpsites, or prostitute themselves. These parents abuse their children and often sell them to child traffickers.

I observed that Pour un Sourire d’Enfant does a fantastic job of providing medical care, nutrition security, and education to more than 6,000 Cambodian children. Yet as the students get older, many of them consume drugs and alcohol, gamble, have suicidal thoughts, drop out of school, and struggle to understand and manage their emotions. I didn’t understand why this happened until I read Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Post-Conflict Situations

Thanks to Emotional Intelligence, I learned that family life is our first school for emotional learning and that everything a child sees, feels, and experiences will shape their sense of self. During the first three or four years of life a toddler’s brain grows to about two thirds its full size and evolves in complexity at a higher rate than it ever will again.

The areas of the brain affected by trauma are usually those associated with the regulation of emotion, as well as those that control learning and memory. Studies from the Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute, L.L.C. show that other brain regions related to the control of impulses and reasoning, problem-solving, and judgment are also impaired and, therefore, have less influence on an individual’s behavior. Victims of conflicts often have difficulty with bonding and attachment and thus developing stable and trusting relationships. Young children who experience trauma also show cognitive and language delays that place them at risk for early learning difficulties and later academic challenges. Traumatized children often suffer significant mood swings, anger, irritability, and profound depression. 

I soon understood that Cambodia was the perfect example of what could happen to an entire generation if mental health wasn’t taken into account after a country experienced war or conflict. Victims of extreme violence, human trafficking, and abuse, according to Dr. Goleman, “have had an early and steady diet of trauma, but seeing how the brain itself is shaped by brutality—or by love—suggests that childhood represents a unique window of opportunity for emotional lessons. The massive sculpting and pruning of neural circuits in youth is the reason why early emotional hardships and trauma have such enduring and pervasive effects in adulthood.” As a result, the sooner schools embed emotional learning, the greater likelihood that children can develop the skills to manage complex emotions.  

The post-conflict cycle of violence and poverty that occurs within families, communities, and entire countries can be lessened through Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) education and reintegration programs. Research shows that SEL programs reduce fighting and bullying and increase academic achievement. Implementing SEL in post-conflict countries can accelerate their social and economic recovery and provide the foundation for a brighter future.

Beyond having the basic needs of food, safety, and shelter met, all people benefit from gaining a basic understanding of their emotions and how to manage them. Emotional Intelligence is key to leading a happier and more fulfilling life. It enables us to understand ourselves and forge meaningful relationships with others. Developing and cultivating EI in education, therefore, creates a foundation for success and helps kids develop emotional balance, self-esteem, and the ability to adapt to life’s challenges.

SEL for the Future of Post-Conflict Countries

There are several ways children can be affected during and after a conflict, such as becoming child soldiers, refugees, or victims of child trafficking. According to the Child Soldiers International’s World Index, in 2017, 203 cases of “suicide bombers” in Nigeria and Cameroon (by Boko Haram) were verified, “more than 3,000 cases of recruitment by armed groups in DR Congo were reported” (46 States militaries around the world continue to recruit children), “at least 19,000 under-18s are believed to be participating in the conflict in South Sudan,” and 240 million children live in countries affected by conflict.

We need to teach children not only how to do math and read English, but also how to understand and navigate their emotions, how to focus and adapt, and how to build positive connections with others. SEL should be incorporated into post-conflict child protection, education, and reintegration programs to help kids who suffer from child trafficking, extreme violence, and war injustices.

Recent research gives us reason to be hopeful. A large meta-analysis of SEL programming showed positive impact up to 18 years later on academics, conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use. And, higher social and emotional competencies among SEL students at the end of the initial intervention was the best predictor of long-term benefits, demonstrating how important it is to develop these competencies in students. Ending the cycle of conflict, violence, and trauma is critical to advance civil society and it is within our reach. 

If you would like to learn more about SEL, check out these resources:

Want to develop your Emotional Intelligence in a supportive, virtual community? Over twelve weeks, you can hone the skills that differentiate top-performers. Begin your learning journey on September 9 or October 7. You can learn more and register yourself or your team here.

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Hone Your Focus: Learning and the Brain

learning and the brain

Daniel Goleman addressed the importance of adopting attention-training strategies in the classroom at today’s Learning and the Brain conference in Boston.

Focused, Organized Minds: Using Brain Science to Engage Attention in a Distracted World explored how today’s technology is creating more classroom distractions and disorganization. Yet, academic testing and Common Core State Standards require students to be more focused and organized in order to succeed.

We followed attendee’s enthusiastic commentary about Dr. Goleman’s presentation on Twitter. Below are some highlights from #LB39 feed, with excerpts from a few of Daniel’s articles for supplemental reading.

From @onelearner1

There are deeply rooted beliefs in education that overly favor IQ over EQ #LB39

Key takeaway from It’s Not IQ Part 2: Use The Triple Focus Approach to Education:

There’s no doubt that IQ and motivation predict good grades. But when you enter the working world, IQ plays a different role: it sorts people into the jobs they can hold. Stellar work in school pays off in getting intellectually challenging jobs.

Read the full article

From @HeatherSugrue

#lb39 @DanielGolemanEI Attention is a mental muscle – we can strengthen it.

Key takeaway from What Helps Kids Focus – and Why They Need Help:

The more a youngster can practice keeping her focus and resist distraction, the stronger and more richly connected this neural real estate becomes. By the same token, the more distracted, the less so.

This mental ability is like a muscle: it needs proper exercise to grow strong. One way to help kids: give them regular sessions of focusing time, the mental equivalent of workouts in the gym. I’ve seen this done in schools, with second-graders becoming calm and concentrated with a daily session of watching their breath – the basic training in bringing a wandering mind back to a single focus.

Read the full article

From @Demers_k8lyn

#LB39 Amygdala Highjack – We can only pay attention to what we think is threatening. @DanielGolemanEI @learningandtheb

Key takeaway from The Two Biggest Distractions – and What to do About Them:

The brain’s wiring gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating pressing thought loops about whatever’s upsetting us. Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem in our relationships.

Read the full article

From @malalande

With digital devices, we process 5 times more info than before according to @DanielGolemanEI at #LB39

Key takeaway from Think About the Benefits of Unplugging:

There is now quite a bit of evidence to indicate that the circuits in the brain that play a role in regulating our attention, and very rigorous behavioral measures of attention, change in response to mindfulness meditation practice. One of the central indices of that change is our capacity to not be hijacked by distracting events in our environment, particularly distracting emotional signals, which often pull us away from our task at hand.

Read the full article

Additional resources:

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education

Focus for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm

Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm

Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference Videos – 2012 and 2013

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A Smart Recipe: Systems Thinking and SEL

triple focus

The more we understand the process of developing systems intelligence, the more we see the close connections between understanding self, understanding other, and understanding the larger systems to which we all belong. This suggests great potential for partnership between Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL, and systems thinking.

Decision Making

For instance, these concepts have a unique synergy when it comes to enhancing personal decision making. The self-awareness and self-management tools SEL offers enhance cognitive efficiencies of all kinds: if a child can calm her disturbing emotions, she can think about systems more clearly. And the empathy and social tools of SEL opens students to the perspectives and feelings of others, so they can better take the other person into account. Combine that with the systems insights that allow a more comprehensive understanding of human dynamics, and you’ve got the constructs and tools for better interpersonal decision making – whether it’s how to handle a bully, or what to do about not getting invited to the prom.

Our capacity to care and our systemic awareness are inter-connected. In some very fundamental sense, all ethics are based on awareness of the consequences of actions. If I can see no effect of my actions on another, I see no ethical choices. We are seeing that the more kids are steeped in systems thinking, the more they express their innate predisposition to care at a larger and larger scale, whether it is in measuring how water is used in their school in a water-scarce region, or sharing the food from their school garden with their family.

Cognitive Development

A second potential area of synergy could be a rethinking of children’s cognitive development and potential. The findings of the past ten years or so, especially the work with young children, raise some big questions for the established views of the “cognitive ladder,” which place skills like synthesis at the top, with the presumption that this is what students will learn in college or graduate school.

We suspect the cognitive ladder as most educators know it today is shaped more than we can see by the reductionist bias of the western theory of knowledge. This is a theory that fragments, breaking complex subjects into smaller and smaller pieces. It is why, literally, an ”˜expert’ in modern society is someone who knows a lot about a little. With reductionism comes a natural bias toward analysis over synthesis, studying the pieces in isolation or analyzing subjects within arbitrary academic boundaries, like the separation of math from social studies or economics from psychology. This bias toward fragmentation and analysis is evident in the typical progression embedded in standard curricula toward more and more narrowly defined subjects, which progression continues right through college.

But if we start with a view that everything in the universe is interdependent, and that all humans have this innate systems intelligence, then we would have a different cognitive ladder. It would be more of a spiral. You would start with the idea that real thinking involves both reflecting on inter-dependence as well as about elements individually: synthesis and analysis. You would integrate movement along these two dimensions over time with a developmental progression.

Transform Pedagogy

A third important synergy between SEL and systems thinking has to do with transforming pedagogy and the culture of school. For example, a key to making such a spiral view of cognitive-emotional development practical in real educational settings is profound respect. You don’t try to teach kids something that has no meaning to them, something that does not connect in any way with their lives. But unfortunately, that’s still the modus operandi for 80-90% of school curricula. In contrast, students at every level find SEL compelling because it helps them deal directly with the issues that matter most to them: bullying, friendships, getting along, and the like.

We believe a wonderful joint project would be for leaders in SEL and systems education innovation to work on a common set of pedagogical principles, like:

  • Respect the learner’s reality and processes of understanding.
  • Focus on issues that are real to the learner.
  • Allow students to build their own models, construct and test their own ways of making sense of problems.
  • Work and learn together.
  • Build students’ ability to be responsible for their own learning.
  • Encourage peer dynamics where students help one another learn.
  • Perceive teachers as designers, facilitators, and decision makers (more than “curriculum deliverers”). This requires that teachers have strong content knowledge, continually being advanced through robust peer-learning networks.
 This is an excerpt from Peter Senge’s portion of The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education.
triple focus

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Three ways to introduce focus-related learning

Daniel Goleman recently spoke with CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) about his latest book with Peter Senge, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education.

Triple Focus

In the discussion, Dr. Goleman offers several ways to incorporate focus-related learning into the classroom:

  • Treat students and teachers as co-learners. Foster students learning with and from one another, and encourage them to develop responsibility for their own learning.
  • Use the real-life situations that students care about to foster reflection and growth, both emotionally and cognitively.
  • Choose teaching tools that are specific for these applications. The attention-training methods being tried in classrooms today offer a well-tested way to help children enhance their cognitive control, which is central to self-mastery. Adding a focus on enhancing empathy and concern for others adds a fresh emphasis that should lead to better relationships and teamwork. And systems learning offers constructs that can help SEL students better understand relationships, families, schools, and organizations. All three together offer an invaluable increase in the life skills learning that is part of SEL.

We’ve also put together a collection of resources for educators, school administrators, and parents to introduce the triple focus to students.

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Q&A with Daniel Goleman: FOCUS for educators

Daniel Goleman recently spoke with CASEL about the implications of Focus for educators. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

Educators role as facilitators of learning

One of the main concepts in Focus that every educator should know about is cognitive control. It’s the ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions, to keep your mind from wandering. Cognitive control is the basis for delaying gratification and emotional self-regulation. The strongest evidence for the importance of cognitive control was a longitudinal study done with more than 1,000 kids born over the course of a year in one New Zealand city. The children were assessed for cognitive control between the ages of 4 and 8 using a sophisticated battery of measures as well as teacher and parent reports. Then they were tracked down in their thirties. Cognitive control turned out to be a better predictor of their financial success and their health, and also whether or not they had a prison record, than their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

Helping students pay attention

In terms of getting students to pay attention to the work at hand, sometimes the digital media are the enemy. If kids are sneaking peeks at their texts during their time in the classroom, the technology is undermining teaching. On the other hand, more and more schools are using media to engage students in the learning process. But if you let students roam on the Web, you’re opening them to distractions as they search. It’s a complex question, and it will only become more complex as time goes on. If you hold as fundamental the ability of students to pay attention, it sorts itself out pretty quickly.

Neuroscience’s contribution tp education, learning and the development of social-emotional competencies

When you see the different phases that children go through as they age and grow, what you’re observing are the external behavioral signs of the growth of the brain. The brain is very plastic. It doesn’t reach its final form and size until the mid-twenties. SEL helps children develop their brains in the best way because we’re paying attention to children’s social and emotional skills in addition to their cognitive skills. What’s often missing is attention skills. That’s an independent developmental line, one that schools need to do a better job of helping children with.

Read the complete Q&A with CASEL here.

Order copies of FOCUS for TEENS and KIDS for your classroom.

 

 

 

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VIDEO: Daniel Goleman on the importance of downtime

Young people are having increasing difficulty focusing in our fast-paced, technology-saturated world. This constant distraction impairs learning, emotional regulation, relationships, and ultimately success in life.

In this video from Edutopia, best-selling author Daniel Goleman discusses how regular periods of rest throughout the school day help the brain learn more efficiently.

To further help young people develop attention skills, Dr. Goleman draws from the latest psychological and neurological research detailed in his new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence to offer guided audio exercises made for kids and teens. These exercises can be used in the classroom or at home.