Are They Enjoying the Journey?

The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development recently published a report on the relationship between personal emotions, social relationships, and learning. If you work with youth, manage youth programs, or research youth development, this short report is well worth your time. It effectively summarizes existing research on brain development, explains how emotions and relationships support learning, and connects research findings to education and practical work with youth in ways that encourage deep reflection.

The authors state that “the brain functioning that supports learning depends on social experience. The way individuals experience relationships in the home, community, school, and workplace influences their biological development, and hence how they live and think.” While this may not be groundbreaking for many educators or youth work practitioners, it is still a powerful (and much-needed) reminder that relationships with caring adults, peers, and family members play a key role in cognitive development. The report states that

“Supportive educational settings for adolescents ensure that they continue to have strong relationships with adults who know them well — often through school advisory systems or teaching teams that can personalize instruction and supports for students in and out of school.”

This type of approach can help young people develop a sense of agency, strong habits, a growth mindset, and self-regulation skills. As I read and re-read this report, I continued to ask myself: Do educational settings that I am familiar with provide this type of support? Are we building these types of optimal environments and relationships for and with youth? Do we place young people’s emotional and social experiences and needs at the forefront? How effective are our school systems and youth development programs in creating environments where youth can build meaningful relationships and engage in interactions that promote positive development?

The brain research discussed in this report makes it clear that personal emotions and social relationships drive learning. The more I reflect on the content of this report, the more I am reminded that we could be much better at providing social and emotional supports. Many young people today do not benefit from meaningful relationships for the simple reason that educational settings for adolescents tend to prioritize content and quantifiable knowledge over meaningful relationships and emotional development. Yes, we want all the right things for young people: academic success, sense of accomplishment and mastery, smooth progress from grade to grade, easy transition to life after high school, and a trouble-free entry into the labour market. These are fantastic expectations to have, and we should indeed be doing our best to support young people through these transitions. However, in our emphasis on academic milestones and development of essential skills we tend to neglect the importance of personal emotions and social relationships, including mentoring support that caring, non-parental adults can provide. Our school systems tend to treat the nurturing of psychosocial development or personal growth as an after-thought. At the very least, they de-prioritize them because our conceptions of success place academics first.

This Aspen report reminds us that social and emotional development is critical to brain development and learning. Young people succeed when their emotional and social experiences are prioritized, when we support their personal journeys of exploration and (self-) discovery, and when they are guided and supported towards self-regulation and a sense of agency. Our adult definitions of success, however, prioritize carefully pre-defined milestones and destinations. We can be much more effective in supporting young people if we focus instead on ensuring that they have what they need now and are enjoying the journey.