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'One Size Will Not Fit All:' Q&A with Dr. Richard Davidson | NeuroConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our NeuroConnections blog series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

NeuroConnections logoRecently, I had the good fortune to speak with neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Davidson. Dr. Davidson is the founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research ranges from the study of mental and physical health and illness to meditation/compassion training (he’s friends with the Dali Lama!) Additionally, as it best relates to our work here at ExpandED Schools, he has an entire line of research devoted to the neuroscience of social, emotional and academic learning. For those looking for a summary of his work in this area, I encourage you to check out this video.

Katie Brohawn: Both formal educators as well as the after-school and expanded learning fields are beginning to place more and more emphasis on the importance of social-emotional learning. (How) does neuroscience support this trend with respect to the importance of developing these skills in and outside the classroom?

Richard Davison: First, (the neuroscience research shows that) SEL skills are predictors of major life outcomes – for example: antisocial behavior, health, financial planning and success, and successful interpersonal relationships. The data clearly show that features of emotional intelligence are better predictors of life outcomes than traditional cognitive measures, underscoring the value and importance of SEL. Secondly, neuroscience teaches us that the brain circuits that are important for SEL interact with circuits that are important for cognitive learning – so if one is anxious, stressed or emotionally unbalanced, this has deleterious effects on the circuitry for other types of learning. These circuits are intricately intertwined, suggesting that emotional balance and good emotional skills are really important for other kinds of learning. And I would say that the third important insight from neuroscience is that the circuits that are important for SEL exhibit high degrees of plasticity – these circuits are being constantly shaped by experiences, environment and training – and so the work we do in this space should be more intentional and we should take more responsibility for the healthy development of our children.

KB: The majority of students we serve come from low-income communities typically plagued by high, chronic stress. One area of your research focuses on the long-term impacts of early experiences/early life stressors on brain circuitry. (See here.) In the face of findings like these, how can you convince educators, some of whom don’t have children enter their classroom until adolescence is already underway, that they can still have an impact? Can they make up for what is done to the brain after years of early life stress?

RD: I don’t know for sure whether we can make up for all of that early stress. What we do know is that the brain exhibits plasticity and there are heighted periods of plasticity/sensitive periods around the onset of schooling (kindergarten) and adolescence. These are two periods we can take advantage of. I think we don’t know at this point in time exactly how malleable these circuits are and the extent to which the deleterious impact of adverse early life experience can have. We have a moral obligation to explore this, and certainly the data from the impact of high quality early interventions suggests that there is potentially great benefit to such programs, and the earlier you can begin the better, (See brand new study from Dr. Davidson’s lab here.) But I would also say it’s never too late.

KB: What do you see as some of the biggest misconceptions regarding adolescence/adolescent development?

RD: I don’t know what the misconceptions are, but from a neuroscientific perspective, one of the challenges that is unique about adolescence is that puberty onset is occurring earlier and earlier. You can easily see this if you look over the course of the last 100 years in Western countries. And yet the regulatory systems in the brain are on a different developmental time course that are not influenced by the same factors that decrease the onset of puberty. And so we have for the first time in human history, a really prolonged period of adolescence – prior to the full maturation of the neural systems that are important for regulation. This is a prescription for serious problems, and one of the things that we see today is the expression of that long gap. And so to the extent that interventions can help build regulatory capacity and have that regulatory capacity come on line earlier would be beneficial. (Note: For more on this topic, see our Q&A with Dr. Laurence Steinberg)

KB: What does brain research tell us about education policies? Are there certain policies that should be put into place or changed based on what the research tells us?

RD: Certainly issues of getting adequate sleep and school start times are huge. We have a national sleep debt in this country in addition to our economic debt, and sleep debt exacts a critical toll on our children.  And so to the extent that we can alter the timetable of our classes and ideally start later, that would be enormously helpful.  

There are all kinds of other things that can be brought into play in terms of how our school environments are arranged – ways of better cultivating focused attention, having spaces where kids can go that are free of some of the more potent distractors that interfere with their capacity to learn – these are things that need to be critically explored.

Lastly, being out in nature can be beneficial, and so having those kinds of opportunities is ideal – all these things need to be explored. We don’t have a lot of systematic evidence - there are tidbits here and there that all underscore the need for more research in this area.

KB: We’ve been thinking about the importance of summer learning and work experiences.  What sorts of experiences like these area ideal from a neuroscience perspective?
RD: It’s important to recognize that one size will not fit all. Everything we learn about neuroscience is that brains are unique and that different children have different cognitive and emotional potencies. It’s important to take those things into account when offering experiences to children that may be beneficial – what’s beneficial for one is not necessarily beneficial for all. Having said that, I think experiences that maximize a child’s ability to regulate his/her attention and emotions are absolutely key. There are many ways of doing that, but those are two skills that underlie fundamental outcomes that determine life success. And so, harnessing opportunities that enable children to learn those skills would be an enormously valuable contribution.



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