We commenced the Garrison Institute Forum series on Education with a conversation between two leaders in the field of education, Dan Siegel, M.D., and Mark Greenberg, Ph.D. They explored how caregivers and educators can support children, especially during this time of pandemic, and how we can apply insights from the field of education to respond to the moment we’re in.
Beginning in infancy, we learn to regulate our emotions, thoughts, and behavior through co-regulation with others—especially our caregivers. As we develop, we also learn new ways to self-regulate which can strengthen our ability to cope and our resilience.
In Siegel’s field of interpersonal neurobiology, the mind is understood as much broader than the brain or brain activity. The mind is fully embodied, relational, and it facilitates the process of regulating energy and information flow. A child’s relationship with their caregivers is foundational for the development of their mind and their ability to self-regulate. As Greenberg said:
“Our ability to self-regulate evolves out of the co-regulation of our early relationships. It all begins with co-regulation. In fact, one of the best treatments for children that are often aggressive and disruptive in the home is for parents to learn how to be present with their kids and let the children lead, which brings them into a sense of mutual trust.”
Attachment, or the relationship between a child and a caregiver, understandably plays a critical role in this. Siegel argues that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment, which is the best gift you can give them, is presence—parental presence.”
Presence is made up of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love which increases one’s ability to co-regulate behavior. When parents are busy, distracted, or are frequently on their devices, it may lead their children to feel neglected or like they aren’t being seen. “Children will do almost anything to get attention,” Greenberg noted. “Kids often act out to get attention. So, when we freely give our attention and presence, it leads to co-regulation.” Of course, perfection is not the goal. Siegel encourages:
“Instead of perfection, we should aim for presence.”
Whether at home or in the physical or virtual classroom, we can listen to children and help them feel safe, seen, and soothed. These lessons are applicable for adults as well, who can be “pro-social” leaders by making others feel seen, respected, and cared for. Pro-social, Siegel explained, means integrative. It is about “honoring differences and promoting compassionate linkages.”
To this end, Greenberg and others at CASEL have developed social and emotional learning (SEL) tools and programs that help children develop the following competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
Greenberg explained that social-emotional resiliency is about the ability to know oneself, to relate well with others, and to use one’s critical thinking skills to understand and resolve conflict. Having friends helps children build resilience as it teaches them to get along with others, listen well, and repair their relationships when needed.
There is a term in interpersonal neurobiology called “mindsight” which Siegel contends is the mechanism that undergirds social-emotional intelligence. It recognizes what is going on in one’s own life and the lives of others, leading to insight, empathy, and compassion.
While science reveals the relational nature of the mind and the self, Siegel and Greenberg pointed out that Covid-19 has also highlighted how interdependent we are. It has given us a new sense of the importance of our relationships and how they help regulate us. Siegel argued that denying our inherent interconnectedness prevents us from living a healthy, integrated life.
“Acknowledging the reality of interconnection is the first step towards a different way of living.”
The disruption we are experiencing because of the pandemic and the uprisings about racial injustice urge demand that we not return to “business as usual” but find a new way to live together on this planet.
Siegel acknowledged the challenges we are up against in that effort. “We have 50 million years in our primate history of in-group, out-group distinctions,” he shared. Under threat, we intensify these distinctions, and our ability to see the subjectivity, agency, and humanity of the “other” diminishes. Siegel pointed to the murder of George Floyd as an example of this. “The human being in front of you ceases to be a human. You see them as an object. You don’t think about their experience.”
Nevertheless, the brain is always open to growth and it is never too late to move into a more secure attachment style (which Siegel explores in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation) and compassionate way of relating to others. The individual and collective transformation we need is possible and begins with realizing that we are embodied, relational beings who are interconnected with all other forms of life on this planet. We can remake our governments, our systems, and our communities to reflect this core reality.
To learn more, visit Dr. Siegel’s website and explore the Garrison Institute’s Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education, or CARE, program.
Dan Siegel, M.D. is an author, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Founding Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. He also serves as the Medical Director of the LifeSpan Learning Institute, on the Advisory Board of the Blue School in New York City, and is a longstanding member of the Garrison Institute’s Board of Trustees.
Mark Greenberg, Ph.D. retired in 2019 as the Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research at Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development. He is the Founding Director of the Edna Bennett-Pierce Prevention Research Center, one of the Founders of CASEL, and one of the primary authors of the globally-renowned PATHS curriculum. He is a senior investigator on national and international research projects including Fast Track, PROSPER, and CARE.
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