How Social and Emotional Support Rewires Brains—and Schools

“Better recess creates better learning. Happier children learn better.”

 – Victoria Grau, Recess Supervisor, John Garvy Elementary School, Chicago, IL

“Happy kids learn better” may seem like good common sense—but it is also good neuroscience. Kids who easily return to a baseline sense of calm throughout the day have better learning outcomes. But staying calm takes a well-regulated nervous system, which isn’t something you can teach in a lesson plan. Healthy emotional regulation develops over time when kids experience a safe, predictable, caring environment. 

“We really have to think about what’s going on inside the brains of kids,” said Will Massey, a researcher at the Oregon State University who focuses on play and child development. 

 Massey recently led a training series for Playworks staff focused on the intersection of equity, trauma, and social emotional learning. He explained that our mental states—on a spectrum from calm to alert to terrified—influence our ability to learn. “There’s some research that shows that they might really affect our developmental level, or our IQ in the moment,” he said. 

Kids who experience trauma often have a mental state that is more keyed up at baseline; instead of going from calm to alert when something bad happens, they are more likely to go from alert to terrified. That shuts down the brain’s ability to process complex information, making both academic learning and social skills more difficult. Staying in an elevated state can also cause health problems down the line. 

“What we want to do,” Massey told Playworkers, “is to come up with strategies to help build environments to get kids to these more calm and alert states, so that not only can they learn new skills, but they can also use the skills they already have.”

Educators can draw on their own social and emotional skills to help kids stay calm, happy, and ready to learn. But to do that, adults need exactly the same kinds of support that kids do: things like predictability, belonging, and a sense of safety.

So how can schools help grown-ups be at their best, so that kids can be at their best?

Last year, John W. Garvy Elementary School partnered with Playworks to create a safe, healthy environment for both staff and for students, starting at recess. Their experience is a window into the kinds of strategies that can help adults flex their best social and emotional skills, so kids can learn better as well. 

Create consistent norms and expectations

Playing at recess can be an incredibly simple way for kids to regulate emotions and come back to class ready to learn. But recess can also be dysregulating, particularly for kids whose nervous systems are already on high alert—navigating a busy playground can feel overwhelming. At Garvy, like at many schools, recess had not always felt like a calm environment.

“You’d have two football games going into soccer games. Then you’d have five girls sitting in the middle of the field, just talking,” said Garvy recess monitor Victoria Grau. “Then you get little kindergarteners start to play tag in between the bigger kids. It was totally chaotic.”

Playworks staff helped the Garvy recess team re-evaluate the space and paint clear boundaries for different activities. They also taught the same games to students and staff. Now, the space is much more calming. “The boundary lines have helped tremendously,” said Grau. Students are less likely to run into each other, and trips to the nurse’s office are down. 

 Associate Principal Barbara Brodsky noticed that students better understand recess expectations; she also noticed that shared rules and clear boundaries were really helping adults. “Staff are not hesitant to redirect,” Brodsky wrote. It is much easier to maintain expectations than to constantly create them from scratch. 

 Playworks, Brodsky wrote, “showed me how to help my staff engage more and empowered me to have those conversations.” Building a shared vision for recess among both adults gives everyone a role in recess success—making everyone feel safe, empowered, and engaged on the playground and throughout the school day.

Use de-escalation strategies to help kids calm down

Clear norms can make recess less chaotic, but, even so, some kids will still feel big emotions. Adults can often respond with more empathy when they know that tantrums are often not intentional. In a Playworks training, Massey described a fictional child who gets called “out” at kickball.  

“He gets into this fear and terror response, maybe grabs the ball and kicks, maybe pushes a kid,” said Massey. “And from the outside we’re looking at this and thinking, ‘why is there such a big reaction to such a small thing?’” The key, Massey explained, is to remember that kids who have had to deal with traumatic stress may move quickly into high alert faster than their peers.

What’s going on, Massey explained, is that this child’s brain is defaulting to survival mode. In the moment, this kid has no access to higher-level social and emotional skills like empathy or problem solving. He also has no concept of time or consequences; right now, he really doesn’t “know better.” 

Massey explained that repetitive movement, like bouncing a ball, can help kids whose brains are still too activated to reflect. Next, feeling cared for can help kids center themselves further; then, taking a quiet walk with a trusted adult can also help. While raised voices can escalate emotions, softer, slower voices can de-escalate. 

Kids, Massey says, “co-regulate” with adults, so how adults show up matters. But adults, of course, can also leave empathy and self-control behind under stress. Creating a calmer recess environment can help adults stay grounded enough to support kids who are struggling. So can making sure recess aides have enough support and backup.

Concrete practices also make a big difference in kids’ day-to-day experiences. At Garvy, Grau said, kids used to come back to class still rowdy and fighting. Playworks helped change that through a sequenced end-of-recess routine that moves from higher to lower energy activities. For kids who are still high-energy but no longer experiencing a fight or flight response, group activities can help to de-escalate.

“Now,” said Grau, “we’re doing attention getters to calm them down. We’re doing some calming exercises where they breathe in and out—‘focus, recess is over…’—before they go back in the building.” 

Grau, like many recess supervisors, is a paraprofessional, who usually works one-on-one with kids. 

While many teachers are experts at getting large groups of kids to focus, many of these techniques were newer to Grau. “It sounds minor,” she said, “but when you’re trying to get 100 kids in line and in order and calmed down, knowing how to do that is huge.” Schools can help kids by making sure that all adults on campus have access to the same bag of tricks.

Create opportunities for belonging

According to Massey, simply feeling left out can trigger a “flight” response in the brain. In addition to shared norms and strategies for staying regulated, opportunities to feel included are also important for learning and for health.

For Garvy teacher Carol Navarro, feeling included helps build the resilience to try and try again. “My experience of gym class was: the strongest play. To this day, I hate exercising. It’s fossilized in me: ‘I’m not good enough.’” Navarro said. “I don’t even like to sweat because it makes me nervous.”

For Navarro, the Playworks approach to play was eye-opening. Instead of yelling, “you’re out!” kids say, “good job, nice try” and give each other high fives. And instead of getting “out” of games and being out for the rest of recess, Playworks tweaks traditional game rules so that it is always quick and easy to get back “in.”

This approach means more kids feel included and fewer feel like Navarro did: like they belong on the sidelines. She described one student on the autism spectrum who usually preferred talking to teachers over playing with peers. When he learned a Playworks tag game called Grump Island, he changed his mind. “He likes to be the Grump!” Navarro said. Playing tag gave this student an easy way to belong.

That sense of belonging also means more physical activity, which is good for both emotional regulation and long term mental and physical health. Navarro experienced that herself, while playing Playworks games with her students for fun. “My Fitbit, when I played games with the kids, called that my exercise for the day,” she said. “I would get a double bonus!”

Now, Navarro has taken the idea that “nobody has to sit out,” back into her classroom. Third grade is a benchmark testing year in Chicago, Navarro said. “They get to be like, ‘I can’t make a mistake.’” She reminds students of recess to reassure them in the classroom: “If you get tagged,” she tells them, “you’re gonna come right back in.” 

She uses a word that Garvy’s Playworks coach taught the kids: resilience. “It was just a bigger punch, a better vocabulary word than just, ‘It’s OK to make a mistake,” Navarro said.

Navarro is a cheerleader for this mindset of inclusion and resilience because she experienced it herself: Garvy’s Playworks coach invited her to join the kids during a monthly class game time. “It wasn’t like, ‘We need you here to help discipline these children,’” she said. “It was, ‘You’re here because you’re a part of the team. And we want you to be part of our game.” 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, experience counts for even more. Experiencing the empathy, resilience, and self-regulation that her kids experienced in Playworks games helped Navarro internalize those lessons for herself.

“I didn’t grow up with this stuff,” she said. “It’s teaching us skills and we use them too! Believe me, I like to give myself a time out once in a while and remind myself, ‘good job, nice try!’ because I get very frustrated with my own self!” Especially after a few difficult years, Navarro said, “We all deserve to give ourselves a little grace. Playworks was my therapy.” 

Playworks partnered with over 25 health and education nonprofits to craft a comprehensive blueprint to create more healthy schools. The Healthy Schools Ten Roadmap features hundreds of opportunities for action on the federal, state, and local levels. 

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