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In a 2008 report, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London sought to increase understanding of how the social brain develops during adolescence. Blakemore used an image of a footballer missing a goal to illustrate the role of social and emotional learning and its embedment in everyday life.
Primarily she used the image to demonstrate how automatic and instinctive our social and emotional responses are. Within a split second of the footballer missing the goal, everyone is the crowd automatically adopts the same behaviour.
They even have the same facial expressions. Even the footballer adopts the behaviour, hands on head, mouth open as he slides across the grass.
The secondary aspect of our social and emotional learning Blakemore points out is how good we are as humans at reading others behaviour – reading facial expressions, gestures and the underlying emotions and feelings attached to these behaviours.
We don’t need to ask what these fans and the footballer are feeling, we instinctively know.
We can instinctively guess what they are thinking just by reading the cues from our own social and emotional learning.
Our social and emotional learning starts from day one – but perhaps it is at school where we extensively and rigorously test this learning through developing, maintaining and sustaining friendships and relationships.
In doing so, we truly begin to formulate these essential foundation blocks to life-long interactions with others.
As we transition into adulthood, our social and emotional learning enables us to navigate complex social structures and environments.
Developing meaningful connections with others provides us with safety, security, contentment and value in our lives. They help us to feel like we belong.
In 1999, Mendelson & Aboud identified many functions friendships may fulfil.
Powerful feelings of affection and satisfaction are gained through stimulating companionship providing help, intimacy, self-validation and emotional security.
LaGuardia supported this several years later noting that close relationships support basic needs for belonging, empathy and mutual engagement, through which growth and development can occur.
As social beings, with highly evolved social brains, being part of a group can be a very effective and powerful way to learn. Anthropologists and evolutionary theorists have spent hundreds of years researching group dynamics in relation to survival. We are often magnetised to others, just as our ancestors, in pursuit of shared goals had much to gain through cooperation and connection.
So what of those early social connections and networks? Each of us will have had different experiences of friendships in our formative years – so we seek out to explore which friendships provide us with the most meaning.
Which social connections do we most highly value and which are most beneficial to us as we refine our social and emotional learning? Is it better to have one friend – or to be part of a collective?
In 2016, in a UK study, Graber, Turner and Madill’s findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience.
Through their research, they found that the ability to recruit and maintain supportive friendships is an important asset to resilience. Factors such as social competency, demographic similarity, attachment style and mutual liking are all important influences on our friend selection and perhaps therefore, the subsequent associations we make.
Perhaps it is Sue Roffey who summarises healthy relationships best, writing: “Sharing the good times with others often enhances positive experiences and having emotional and practical support makes the worst of times more bearable”.
Graber and others also noted that whilst a single supportive close friendship may facilitate the development of a wider supportive friendship network and they can provide intimacy, support and companionship, they do not adequately meet all of an individual’s needs for social connection.
Adolescents who are under integrated and have very few friends are at a much greater risk for depressive symptoms.
As humans, we seek out social connections and if our efforts go unfilled, we are more likely to experience exclusion, loneliness and reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Additionally, should this friend move away, or chose one day to find new friends – a young person can be left socially isolated, rejected and disconnected.
Many teachers see examples of this, play out in own school grounds and classrooms.
Being a friend means providing comfort or assistance to another person and spending time together. As our number of friends increases, so too does the amount of time and energy we must invest in maintaining these relationships. This can very quickly outweigh the benefits.
Additionally, network cohesion also plays an important role in young people’s feelings of safety, security and identity in social groups.
Falci and McNeely, in 2009 stated “large cohesive networks support young people to share and coordinate social support to individual members, preventing the overburdening of any one young person in a group”.
Whereas a large fragmented peer network, consisting of many young people who are not connected to each other can be detrimental to a young person’s wellbeing.
Perhaps a young person has friends from their local sports club, family friends, a large school network of peers and some good friends from a previous primary school. With such competing demands for time, this young person could be left feeling stretched and overburdened, having an adverse effect on their overall wellbeing.
And what of the greatest fragmented social network of all? Social networking has changed the way students engage with each other and the world around them.
Whilst we know the internet has many benefits – we also know too much technology can be incredibly detrimental to a young person’s health and wellbeing.
A 2013 survey conducted in Ontario by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that 80% of students in grades 7-12 visit social media sites on a daily basis.
While we need more research to determine how social media and mental health are related, 47% of students who reported using social media for two or more hours per day were also more likely to describe themselves as lonely and depressed, and experience ‘fear of missing out’ on social events, the latest trends and achieving personal goals.
They also reported feeling more anxious, routinely comparing themselves to idealized messages and photos of their friends’, peers’ and celebrities’ social lives. This behaviour has been linked to young people developing unrealistic expectations about beauty and body image.
Many described experiencing and witnessing cyberbullying and online harassment. Furthermore many reported disturbance in quality and quantity of sleep due to late-night technology use and sleep, as we know, is crucial to healthy development and wellbeing.
The shocking contrast that this universal vehicle that promises to connect us – is for a frightening proportion of young people a contributing factor to them feeling lonely, depressed and inadequate.
So how can we as schools ensure we are creating effective and valuable opportunities for young people to connect face-to-face and how can we support young people to build positive and meaningful connections with others?
With around one in five students nationally, identified as having additional health and development needs, such as physical, developmental, behavioural or emotional conditions, we have a role as educators to ensure that all young people feel connected to their peers and to their school communities. We know connectivity and a sense of belonging in schools supports and promotes academic achievement and encourages engaged young learners.
Our Australian schools also have an incredibly rich diversity within the student population.
With approximately one in five primary school aged children and a staggering one in four year seven to year twelve students born overseas – as educators, there is a stronger role now, than ever before to foster a positive school culture for all students. One of acceptance, friendship and peer connectedness.
We hold a responsibility to enable social and emotional learning universally in schools to promote wellbeing and to transcend horizontal, rigid peer networks.
How effective are our young people’s peer groups and social networks if they only tolerate their own?
We need to encourage students to develop commonalities outside of their own social groups, sports teams and peer networks. We can empower young people as they strengthen their social and emotional learning to be empathetic, to see new perspectives and to walk in the shoes of others.
Feeling belonging and connectedness is one of the most important factors in resilience and psychological wellbeing, according to Beumeister and Leary and social and emotional learning is important for all young people.
Roffey adds to this writing: ‘It is the most vulnerable children in our communities who are most likely to be marginalised, suspended and excluded from school and it is up to everyone, including other students to make sure that they feel they belong’.
As humans we are designed to connect and to cooperate – yet we are also often competitive by nature, we find safety in familiarity and it often feels easier to ‘stick to what we know’.
Whilst competition is neither inherently good nor bad, after conducting a recent meta-analysis of over 40,000 students in the UK and the States, Curran and Hill, two UK University Professors urged schools to be mindful when fostering competition among young people in order to preserve good mental health.
They wrote; “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,”
Universities and employers encourage extremely high levels of competition amongst students to move up the social and economic ladder. Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. A positive focus on social and emotional learning nurtures positive emotions in young people. Positive emotions include a sense of belonging, feeling valued, safe, comfortable, cared for, respected and loved. Laughter releases oxytocin into our bodies – the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. These chemicals promote connectedness and resilience.
Positive peer connections not only build resilience in young people, they support an effective climate for learning. The emotions young people draw from these connections encourage focus, creativity and problem solving.
Through education, we have the most incredible opportunity to provide young people with opportunities to laugh, to learn, to feel connected, to sense belonging and to feel valued.
So when it comes to developing social and emotional learning in Australian schools- are we creating islands that compete or networks that conquer?
Blakemore Jayne-, Sarah (2008), Development of the Social Brain during Adolescence, 9, 267-277
Aboud, J; Mendelson M (1999), Measuring friendship quality in late adolescents and young adults, 31, 130-32
Graber, R; Turner, R; Madill, A (2016), Best Friends and Better Copping: Facilitating psychological resilience through boys and girls closest friendships, 2, 338-358
Roffery, S (2013) Inclusive and exclusive belonging -the impact on individual and community well-being, 1, 38-49
Falci, C; Mcneely, C (2009), Too Many Friends: Social Integration, Network Cohesion and adolescent Depressive Symptoms, 4, 2031-2061
Ontario Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2013), A Look at Peel Youth Grades 7-12.
Curran, T: Hill, A (2016), Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 201, 3, 27