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On-Site Staff / Opinion / Staff Leadership and Management

Social-Emotional Fitness: Neophobia vs. Neuroplasticity

“What were you thinking?!”

“I can’t believe you did that!”

These are just some of the favorite phrases of “disbelief” we like to use as adults when we come face to face with mistakes made by youth. I know this personally and professionally.  I have two daughters ages 7 and 11, and I will admit that these words have been a part of my “go-to” statements when trying to figure out what led to them messing up.

When you understand the mental and emotional state of adolescence, the question referenced above is pretty absurd! Why? Because it takes the better part of the first two decades of our lives to FULLY understand and make decisions based on consequence.  In other words, WE ARE NOT THINKING for the first 20 years of our time on earth!

This is the beginning of understanding what so many of us know and hear about when it comes to Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions and make responsible decisions (CASEL) among other things.

Responsible decision-making is a skill set that students in grades K-12 acquire over the span of many years.  As afterschool practitioners, and those that lead and inspire our mentors, coaches, and youth workers, it is important for us to understand how to address mistakes with our students when they make them (because they will).  Cornering our students and demanding an explanation only makes matters worse.  During the elementary and middle school years, the adolescent brain does more self-preservation than proactive thinking.  Sure, from a cognitive standpoint, our kid’s brains are learning a whole lot! Having said this, their minds are always ensuring that their surroundings are safe and free from threat, that they have food, shelter, and physical and emotional protection.  When we corner our kids with our words, or in the physical sense, they cannot access the logical and executive functions of their brains.  They shut down, fight back, and run!

One of the best ways for our kids to develop strong social-emotional fitness is to engage them in conversation, letting them talk through the decision-making process leading up to a blunder. This allows them to establish healthier patterns of mental behavior.  We literally help our young people’s brains become nimble, flexible, and ready to learn.  This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity, the growth of lines of communication in the brain known as synapses. This is in direct contrast to what brain researchers call neophobia, a fear of learning anything new.  This process comes from our youth developing a rigid brain, focusing on surviving rather than thriving. This plays an important part in the overall teaching and learning environment in our classrooms.  We must communicate that there is safety in the risk of learning and applying new skills.  Mastery and skill development cannot progress when fear is the norm rather than understanding of “why” things happen

Understanding the adolescent brain is key to helping youth build their social-emotional fitness.  So, remember, the next time you are tempted to ask the question, “what were you thinking?” The answer is rooted in brain science!  They weren’t!

For breakfast, I had a steaming hot cup of coffee and a bagel. 

Author: @carlossantini

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