Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Does Social Emotional Learning Have In Common With Video Games?


Easy to learn, hard to master.

This is the goal of every video game developer.  It is the hallmark of the gaming industry.  It allows a user to gain enough proficiency in a game so as to encourage further use, and gradual challenges to provide more and more complexity and effort.  It is a simple yet brilliant and complex task.

Along with many other reasons, this strategy is enormously effective.  According to some of the latest data over 60% of all households in the US have at least one person in the house playing video games 3 hours or more a week.  I think many individuals who work in high schools might find that figure a very conservative one.  Interestingly, the 2016 stats also point to an increased older group of users (26% are 50 years or older) as well as an increase in female players (41%).  This is no longer an adolescent boy's pastime.

I want to give you a sense of the prevalence of the gaming culture - it is an industry that has been tremendously successful at increasing game playing across both gender and age groups.

Easy to learn, hard to master.

Ironically, this is the strategy our brain uses to master social emotional learning.  I say ironically, because the prevalence of video game playing has contributed to the lack of mastery in social emotional learning, but that will be explored in another blog post.

Before we had all are critical thinking skills and the parts of our brain that helped us see the past, the present and the future, we had our feeling brain.  It is roughly 100 million years old. We felt before we reasoned and our feeling brain helped us survive. Your reasoning brain, the frontal cortex that is responsible for critical thinking, is roughly 40 million years old.

Your body took great pains to carefully conserve your feelings because they were critical for your survival.  Your feelings provide you with critical information about what is working, what is not working and most importantly, what needs your attention.

Your feeling brain, is deeply and intricately connected to your body.  As a result, social emotional learning does not happen as an intellectual process, it happens as a kinesthetic, physical process.  In practical terms, social emotional learning happens through feelings and through your body. The gateway points are play, physical contact and engagement with other human beings.  You need your body and your feelings to reinforce social emotional learning.

Just like video games, social emotional learning is easy to learn, hard to master.  In groups of children that have poor self regulation and low resilience skills, my strategies are to play a lot of "games" that provide children with practice at becoming aware of their bodies, getting comfortable with eye contact and spatial awareness. I will intentionally play high stakes, high energy games to give them practice at noticing big feelings and learning to manage them.

Practicing positive (or negative) social-emotional skills is easy.  It happens in the daily repetition of human connection, especially around humans where you feel valued and cared for. It happens in the daily repetition of physical chores and activities that contribute to the family household (and your body favours manual labour because of the millions of years in our evolutionary journey that required it for our survival). It happens in the daily repetition of play, especially physical unstructured play.  It happens in the physical practice of noticing your feelings, becoming aware of what is happening in your body and attending to them.

Mastering your social-emotional skills, on the other hand, is hard.  It is our lifelong practice.  It requires constant refinement, adjustment, failure, learning, success and more learning.  Levelling up requires more and more practice, slow response times, compassion instincts, and an ability to think about yourself and all the people around you. It means often making decisions that are unselfish.

Our job as educators, parents and life long learners is to fully engage in this lifelong practice.

It is also about modelling, encouraging and engaging children and youth to take the same journey. The work of passing this mastery on to future generations is one of the most important legacies we will leave behind.

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