Social Emotional Solutions: August 2022

August 30, 2022

Social Emotional Solutions: A monthly blog showcasing strategies and bright spots for Colorado’s schools

Five Mindsets to Start Your Year

By Finessa Ferrell, CEI Social Emotional Learning Specialist


If last year was a book title, it would be The Big Squeeze. Educators were pushed to their limits; it was nearly impossible for teachers to get out of classrooms to learn or recharge because there were so few people to cover classes. Time to collaborate and reflect was traded by necessity to respond to urgent needs. It was common to hear educators talk about being in survival mode and exhausted at the end of each and every day.    

When humans feel this sort of physical and psychological squeeze, the simplicity of knowing exactly what to do and how to do it becomes appealing. The brain space for experimenting, innovating, and designing new things is limited and although you want to improve your practice, you need that improvement to be very clear and easy to do. This can lead to implementing things you don’t really “believe in” but that someone you trust or an article you read said you should. When you don’t know the reason why, when you haven’t reflected on how the practice aligns with your values and experience, you can find yourself doing something different but with skepticism about whether it will make any difference or is the right thing to do.   

In this scenario, practices you implement can operate in isolation from each other because you haven’t really invested in the why behind them – they don’t flow from a teaching philosophy you hold and aren’t supported systemically. The power of investing in shifting mindsets – an investment in changing core beliefs and philosophical orientation toward something – is that so many new practices will naturally flow from this change of belief. Imagine a strong school ecosystem where classrooms are fueling human development, safety net supports are firmly in place, students feel empowered to lead and their families are full partners by your side. The ideal conditions for a strong ecosystem, particularly one that sustains itself, occur when a critical mass of educators in the building hold a core set of beliefs about teaching, learning, and human development in common. Think of a mindset as a set of beliefs that shape how you see yourself and the world around you. Your mindset influences how you think, feel, and behave in any given situation. In my role at CEI, I’m often asked for coaching that sounds like ‘just tell us what to do or which off-the-shelf program to implement.’ My response? Take an ecosystem approach (the topic of our first blog) through intentionally cultivating individual and shared mindsets to anchor your work and its impact over time.  

In this blog, I share the five mindsets that I believe are core to building and sustaining a strong social emotional ecosystem. Our team provides tools and trainings to districts and schools that are looking to expand their social emotional development practices. Please reach out if you are interested in learning more.  

1. The classroom must be a wellness center before it can be a learning center 

The way students feel drives their behavior and engagement. From a research perspective and from our own experience as educators, parents, siblings, and friends we know that how we feel physically, emotionally, and mentally affects everything we do – from what we say and how we say it, whether we persevere or give up easily, whether we can ignore the things that bug us or snap, whether we feel paralyzed and can’t seem to remember anything or bound out of bed with focused energy.     

The neurobiological foundation of learning is well documented and dramatically impacts executive function, memory, comprehension, the storage and retrieval of information, and our ability to focus on a task amid distraction. In fact, a meta-analysis of 80 separate studies on the effectiveness of strategies intended to build executive function skills concluded that if you don’t “decrease how stressed an individual feels, increase joy in being alive, enhance feelings of social connectedness, improve sleep or increase physical fitness, then unmet emotional, social, or physical needs will work to oppose any improvement in executive function.” In a nutshell, the human brain interprets sadness, disconnection, hopelessness, sleep deprivation, physical illness, anger, anxiety, and distraction as a threat to survival causing the pre-frontal cortex to act accordingly, stepping aside until the threat has been diminished or eliminated. While it might feel cheesy to say a happy student is a learning student, the science of learning and development posits exactly that.       

If educators believe that how well students feel drives how well they learn, it follows that focusing on wellness in every classroom and school will be understood as necessary to achieve the cognitive growth and learning outcomes that every educator wants to see. In this way, the shifting of educators’ mindset has more power to change the way schools do business than any one practice, curriculum, or program.   

2. Brains must be prepared to learn

For a classroom to be a wellness center before it can accelerate learning, this mindset – that brains must be prepared to learn – implies that setting the conditions for learning should be the first thing educators do.    

Just like preparing soil to grow a seed, the conditions that maximize growth are not the same for every seed, nor the learning conditions for every brain. Imagine a dozen students sitting at their desks or in a circle on the floor. Now visualize each student not as body with a recognizable face but, instead, as a brain sitting in that spot. Each of those brains has had a different experience in the proceeding hour, day, and week. For your “brain garden” to grow, each brain must be guided from wherever they are to attunement – a calm, unthreatened, non-chaotic state. Investing in an effective group-based ritual or experience to kick off each class can move most brains to a state of learning readiness, while allowing for a few brains who might need additional support to be identified and given extra time and attention.    

Many techniques and strategies such as belly or box breathing, morning meditation, circle check-in, group dance, games, or play are used to get a group of brains moving in the right direction. More individual strategies such as calm corners, zen rooms, tap-in-tap-out systems, quick access to counseling support, and teacher-driven redirection techniques are just a few of the things that help brains feeling stronger emotions calm and prepare for learning.    

3. Tell me what happened 

One of the most sacred paradigms of education is the management of behavior – traditionally understood as setting a “standard” for behavior, clearly communicating expectations for behavior, modeling the behavior, and then punishing students if the standard is not met. When everyone is clear on the standard – and we rarely ask ourselves who determined that standard – then it feels appropriate to punish non-compliance. Something is “wrong” with the student. They lack something they should have. There is a deficit that must be fixed.  

What flows from this approach can be a strong focus on punitive measures to force compliance that is often paired with a rewards system for students who demonstrate the standard behavior. There is often heartfelt belief that these reward/punishment approaches are beneficial to students so they can behave appropriately in a school setting as well as in their community, family, and workplace. With a focus on evaluating the “wrongness” of behavior measured against a standard, we often fail to evaluate the standard itself or to realize that the behavior we are finding inappropriate feels completely logical and appropriate to the student who is feeling strong emotion, informed by whatever they have experienced or are experiencing in the moment.  

When our mindset is always to ask “what happened (to you)?” rather than wonder “what is wrong with you?” we shift the focus completely away from the student having a deficit that needs to be fixed and, instead, toward uncovering the emotional root of the student’s experience that is leading to behaviors that undermine success at school. The result of this inquiry-first approach is not only a changed dynamic between adult and student, but the empowerment of students to tell their stories from their perspective.   

In my experience, these stories quite often lead to a sea change of new understanding of student experience and with it, a willingness to evaluate where our behavior standards come from and their utility. After all, it was not too long ago when a “great” classroom was pin-drop quiet with desks in rows facing the front. 

4. Behavior is communication  

Imagine finding a message in a bottle. What does it say? Where did it come from? How do we get it out?  

Human behavior is like a message in a body instead of a bottle and instead of a note it communicates hours, days, or years of lived experience that have formed beliefs, attitudes, and emotional responses. This behavioral message can warm our hearts and make us smile – we all know the students who beam at us, do what we ask them to, seem appreciative of our efforts, and engage with the content in class. We may not know their backstory, but if we’re honest, we use behaviors to make assumptions about who is a good student or has good character. In other words, we decode students’ behavioral messages and make a fair number of assumptions about them as people. The opposite is also true.   

Challenging behavioral messages can and do become labels applied to the student as a person. For example, the behavioral message might have had the effect of disrupting class, it might have felt to you as disrespectful, or have indicated a refusal to do something you asked the student to do. From a more traditional mindset of seeing behavior as either upholding or violating a standard, your brain might take some shortcuts for efficiency, label the behavior – and often the student – as angry, defiant, disruptive, or disrespectful, and move quickly to a list of consequences. However, from a mindset of seeing behavior as simply a message to be decoded, the logical course of action is to gather information so you can hear the message and craft an effective response. Using this mindset, you might ask “what is the student trying to tell me?” What might anger tell you? Perhaps the student is feeling powerless. Apathetic and unwilling to turn anything in or participate in class? Perhaps the student is overextended and burnt out.   

When we invest first in “listening” to behavior rather than seeing, categorizing, and labeling we can get to the emotional source that is driving it. Through this behavior-as-communication approach we can talk openly about the emotions the student is feeling and offer tools for students to use to think differently and to feel differently. We can illuminate negative thought patterns, clarify misunderstandings, offer counternarratives that are more positive and, most importantly, ally ourselves with students and be willing to hear and act on their behalf when their lived experience during a day at school surprises us because we didn’t know those things were happening. 

5. School is for finding your why 

Student success rests on how young people see themselves positioned in the world and it is from this mental picture that their intrinsic motivation comes. If a young person is not motivated it is extremely difficult to improve academic achievement, even if the teacher knows the content backwards and forwards and the curriculum is solid. Too often, however, we simply blame young people for a lack of motivation without interrogating what we’re offering. 

In the broadest sense, the human brain is motivated to seek pleasure, joy, and connection and to avoid experiences that do none of those. But how do you know what brings you joy and what connects you to others without a strong investment in discovery and exploration? What we determine is true for us and true about our future is overwhelmingly experiential. According to Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “intrinsic motivation can be encouraged or suppressed by the experiences adults provide for children.” The experience of attending school for most of each weekday, then, is incredibly powerful in shaping a young person’s beliefs about who they are, what skills they have, what potential they have, what they enjoy, whether they are accepted, liked, understood, and valued within a community of others – that they belong – and that they have what it takes inside to get things in life that bring them joy.

It cannot be overstated that quite literally the purpose of teaching and learning must be to help students find their reasons to engage – their why. Over the last few years, there has been a great deal of buzz around student passion, purpose, relevance, inspiration, empowerment, connectedness, project-based learning, belonging, and motivation. All of this is right. But there also tends to be a sense that these things either happen alongside academic learning or are so important that they must be added to a teacher’s plate so the system addresses the whole child. Again, this is not wrong, but it’s also not accurate. Imagine if you believed that the purpose of the education system – and your role within this system – is to accelerate the success of young people by helping them find their why. The paradigm of “instruction” shifts to discovery and exploration. The design of your school and classroom shifts to serve experiences that fuel self-awareness, interest, and passion and then connections are made between that interest and core content.  Educators become guides, mentors, allies, investigators, and connectors.  

The result of all this? An ecosystem and learning environment that drives engagement, accelerates growth, and is a joy for all its members.