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73. Getting the Brain Ready to Learn with Jen Kreitz

As teachers, we want to see our students succeed academically, but it can often feel like social emotional problems are getting in the way of academic learning.

Have you ever experienced something like this…

You have an engaging and fun lesson planned that you think your students will love and you’re so excited to teach. You created an introduction activity to pique their interest on this new topic, it will take 10 minutes. Then, you’ll move on to the lesson that teaches them a new skill in an outside-of-the-box way. That will take 20 minutes. Then, you have an exit activity to solidify what they’ve learned and help you to assess what needs to be worked on further in the next lesson. That will take 10 minutes.

Perfectly planned. Well organized. Down to the minute timing.

The bell rings and you walk to the door, excited to welcome your students into the classroom and get started on the lesson.

Then, your heart sinks as your students trample into your classroom after lunch up in arms about a disagreement that happened between two groups of friends. It feels like chaos as some students argue loudly, some students begin to crowd around you to tell you what happened, and some angrily stomp over to their desks.

You can feel frustration bubbling up because it is very clear that in the state they’re in, there’s no way you’ll be able to settle them down fast enough to get through the lesson that you carefully and painstakingly planned for them.

When students are feeling big emotions, the brain is not ready to learn. We know from experience that trying to force them to settle down and go along with our lesson just isn’t going to work. Learning isn’t going to happen if they can’t get their minds off the drama.

We need to address their social-emotional needs before we can get anything done. And often, this feels like a waste of time!

This example is an obvious moment where we have to support our students’ emotional needs, but what about all the other times that their brains aren’t ready to learn and it’s invisible to us?

What about the student who’s parents are fighting and they’re so worried about them splitting up that they can’t concentrate on your lesson.

How about the student who’s living in poverty and isn’t sure what they’ll eat for lunch.

What about the student who’s silently struggling with their mental health.

When the brain is worried, stressed or anxious it isn’t ready to learn. The body and brain go into protection mode and use all their energy to try to solve the immediate perceived danger. The brain isn’t going to spend it’s precious resources learning new skills and information if it thinks it has to figure out how to survive.

So what can we as teachers do to help our students get out of the fight or flight response that their perceived danger has put them in so that their brains have the freedom to use their energy to learn new things?

How to address student social-emotional needs first to make learning easier

First, we have to remind ourselves that taking the time to support our students in their social and emotional learning actually leads to improved academic learning. Which means that it isn’t a waste of time, quite the opposite. When we start a lesson by helping our students to calm down and focus on the present moment, they will be more engaged in their learning and will therefore need less time to understand the new concept.

A great way to get your students’ brains ready for learning is to start your class with a mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment on purpose. You can learn more about mindfulness in our blog post What is Mindfulness?.

When you practice mindfulness with your students, they are learning to pay attention to their thoughts and to notice when their thoughts are distracting them from the present moment. They are also learning to notice when they are in a heightened state that is making it hard to concentrate on their learning. During the mindfulness practice, they learn breathing and thinking strategies that can help them to calm down physically and emotionally so that their brain is ready to learn.

When students practice mindfulness on a regular basis, their brain creates and solidifies new connections that favor learning and make it easier to appreciate the present moment rather than get swept up in negative thought patterns. The more often they practice mindfulness, the stronger the connections in their brains become and the more likely they are to use mindfulness strategies independently to meet their own needs. 

Mindfulness is also a great tool to support struggling learners, the ones that need extra help to focus on and integrate what they are learning. Practicing mindfulness actively trains students to notice when they are distracted and to independently refocus on that they are learning.

If you would like to learn how to start a mindfulness practice in your classroom, listen to this episode of The Balanced Educator Podcast, 5 Steps to Introducing Mindfulness in the Classroom.

Just like any other skill, students won’t learn mindfulness overnight. Repetition and daily practice are key to allow students to build the connections in their brain that will allow them to integrate mindfulness into their lives.

We make it incredibly simple to practice mindfulness daily with your students with our full-year, online, mindfulness program Educalme. In our program, you get 2 and 5 minute guided mindfulness audios created by teachers for the classroom as well as printable posters, reflection activities, lesson plans and more.

Click here to try Educalme for free to see if it’s the right fit for you!

If you’ve ever struggled to get your students ready to learn or felt frustrated because you have to spend so much time managing your students’ emotions, Educalme may be the resource you’ve been searching for.

In this week’s episode of The Balanced Educator Podcast, we’ve invited Jen Kreitz, resource teacher with a masters’ degree in special education as well as an Educalme Ambassador, to talk to us about how taking the time to support our students in their social and emotional learning actually leads to improved academic learning. Jen shares super valuable information, strategies and ideas that will help you to best serve your students.

Show notes

Jen’s previous episode on The Balanced Educator Podcast: Episode 55

Connect with Jen on Instagram @teacherJenK204 or email her at [email protected].

Share this post on Pinterest to help other educators learn how taking the time to support our students in their social and emotional learning leads to improved academic learning.

How taking the time to support our students in their social and emotional learning actually leads to improved academic learning

Let us know in the comments, what do you do to support your students in their social-emotional development? Do you practice mindfulness with them or do you have other social-emotional learning activities that you’d recommend?

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