The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

How emotions and social relationships drive learning

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christina Krone

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Part 1


Throughout life, and to an extraordinary degree in young people, the brain develops differently based on opportunities to engage actively and safely with rich and meaningful environments, social relationships, and ideas.1–3 The brain’s plasticity, the very adaptability that allows us to adjust to the demands of our environments, therefore presents a critical opportunity and responsibility for education.

Brain science usually does not translate directly into educational policy or practice. But educational policies and practices that are consistent with how the brain develops are more likely to promote learning and development than those that undermine or are inconsistent with brain science.4 In addition, an appreciation of how brain development varies across individuals and accommodates environmental demands can give educators insights into the types of supports and interventions that might prove most helpful for different children.5–8

This brief explains the science behind how the brain develops, how that development relates to learning, and the settings and contexts that are conducive to learning and development. It explains how brain development requires social relationships, emotional experiences, and cognitive opportunities. And, it draws from this evidence to suggest basic principles for educational policymakers and practitioners.

Brain development supports learning, and vice versa

Brain development after birth does not just involve the brain getting bigger or stronger or increasing its number of connections.9 Instead, brain development mainly involves the generation, pruning, and reorganization of neural connections to form brain networks that reflect a person’s experiences and help him or her adapt to the world in which they live.10,11 As a person engages with situations, problems, ideas, and social relationships, these experiences influence patterns of brain structure and function that undergird a person’s changing skills and inclinations over time.

The developmental sculpting of the brain’s networks through learning is akin to the process of growing a botanical garden. When given adequate opportunity, plants naturally grow through various developmentally appropriate phases, such as seed germination and cycles of budding and flowering. However, the particular characteristics of a garden reflect the age and types of the plants and a combination of geography, climate, soil quality, care, cultural context (such as preferences for rock gardens versus wildflowers), and the gardener’s own choices. The garden is also affected by how it is laid out and used (for example, for picnicking under shade trees, growing vegetables, strolling along paths, or playing active sports). In this way, the local conditions, the gardener’s skills and taste, the patterns of use, and time all shape the garden and affect its future growth and health.

Just as a garden grows differently in different climates and with different plants, styles of gardening, and use, a person’s brain develops differently depending on age, predispositions, priorities, experiences, and environment. When given adequate opportunity, support, and encouragement, children naturally think, feel emotions, and engage with their social and physical worlds. And these patterns of thoughts, feelings, and engagement organize brain development over time and in age-specific ways, influencing growth, intelligence, and health into the future.

Genes and Epigenetics: An emotionally safe, cognitively stimulating environment contributes to brain development

In 1990, a major multinational scientific project was launched to document the full genetic makeup of humans. The Human Genome Project12 resulted in a startling discovery: humans have far fewer genes than had been predicted,13 and fewer than many simpler organisms, including many plants. How could the most intelligent and flexible creatures on the planet have so few uniquely human genes with which to specify abilities? The answer speaks squarely to the purpose of culture, childrearing, and education: our amazing intellectual potential appears to derive partly from the evolutionary loss of genetic information.14,15 Our genes appear to underspecify our development, and that information deficit makes possible (and in fact necessary) our unparalleled proclivity for socially mediated learning.16–18 For our genes to grow a fully functioning human, we must have adequate opportunity to interact with others and to learn. This learning extends across the settings a person lives in: family, community, and school.

While the components of the genetic code could be likened to a gardener’s seeds and instruction manual, the epigenetic forces—the environmental forces from “above the genome”—provide the supports and triggers that open and close various pages of the manual, and even reorder, copy, and delete pages, telling the gardener whether, when, where, and how to plant various seeds given dynamic environmental conditions, and how to care for, arrange, prune, and fertilize plants at different stages, in accordance with the changing weather conditions and the desired uses and appearance of the garden.

Epigenetic forces are like the climate, the weather, and the gardener’s actions. They are aspects of the person’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and physiological contexts—the engaging and rigorous intellectual opportunities, warm and rich social relationships, and healthy physical and emotional environments in which a person lives. Together, these forces trigger and organize brain development and, therefore, a person’s readiness and capacities to learn. Though healthy human environments can vary greatly in their specific characteristics and cultural features, when a person’s world is seriously impoverished in any of these dimensions, brain development and the learning that depends on it are compromised.3,19–21 When a person’s world is enriched in these dimensions, brain development is facilitated and learning is enabled.22–25

Except in the rare case of severe, life-threatening genetic disorders, all children have the genes essential for brain development and the propensity to learn. However, genes are not sufficient to build a person, and the genome itself is dynamic, changing in response to environmental cues.26 Continual, age-appropriate, and individualized contextual support provides the epigenetic forces that turn genes on and off, copy and arrange them, so that growth, development, thinking, and learning can occur.27–29 Overall, though differences in individuals’ intelligence are somewhat heritable in optimal learning environments,30 in sub-optimal environments, measures of environmental quality and learning opportunities overwhelmingly swamp the predictive power of genes.31 Following the garden analogy, individuals may inherit “seeds” for various kinds of plants, but it is the gardening and environmental conditions that determine which seeds will grow, thrive, and thereby reveal their potential. Importantly, across the lifespan, targeted interventions and supports of the sorts that can be provided by schools and community organizations have been shown to improve neural and cognitive functioning and health, with long-term benefits for individuals.21,23,32–35

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