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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

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.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. 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.

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. 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. 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 Project resulted in a startling discovery: humans have far fewer genes than had been predicted, 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. Our genes appear to underspecify our development, and that information deficit makes possible (and in fact necessary) our unparalleled proclivity for socially mediated learning. 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. When a person’s world is enriched in these dimensions, brain development is facilitated and learning is enabled.

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. 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. Overall, though differences in individuals’ intelligence are somewhat heritable in optimal learning environments, in sub-optimal environments, measures of environmental quality and learning opportunities overwhelmingly swamp the predictive power of genes. 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.

The quality of a person’s relationships and social interactions shapes their development and health, both of the body and of the brain.

The brain development that supports learning depends on social experience.

Think of a hysterical baby up past bedtime, whose distraught parent lifts and hugs her, shushes, lays the little one’s head where she can hear the parent’s heartbeat, and sings her to sleep. In the minutes that follow, both the baby’s and the parent’s blood pressure lower, stress hormones normalize, and hormones involved in bonding and social affiliation increase. Over the course of these minutes, both the parent and the baby undergo physiological changes that influence not only immune functioning and digestion, but also brain structure, especially in regions associated with learning and memory, and in the adult, with executive functioning, which supports self-regulation and goal-directed behavior. Exposure to these socially triggered hormones opens a window of plasticity in the parent’s brain development, and signals the infant’s brain to grow.

As the above example demonstrates, individuals co-regulate each other’s physiology, which means that the quality of a person’s relationships and social interactions shapes their development and health, both of the body and of the brain. For example, infants’ prenatal brain development is impacted by maternal stress, which is in turn related to toddler behavior, and child temperament and learning.

The brains of children and adolescents who experience persistent adversity respond by strengthening circuits that promote aggressive and anxious tendencies at the expense of circuits for cognition, reasoning, and memory. The hormonal signaling molecules responsible for these shifts in neural development are toxic in large amounts, making individuals more likely to develop health problems, including mental health disorders such as addiction, anxiety, and depression, and physical health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, and cancer. Connections between social and physical maturation are also seen in less extreme conditions: toddlers with poor attachment to caregivers undergo puberty earlier, as do pre-teen girls whose co-habiting parents are socially aggressive to each other (for example, refusing to talk, threatening to leave). Stress shortens the window of increased neural plasticity and growth in adolescence, and predicts earlier sexual maturity and worse psychosocial outcomes, with implications for risky decisions that influence educational outcomes.

As these examples illustrate, the brain functioning that supports learning depends on social experience. The way individuals experience relationships in the home, community, school, and workplace influences their biological development, and hence how they live and think. Even in adults, close relationships are associated with hormone co-regulation, with implications for cognition, sleep quality, and health. Though the brain is malleable and changed by experience across the lifespan, the most important periods are those in which the brain is most actively changing: the prenatal period through childhood, adolescence, the transition to parenthood, and old age.

Sensitive periods in brain development align with opportunities for learning and needed supports.

The development of the brain and the development of thinking run in parallel; each enables the other. Examining brain development at different stages provides insights into developmentally appropriate learning at each stage and the necessary supportive conditions.

Infancy: Newborn’s brains are highly immature and malleable. They require extensive human interaction to develop. Infants come into the world with a set of neural reflexes that serve as primitive entry-points for regulating themselves in their environment (such as breathing, eating, and maintaining a steady body temperature) and for interacting with physical objects and other people (for example, through looking and eye contact, listening, grasping, mirroring, vocalizing, and cuddling). In engaging with their caregivers, infants notice patterns of actions, language use, and emotional expression that tune their brain development to the features of their specific environment.

Given their stage of brain development, infants thrive with stable routines, including living routines like feeding, bathing, and sleeping, and cultural routines like simple songs and interactive games. Infants need stable relationships with emotionally healthy, attentive caregivers; adequate nutrition and physical care; and plentiful exposure to language.

Healthy early care environments feature small ratios of children to adults so that interpersonal interactions are maximized. These interactions offer physical comfort and affectionate holding and hugging to support attachment and a sense of safety, as well as regular communication and responsive, back-and-forth interactions to support infants’ development of language and sense-making in the relationships and settings they encounter.  In addition to warm, sensitive relationships, these settings also offer regular feeding and good nutrition, sleep, and physical activities, such as sitting, rolling, crawling, and walking with adult oversight.

Early childhood: In early childhood, the brain regions that control sensory, motor, language, spatial, and visual functions are maturing. This brain development coincides with children learning to coordinate their reflexes to form goal-directed actions, such as toddlers coordinating their gesturing and vocalizing to communicate with caregivers, or coordinating their posture, movement, and attention to learn to run, ride a wheeled toy, or read a book with an older person. In order to attain physical milestones, like walking and toileting, and social milestones, like talking and sharing joint attention, young children need predictably calm interactions with responsive and loving caregivers, and safe opportunities to explore and to share what they notice.

Young children are interested in learning with others about the world—real and imaginary. With conversations and other interactions, imitation, exploration, and self-paced practice, children build simple understandings of sights, sounds, and object properties, as well as of social rituals, language, emotions, and stories.Through active play and participation in daily activities, they notice patterns of cause and effect, gain agency and a sense of self, and begin to figure out how the world works.80 They learn to act alone and with others’ help to satisfy their curiosities and achieve their goals.

Much of young children’s learning happens through play. Productive early childhood education settings offer rich environments with materials to manipulate—for example, a sand table, water table, blocks, playhouse area, art supplies, musical toys—and regular opportunities to investigate, move, and play with these materials. Adults in these settings encourage children to play and work together (for example, learning group games or setting up and cleaning up at snack time), as well as to pursue their individual interests.

Productive early childhood education settings provide regular routines—such as circle time, snack time, storybook time, inside and outside play time—that provide a balance of activities and learning opportunities.  Songs, stories, and conversations in these settings model and support the development of language; music, dance, and games develop movement and a sense of timing and sequence; drawing, painting, playing, and building with manipulatives develop small motor and hand-eye coordination. All of these activities, along with affirmative and supportive interactions, build the brain’s architecture in important ways and help students become ready for more symbolic learning that they can link to these concrete experiences.

Middle-late childhood: The physical, cognitive, and social achievements of early childhood form the foundation for concepts and skills that emerge when children begin to more formally represent their knowledge of the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional world and self. As children become able to think about what they and others are coming to understand, know, feel, and do, the association and planning areas of the brain involved in the integration of information gathered from different senses and sources are maturing. Children’s learning involves gradually internalizing and reproducing the patterns, procedures, and beliefs they are exposed to at school, at home, and in the community. This exposure happens through social relationships, emotional experiences, and stories; opportunities for mathematical, spatial, and scientific reasoning; and opportunities to formalize ideas through spoken and written language and the arts.

Productive early childhood settings provide routines and activities, along with affirmative and supportive interactions, that build the brain’s architecture in important ways.

Structured opportunities to teach and learn from others; to explore, discover, and invent; and to test out the predictive power of their reasoning and calculations, help children construct a sense of scholarly and personal agency. Developing capacities for managing goals, strategies, peer relationships, and feelings are supported by formal social activities like participating in sports teams and music ensembles, and also by informal opportunities for self-direction alone and in social settings, such as recess, free time, and helping out with household chores.

Supportive learning environments in middle childhood offer opportunities to engage in inquiries and projects that allow children to set goals, seek answers, evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions; continue to engage in concrete experiences of the world on which they can begin to build more abstract thinking; support productive collaboration with other children in undertaking these and other efforts; teach social and emotional skills such as awareness of and productive ways of articulating and managing feelings, while developing empathy and positive inter-personal relationships; and communicate ideas in multiple artistic, linguistic, and mathematical formats.

Early-middle adolescence: Adolescence is the most dramatic period of brain development after infancy. It is a fundamental period of environmentally (epigenetically) triggered social, emotional, and cognitive growth and plasticity, as well as of vulnerability to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. In the brain, maturation of the amygdala and reward-related structures leads to heightened sensitivity to social cues, such as eye gaze and presence of peers, as well as to social hierarchy, reputation, and physical appearance. The frontal lobes, involved in planning, decision-making, executive functioning, and higher order thinking, begin a protracted period of intense development (lasting into the mid-twenties) that increases the strength of connections to the amygdala and other neural regions involved in emotional reactivity, social sensitivity and reward. This brain development is associated with risk taking and emotion swings, but also enables new and initially fragile capacities for emotional regulation, long-term planning, and abstract thinking.

Puberty-related hormonal changes launch a period of neural plasticity that also makes the brain more vulnerable to the effects of stress, social rejection, and sleep deprivation.These pubertal hormone surges influence brain and bodily maturation, friendships, and romantic attraction,100 and shift sleep patterns to later and longer.

Adolescents’ optimal development is enabled by deeply exploring and expanding personal interests and technical skills through high-quality coursework, arts, sports, and other activities. Effective activities are designed to help adolescents build constructive, prosocial connections through community involvement, perspective-taking, and meaning-making. Adolescents’ efficacy, agency, and sense of purpose thrive with safe, supported opportunities to explore possible social identities, tastes, interests, beliefs, and values; and to invest in tight relationships with family, peers, and trustworthy adults like teachers, mentors, spiritual leaders, and coaches. Adequate physical activity, social connection, nutrition, and sleep are particularly important in adolescence, as these buffer the effects of stress on the brain and improve well-being, emotion regulation, cognition, and decision-making.

Supportive educational settings for adolescents ensure that they continue to have strong relationships with adults who know them well–often through school advisory systems or teaching teams that can personalize instruction and supports for students in and out of school. Such settings engage students in investigations that allow them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, to debate ideas and reflect on what they are learning, to attempt ambitious projects that interest them, and to receive feedback they can act on to improve their work. These opportunities help them develop a sense of agency, curiosity, habits for reflecting on their own thinking, and a growth mindset and self-regulation to support their ongoing learning.

Late adolescence-early adulthood: While in early adolescence the number of neural connections increases, the brain prunes the connections that are not being used during late adolescence, increasing the brain’s efficiency. Which connections remain is determined by a person’s thought patterns and engagement with their environment, including by education-related opportunities and social relationships.

Increases in neural “cross-talk” between regions further apart in the brain, especially those involved in higher-level cognition and cultural values, emotions, and beliefs, occur as short-distance connectivity decreases. Tighter communication across, as opposed to within, brain regions during this developmental period supports late adolescents’ blossoming abilities to reason, infer, and reflect, through making connections and meaning of their skills, knowledge, and experiences. Opportunities to engage deeply with scholarly ideas, to apply their emerging skills to real-world problems, and to build strong, appropriate peer and adult relationships are crucial for identity development and for making decisions about committed relationships, lifestyle, and careers.

Productive educational settings in late adolescence and early adulthood continue to provide opportunities for young people to be well known by adults with whom they have strong relationships—advisors, mentors, and teachers—and to examine ideas from many perspectives, using symbolic thinking, logic, and metaphor, as well as other tools, to deeply explore meaning. Students should have opportunities to investigate and apply their learning in real-world contexts through projects, internships, externships, and exhibitions, with constructive feedback that allows them to develop ever more disciplined thinking and to tackle ever more advanced problems. They should also have many opportunities to follow their interests and passions in choosing topics and approaches, reflecting on their own strategies so they can guide their own learning over time.  And they should be able to engage in personally enjoyable forms of physical activity that they can undertake on their own as well as in groups, and continue throughout life, beyond the education environment.

Middle-later adulthood: Though the brain is considered to have reached maturity by middle adulthood, the adult brain undergoes age-related changes that reflect environmental, social, and educational factors. New neurons continue to form in the brain during adulthood in response to new experiences, but this growth can be inhibited by stress, chronic sleep disruption, or dietary deficiencies. Physical and mental activity, as well as social relationships, support adults’ brain functioning and help buffer against potential age-related cognitive declines. Consistent with the biological evidence that relationships impact brain development and learning, increasing evidence points to the importance of teachers’ mental health and social-emotional skills for students’ success.

Productive educational opportunities for adults build on what we know about adult learning: they connect to learners’ goals and provide them with new experiences that encompass problem-solving in real-life contexts. Adults typically move through four stages in the experiential learning cycle: engaging in concrete experience; observing and reflecting, often in discussion with peers; forming insights and generalizations; and testing implications of new concepts in new situations. In line with these insights, effective professional development for teachers—that is, learning that changes teaching practices and student learning—engages teachers in active learning related to the content and students they teach; supports collaboration with colleagues, typically in job-embedded contexts; uses models and modeling of effective practice; provides coaching and expert support; and offers opportunities for feedback and reflection.

Evidence also shows that teachers’ own social-emotional skills and wellness can be enhanced by training in mindfulness—which develops a calm attentiveness and awareness of experiences, often through regulation of breathing and physical stance, as well as through visualization. Studies find that such training reduces teachers’ stress and emotional distress, helps them regulate emotions, and develops greater social-emotional competence, self-efficacy and well-being, so that they can provide more effective emotional support for students.

The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is engaging and energizing communities to re-envision what constitutes success in our schools. Scientific evidence demonstrates that social, emotional, and academic development are interconnected in the learning process. The Commission is drawing from research and promising practices to explore how to make all these dimensions of learning part of the fabric of every school. Building upon existing work in schools, communities, and states across the country, the Commission is working to identify specific action steps in research, practice, and policy that will help shape and sustain a new era of education that reflects what we know about how learning happens.

The Commission’s members are leaders from education, research, policy, business, and the military, and the full Commission team includes a Council of Distinguished Scientists, a Council of Distinguished Educators, a Youth Commission, a Parent Advisory Panel, Partners Collaborative, and a Funders Collaborative.

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