The Neuroscience Case for Social and Emotional Learning and EQ Enhancement

Research in neuroscience has proven that the brain has “plasticity,” meaning it can grow new synapses through repetition. Research has also identified that different areas of the brain control various functions.

As a crucial example, severe negative emotional reactions are located and stimulated in one part of the brain while patience, elevated comprehension, empathy and understanding are functions of other areas of the brain.

In fact, emotions strongly influence whether a person pays attention to information in the first place. Stress has an impact on the body’s (and brain’s) biochemistry. The brain triggers hormone secretions as responses to the stress at hand.

Some examples include increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, and sinking feelings in the stomach. Just consider how hard it is for you to focus or take in information if you are in an anxiety or anger state.

Researchers are now convinced that social and emotional learning actually capitalizes on the plasticity of the brain to wed the differentiated functional areas of the brain to each other.

By creating awareness of emotions and the tools to express and deal with all emotions, and particularly with negative reactive emotions, SEL training and practice via repetition literally builds new neuron paths, as all learning does, only in its case those neural paths create a bridge between the reactive sections of the brain and the comprehending sections.

With such a bridge, the learning part of the brain does not “check out” – literally go dark when attached to brain monitoring equipment – when positive or negative emotions are aroused. Instead, those parts of the brain integrate the experience in a manner that we have come to define as “emotional intelligence.”

Humans with such training, whether kids or adults, manage their reactions better than they did before – and better than most people – and tend to experience better outcomes and relationships.

In sum, SEL training shapes future behavior. This knowledge amplifies the importance of creative a learning environment that is emotionally supportive and expressive as well as intellectually stimulating.

Cognitive neuroscientists Mary Ellen Imordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth contributed to the 18 author anthology, Mind, Brain and Education. In Chapter four, titled “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning,“ the authors describe how emotions provide a force that “stabilizes the direction of a learner’s decisions over time.“

When emotion is relevant to the task at hand, they point out, it is at its optimal use.

Most schools in America and the world currently tend to put emotions aside or suppress them during classroom cognitive learning. The authors argue that without emotion, learning is impaired.

“Rather than working to move beyond emotion, the most efficient and effective learning incorporates emotion into cognitive knowledge being built,” they write. Effective learners build “useful and relevant intuitions that guide their thinking and decision making.”

(From the perspective of neuroscience, intuition is the process of using non-conscious emotional signals in acquiring knowledge.)

“For effective cognition to manifest itself in the classroom, emotions need to be a part of the learning experience all along” 

The Role of “Mirror Neurons” in Early Childhood Learning and SEL

Babies (and children) learn through observation and repetition. This is continuous, making baby’s brains the fastest growing part of their body. Mirror neurons in a baby’s brain trigger learning in a baby’s formative years.

The baby sees, and there is an inner response to what they see, and baby mirrors the behavior, thereby creating and programming a new neuron. Adults draw on these neurons as well, crying when we see a sad movie or feeling triggered to yawn when we see someone yawn.

The implications of this for teaching, embodying, and modeling social and emotional learning as early as possible, are tremendous.

Because development of these neurons are an essential part of controlling a baby’s immediate and later actions, abstract thinking and memory, the earlier a child experiences training in emotional awareness and management, and in relationship skills, the better they will manage life challenges, the more they will achieve, and the closer they will come to having a happy life.

In this country pre-schools are ahead of the curve in adopting SEL training, though by no means all have. Parents and K-12 are behind the curve. Clearly, it’s time to catch up. (Go to Programs to learn about SEL programs available to parents.)

A. Benedetto, Ph.D

Sousa, Davis, editor, Mind Brain and Education; Implications for the classroom. Solution Tree Press, Bloomingdale, Indiana, 2010.
Tarver, Paula. Reflections on Mirror Neurons. June 15, 2013
Wolfe, Patricia, Brain Matters; Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA., 2001

Skip to toolbar