How we can use brain science to inform educational innovation

First: Understand how relationships matter

By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

(This essay is adapted from The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional and Academic Development (SEAD): How Emotions and Social Relationships Drive Learning. By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Linda Darling-Hammond and Christina Krone. Published by the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.)

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 different contexts and experiences, therefore presents a critical opportunity and responsibility for education.

Over about the past 15 years, huge strides have been made in the science behind how the brain develops, how that development relates to thinking and the settings and contexts that are conducive to brain development and therefore to learning.

Perhaps the most striking, fundamental insights that have emerged from my lab and from the broader field of developmental neuroscience over this time are these: Human brain development requires social relationships, emotional experiences and cognitive opportunities—and the quality of these relationships, experiences and opportunities influences how the brain develops, and hence how a person thinks and feels. Though healthy human environments can vary greatly on their specific characteristics and cultural features, when a person’s world is seriously impoverished on any of these dimensions, brain development and the learning that depends on it are compromised. When a person’s world is enriched on these dimensions, brain development is facilitated and learning is enabled. While environments affect brain development across the lifespan, the most vulnerable periods are those in which the brain is most actively changing: prenatal development through childhood, adolescence, the transition to parenthood and old age.

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 academic learning and personal development than those that undermine or are inconsistent with brain science. And the brain science is unequivocal: in addition to nutrition, sleep and low exposure to toxins, children’s social-emotional experiences of family, school and community are paramount—directly and indirectly impacting the brain networks that undergird cognition and intelligence. Social-emotional experiences teach the brain what to attend to, and ready the person for academic learning.

What are the insights for education? To provide purposeful learning opportunities for young people—and strategic opportunities for brain development—requires educators to attend to the development of the whole child in context, and to the need for aligned partnerships throughout the community that can support children’s and their families’ health and wellbeing. Educating the whole child, and engaging families and communities in this process, is not just a luxury for those with the opportunity and the means, or a remediation strategy for the underprivileged or underperforming. It is a necessity for all children.

Genuinely pursuing an integrated, whole-child approach to education will require substantial innovation in policies and practices, but children’s brain development, and the learning that depends on it, are at stake. Here at USC Rossier, we have a century-long legacy of working on behalf of schools, teachers, families and children. Now we have new tools and insights, including those from neuroscience.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at USC Rossier and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She is President of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, and serves on the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.