An Interview of
Dr. Mark Greenberg – Social-Emotional Learning and Learning to Read
Dr. Mark Greenberg is the Bennett Endowed Chair of Prevention Research in the College of Health and Human Development and the Director of the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State University. He is also a member of the leadership team of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Dr. Greenberg is the author of more than 100 articles and chapters on development and understanding aggression, violence, and externalizing disorders. Since 1981, he has been examining the effectiveness of school-based curricula (The PATHS Curriculum) to improve the social, emotional, and cognitive competence of elementary-aged children. Since 1990, he has served as an Investigator in Fast Track, a comprehensive program that aims to prevent violence and delinquency in families.
"Children who have difficulties maintaining attention are often children who also have difficulties regulating their emotions. And when that's the case and they face the challenge of learning a complex task like reading, that’s when their social-emotional development impacts their ability to learn the process of reading..."
"And so for many children we see another level, over time, developing – not that they just show anxiety or confusion or frustration in the task itself, but now they show it in approaching the task. This really becomes bad, because at that point, children are not learning to learn anymore..."
"...not just watching what part of their brain lights up when they're reading, but understanding the psychophysiology and the brain mapping together -- understanding how emotion and cognition are operating together in the reading process, is going to be very important."
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: It’s a pleasure to have this chance to speak with you. Perhaps we can begin with a sketch of who you are and how you’ve come to the work you do.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Sure, sure. So let me give you a little background. I’m the Bennett Chair of Prevention Research here at Penn State, and the Director of the Prevention Research Center. I’m trained as a developmental psychopathologist, a person who is interested in normal development and abnormal development, and how we can learn about and understand both of those together.
My interest in psychology came late. As an undergraduate I had little interest in it, until I met Mary Ainsworth, who studied attachment in babies. I became fascinated with the issue of how personality develops. As a result, I went to graduate school. And in graduate school studied attachment processes in young children with Bob Marvin. During my clinical training, I began to see children who were deaf and in most cases had very little speech and very little ability to hear.
At that point in the middle ’70s, there was a great deal of restriction on deaf children, and they were only taught to speak. But research had just been developing regarding deaf children of deaf parents. They only represent about five percent of all deaf children, because most deafness is either not genetic or it’s recessive rather than dominant. So, most deaf children are born in the unusual situation of almost never having deaf parents. But there is a small group of deaf parents that have deaf children. And when you look at their development, what you find is they develop more maturely, both socially, emotionally and academically. And it appears that a central reason is because they get sign language early, as an early natural language from their parents.
So I became interested in the new movement that was happening in the ’70s, which was allowing deaf children of hearing parents to begin to have early sign language input. The first early intervention programs in America had just begun to teach hearing parents and their deaf child sign language. My first research in this area examined whether the attachments between children that had early sign language and oral deaf children would be different. And that’s how my interest in this issue of emotional development and language began. What the findings indicated was that deaf children that had sign language early – back then we called it “total communication” – turned out to have more secure attachments to their parents, and their partners were less stressed, and their development was proceeding more effectively.
Now, things have changed a lot since then. We have cochlear implants and lots of other things going on in deafness. But I became interested, then, in following deaf children over time, preschoolers. And as I followed them into the school age, and I looked at young deaf adults, what I found is they had substantial social emotional deficiencies, which were not caused by deafness itself. It wasn’t the hearing loss that was causing the problem. It wasn’t a processing problem, it was the environments that they were growing up in. They had impoverished language for emotions. Because they were deaf, they couldn’t overhear things and they had much lower rates of incidental learning in everyday life.
As a result, I became interested in developing preventative interventions to promote the social emotional development of children, and specifically deaf children. In 1980, we began with the first version of the PATHS Curriculum. It stands for Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies. Now PATHS is recognized as one of the Blueprints for Violence Prevention and used in thousands of classrooms around the world. But at that point we were only interested in deaf children, and we developed a version in which we focused a lot on language and making language visible. So there are many things that we did in that early work for deaf children that turns out work very well for hearing children, having people talk out loud to themselves, having visual cues of words different places, et cetera, was very effective in cuing them in to the use of language, especially the language of emotions, and demonstrating that language can be used as a model – as a technique for reflection. What John Dewey talked about in the 1890s, Lev Vygotsky talked about it as a “second signal system.” But it’s this ability to have language creating a distance between your impulse to act and the action itself.
So I became interested in how language was related to social emotional development. And over time we’ve done many, many projects on this. We’ve done randomized trials with hearing children, deaf children, special needs children, children that are typically developing, all showing that when you develop high quality social emotional curriculum that could be used by teachers in the classrooms, you train teachers well, that you can develop improved social emotional competence as well as reducing problems, that is, reducing aggressive behavior, reducing depressive symptoms.
We have also been interested in the neuroscience correlates of these developments; that is, we believe that what we’re affecting when we teach children social emotional skills are the connections between the emotion centers of the brain and the frontal lobe. And as a result, I’ve written about the neuroscience issues in the field of prevention, although, I’ve only measured them very modestly, at best. But we have been able to show, for example, that children who improve more in their behavior when they are randomized to get this PATHS Curriculum, are children who also are showing improvements in their executive functions and their ability to show more effective inhibitory control and planning. I believe that that’s partly the result of the fact that they are learning to talk to themselves as they plan action, that the ability to use language to regulate behavior is probably one of the primary criteria of maturity, at least in our western culture.
David Boulton: That’s a great place to start, one that ties it all together. We’re interested in what we call “self-talk-story”, too, – how it is that children learn to talk to themselves.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right.
David Boulton: And so, what I hear you drawing attention to is how that self-talk is enabled by a certain level or quality of language that the child has. And to the extent that they have an impoverished internal vocabulary or communication system, their ability to communicate with themselves and others is constrained, which has an impact on their social and emotional development.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: I’m reminded of one of our other interviewees – Terrence Deacon – I don’t know if you’ve read his work, The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. He makes the point that language has become so powerful and important to us as an organism that children born with less than a whole brain will still develop a pathway through their brain to…
Dr. Mark Greenberg: to language
David Boulton: …to language.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah.
David Boulton: It’s got that kind of force driving its development.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah.
David Boulton: And I imagine it has an incredibly important emotional meaning associated with it, developmentally, and that there would be profound emotional consequences later if it’s not developing right.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: So let’s go deeper into that point.
Language and Emotion:
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Sure. Well, one entry to thinking about the developmental relationship between communication and emotion. That’s one of the wonderful ways in. Freud said that the only relationship you can have in your life that isn’t ambivalent is with a baby, because babies are completely present with you all the time and they tell you exactly how they feel every moment. In a momentary fashion their emotions are changing, they’re kicking their feet, they’re moving their bodies, they’re changing their facial expressions; they can’t lie. There’s no screen – a baby doesn’t think, “Well, I think I should wait five minutes before I tell my mother I’m angry, or I’m upset, or I’m scared.” They just literally show all their emotions as they act. Action and emotion are one phenomenon for a baby.
So as children begin to develop representational skills, including language, and they have another form of communication. They have this paralinguistic emotional communication in their bodies and faces, and now they have talk, they have language, symbolic representation. But while by eighteen months they have their first fifty words, and then language develops dramatically quickly after that – language is only serving one function at that point. And that function is to communicate to other people. Language is not yet truly serving a function of self communication. And that awaits the next phase which we think is somewhere between three and four years of age. It varies by child, so there are big individual differences.
But this is what Lev Vygotsky called the “second signal system,” or John Dewey talked about the “role of talk”. The issue here is now talk is not just to tell other people things, it’s to tell yourself things. And you see this in working with parents and being a parent. Trying to talk down a two or three-year-old that’s having a temper tantrum doesn’t work. As much as we’d like to use inductive discipline and talk to them, when a two-year-old is very upset, you really have to hold them or distract them, take them away from the situation. You can’t really talk them out of their emotion. In fact, it’s very hard to do that with adults many times. [laughs] But it’s not possible with two-year-olds, and that’s because when they’re upset and their emotions are coursing through their brain, the cognitive capacity to listen to language or to talk to themselves about what’s happening is just not present.
Somewhere between age three and four, this magic change begins to occur, in which children now begin to use language to represent things to themselves as they’re actually happening. And a perfect example of this is in our research we often use what’s call the “strange situation,” which is a laboratory situation to assess the quality of attachment in which the mother and the child are separated. And the mother plays with the child, and then leaves the room, and the child is in the room by themselves. And it’s often upsetting to them. Their heart rates are going up. Some are concerned where there mother is, even though she know she’s coming back. And some of them will begin to get a little weepy. But oftentimes they’ll look in the one-way mirrors we’re using to film through, and then they’ll say to themselves something like, “My mommy is coming back.” Or they’ll start to sing to themselves. They are using self-talk to manage their emotions.
David Boulton: Self-soothe.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Self-soothe, exactly. And this is the culmination of a major change in development, which is the ability to self-talk, which we think is related to now having the language centers of the brain and the frontal lobes take action to regulate affect, so that when people get very upset they can start to try to talk themselves down.
This developmental process is a key to our work in the PATHS Curriculum with four and five-year-olds, which is to teach them how to stop themselves, to stop and calm down when they begin to become upset. We do that by having them do both motor activities – we call it “doing turtle,” or for deaf children using the sign for turtle. The idea is partly to use motor activity that will not get you in trouble. The second is to take a deep breath through your nose, which is bringing down the heart rate. The third component is we tell children to tell themselves inside to stop, and then to ask themselves how are they feeling. So we’re using motor activity, we’re using heart rate regulation, and we’re using talk all together to help children move to that stage, and we’re seeing for the first time, rather than rolling on the floor when they’re upset, they’ll stamp their foot and say, “I’m angry. I’m really angry.” And by saying that, by using language, it can oftentimes – not always – but oftentimes substitute for that rolling around on the floor and having the tantrum.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right. So this is the change. This is the change we’re interested in in early childhood. You know the book by Robert Fulghum, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Well, its very similar to the psychoanalytic ideas, like Freud’s, that personality is formed by around age four or five. That is because it’s around that age that people gain the ability to have self-control, to monitor their behavior, to begin to use a language of emotions to understand that other people have different feelings, thoughts and perspectives than they do, and that they need to coordinate those two. And that’s the major sea change of development.
David Boulton: That’s very interesting and remarkable. What you’re describing seems to be a recapitulation of the process that made us human, in the sense that we went from a kind of instrumental use of language, as an external utility, to this verbal self-reflexivity, this “I am” from which we developed the skills and capabilities to interrupt and modulate ourselves in ways that weren’t just instinctive or automatic pilot.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. I think you’re right. This verbal self-reflexivity may recapitulate evolutionary processes, I believe, because it’s likely that language was first used for communication with others rather than for self-regulation. And now we’ve moved to a civilization, to a culture in which the self is paramount, and self-regulation is paramount, it’s even more necessary. Even in the past twenty or thirty years we see a major change in modern western cultures compared to less technological cultures in the need for the self to manage things. We live in a very complex society.
So for example, even when I was a child I didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. When I was a child, getting in trouble was something that would happen as soon as I’d misbehaved, because there were so many connections between my father and my mother and then my teachers, my neighborhood, the business people in our neighborhood, that as soon as something happened, they’d find out right away. I didn’t have to worry so much about my own self-regulation, because I knew I was also being regulated by the people around me. And that’s how most all communities in which humans have developed work. That is, until very recently, children were known to everyone – adults were known to everyone in the community. And if someone had a deficiency in this behavior or that behavior, they didn’t have very good self-control, or they tended to be more impulsive, or they tended to be sadder more of the time, people were watching them all the time and helping them to regulate themselves.
In our very modern technological culture, we now have to manage ourselves probably more than we are evolutionary constructed to do so. We’re a culture of community, but we primarily live now in cultures of self. I think that’s very problematic– we’re asking children at younger ages, and adults, even, to do things that probably are very difficult for most of us to do, given the way we’re constructed.
David Boulton: And our wiring, as it’s evolved, as it’s developed, didn’t set us up to do this; this is pretty much learned.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: This is pretty much learned, I believe. Now, that’s not to say that even thousands of years ago we didn’t have the ability to have self-control. In fact, we know from our religious traditions that the ability to have self-control, to transcend normal consciousness, was always present in the human condition.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: But the ability for everyone, for people at all levels of ability to be able to manage themselves in ways that they can be successful and optimize their development is very complicated given the rapid rates at which our culture changes.
David Boulton: Well, the distinction being that in the past we lived in an enmeshment with a community or a tribe or a group that was giving us more coherent feedback about what it was that we were doing. And now we live in a more fragmentary relationship with lots of different people, and we don’t have the same degree of reflection back from people, which informs how we develop self-control…
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. So we’ve placed a greater responsibility on the self, and at earlier and earlier ages. I see this happening even in, I would say, the last twenty to thirty years. As children are going to school earlier, they’re leaving the family culture, in that sense, earlier on in life. And I think it’s part of what we’ve often called the “American question”” that is, how early we can do things. I think, given the individualistic nature of our culture–much of which we don’t even realize — because it’s unconscious to us — is that we have placed more and more stress on the self’s ability to regulate at earlier and earlier ages. But paradoxically, when we help children to regulate at earlier ages, they’re pretty good at it. But we should understand this is not the normal context of the development of our species, or even a normal context of the development in most cultures of the world right now.
David Boulton: Right. And as you point out, we do want to help children develop earlier, better, self-regulation. And, at least it is something that they can feel in the reflection of other people. It isn’t as abstract or artificial as some of the other challenges we’re heaping on them at the same ages.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. I mean, all cultures have encoded ways to help children develop self-control. And there are also games. For example, we have games in American culture, part of the, basically, European tradition, like “Mother May I,” “Musical Chairs,” “Red Light Green Light.” I remember when I was a child, I’d play Red Light Green Light with my grandmother until it got dark at night, where I’d try to slink across the yard before she’d turn her head. And I remember in kindergarten we would play musical chairs. All the chairs would be set up in the middle of the room, we’d all run around the chairs, and when the music stopped, we’d all get to a chair. We’d laugh, it was lots of fun. But it was a self-control training game.
And all cultures have these mechanisms and cultural games that train these skills. [laughs] If we had a way for education to train these skills, it’d probably be much more difficult. But there are lots of games that children play all the time that are games about self-control. It’s a fun skill to learn. It’s a skill that gives children a sense of competence. And what we find is when we teach kids these skills in the PATHS Curriculum, or other kinds of social-emotional curriculums, the children get a great sense of confidence, they feel more mature, they feel more in control of themselves. And that’s a very powerful, positive feeling.
David Boulton: Right. One of the things I got when you were describing PATHS was that in addition to helping children develop these self-talk methods, it’s also dis-entraining the kind of automatic propulsion that would otherwise happen from triggering off whatever was going on.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: And these games provide an analogous mechanism of turn taking–of bumping up against failure or frustration or something not going right–but learning to deal with that without necessarily going off the end.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. So one of the goals of teaching children to be more social- emotionally competent is not making sure that they’re always happy, or that everybody feels good. The point is the most important thing in our development from a social-emotional standpoint is to learn how to put into words what feelings we have, to ourselves and others, because when those feelings can be put into words, they can be known and they can be managed.
So for example, there are many emotions that are confusing to us, even as adults at times. For example, it’s often much more comfortable for most people to feel angry than it is other emotions, because anger is an emotion that, for biological reasons, makes us strike out. Our heart rate goes up, we tense, we want to act out. Anger makes you want to punch, fight, to push away. And that’s a very comfortable emotion for many people. It’s often much easier to tell someone you’re angry than it is to say you’re quite disappointed.
It’s often the case that we misidentify anger. So for example, we’ll often see people who are feeling jealous, and we’ll misperceive them as feeling angry. Now, if you feel jealous, but people think you feel angry, they’re going to treat you much differently. If you understand what jealousy is as a child and can identify when you’re feeling jealous, and then tell people you’re feeling jealous of them rather than angry at them, they’re going to treat you much differently.
Even in adulthood, of course, we have the problem of misidentifying feelings all the time. It’s one of the major issues in adult relationships. A perfect example is the issue of feeling shy versus conceited. When people are quite shy, they don’t strike up conversations and oftentimes other people will perceive them as being conceited, or they’ll attribute to them an emotion that’s radically different from shyness, and as a result, treat them much differently. So the ability to both recognize and put emotions into words has enormous power.
We did a study of about 300 second, third and fourth graders, in which we interviewed them about emotions. We asked them to talk about different emotions. We looked at a developmental understanding of emotions and their level of behavior problems. We matched them on reading achievement and IQ. And then we looked at kids who had high, medium and low behavior problems as reported by teachers in their classrooms. What we found was, even when we equated them for reading ability and for IQ, what we found was that, the children who had more behavior problems were less able to talk about emotions.
The children who are having the behavior problems are the ones that usually show their emotions much more often. They’re the ones who are often more angry, more jealous, more sad, more upset. So the ability to feel a lot of emotions is not the same thing as the ability to communicate about them, to talk about them, or reflect on them.
David Boulton: To be able to modulate more finely because of your ability to reflect on emotions and communicate them.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. So self-reflectivity, is a developmental skill here that many children learn naturally, but many don’t, as we know by the rates of behavior problems in our culture and addiction problems. The ability to know how you feel, to be able to plan ahead so you can manage your feelings effectively.
David Boulton: And ‘planning ahead’ is also constructed out of language.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right, yeah.
David Boulton: I mean, the difference between the baby that doesn’t lie and someone who does… you could almost say the baby lives in a comparatively absolute now.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. We’ve shown this with the effects of the PATHS Curriculum, on children’s teacher-rated, externalizing behavior and internalizing problems. Children–who are randomized to get the classroom that has the PATHS Curriculum compared to those that don’t–over time are reported to have lower behavioral problems and less withdrawal, depression and anxiety. Findings also show that this is mediated by changes in their planning abilities. So for example, even though we’ve never taught them anything in the PATHS Curriculum about planning in a cognitive situation–
David Boulton: In an explicit, mechanical way….
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Explicit, right.
David Boulton: …but nonetheless it’s implicit in–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right. We find significant effects on the Mazes Task of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale, which is a task – a timed task–so there’s some anxiety involved. And there’s emotion involved in everything, but especially in timed tasks. They have to represent, with blocks, pictures – they have to move blocks to make them look exactly like blocks on the picture. And this ability, of course, is often mediated by the ability to talk to yourself, to plan ahead. So you’re looking at this block, you’re looking at the picture, and you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I think I need to rotate it this way,” or, “It doesn’t look quite right.” And that self-regulative talk is part of the success in doing the task.
What we show is that children who have a better social-emotional development, especially as a result of intervention, do significantly better on those tasks, even though they’ve never been trained. And that ability to do better on these tasks is what partially explains the effects on children’s anxiety and depression.
David Boulton: That makes perfect sense.
A Critical Developmental Window:
I’d like to step back to this critical developmental window that this is happening in. This is important because the country seems to be racing towards universal Pre-K and wants to reach down through some generalization that looks like it’s four years old or so. In some respects it’s an important step for the system as a whole to recognize the importance of helping children earlier. On another level, the trajectories that we’re talking about are forming–and in really important ways have been forming–long before we can reach them institutionally. I want to draw that out in terms of both what you said about early language development, the vocabulary explosion and its relationship to self, the beginning of turning inward to self-reflectivity, and that critical time window. Let’s expand this critical developmental window when all this is happening.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Well, there are many changes including a rapid expansion of language and the ability to take other people’s points of view, to begin to have self-control, to begin to do what we call “social problem solving,” to recognize that you have a problem, and that rather than just habitually respond to it, that you can actually think, “I could do this, I could do this, I could do this.” These all happen around the ages of three and a half to five. We see these rapid changes in development, which we believe are related to changes in the neural connections, the large growth of connections between the frontal lobe and the other aspects of the brain, both language centers and the emotion centers of the brain. And that’s why the frontal lobe is called “executive function,” because it is the executive that integrates emotion, reasoning, language aspects, and makes decisions based on all those characteristics, and then sends it to the motor neurons for action.
So this dramatic change that begins–just begins–between three and five in frontal lobe development, is something that’s going to slowly develop now across time. There was a belief until recently that the frontal lobe may mature by ages twelve or thirteen, but it’s now clear that it’s the last maturing part of the brain. It won’t mature until the twenties, we believe, and therefore it’s the part of the brain that’s most affected by experience. It’s the least genetically determined part of our self, if you will, and therefore, the most likely to be modified by what parents do, what teachers do. Families, schools, peer relations, the nature of our communities, etc. are all shaping the frontal lobe’s development.
David Boulton: So in that sense, it’s more like the center of our learning, in a way, in that it’s regulating how we are present and interacting with things that we’re encountering, but it’s not as driven by our genetic neurobiology as by our experiences.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. The frontal lobe really truly is the center of experience, in a sense. It’s taking all experience in, it’s making decisions about how to react to it. And that’s what makes us more and more able – that’s what makes seven-year-olds able to sit in the classroom in spite of the fact that they may be bored or angry. It’s what allows us to sit in a lecture hall all day and listen to speakers in spite of the fact that we may be fantasizing about being on the beach. A two-year-old doesn’t do that. A two-year-old gets up out of the chair and walks away. But this frontal lobe ability allows us to have more and more ability to manage ourselves, to know how we feel at the same time, and to manage our behavior to meet the needs of a current task.
That’s why we don’t have desks in kindergartens and in preschools, and we shouldn’t have them, because children are not ready to sit at desks. It doesn’t meet the needs of their fundamental activity at their age. Most seven-year-olds can sit at a desk for reasonably long periods of time because their frontal lobe has developed enough now that they can monitor and sustain their attention. In spite of the fact that they want to go out to the playground and play, they can still maintain attention for a relatively long period of time. A three-year-old doesn’t do that.
David Boulton: Is there a correspondence between the explosion of language at three to five years old and what you’re describing?
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s explicit research showing that there’s a relationship between the explosion in language and these changes in the frontal lobe, but it’s very likely that that’s the case.
David Boulton: I would think that some of your work with deaf children and the differences you experienced there would shed some light on that.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Well, the fact that deaf children are behind in many of these social-emotional tasks is probably in part due to language, because they are not different in their other cognitive abilities. Most deaf children fundamentally are normal in every way except they can’t hear. And as a result of not hearing, they have less language, they have less vocabulary, et cetera. So where you can’t unquestionably attribute the social emotional immaturity to the absence of language, it’s very likely.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: The more language we have, the better.
David Boulton: I am not thinking of language as a phenomenon, but in this case as the mediator of the conversation that’s going on inside–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: –that builds up to this level of having reflection, control, regulation and so forth, that’s also building up the frontal lobes.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. There is some controversy about this. Some Piagetians believe that symbols can do the same things without language. But Hans Furth, for example, was a cognitive psychologist who studied deaf children. He believed that deaf children could do many of the things that Piaget talked about such as concrete operations, independent of the fact of that they didn’t have language. But the more we studied this, the more we realized that language is an essential component here.
And very interesting research on theory of the mind, for example–what we used to call “perspective taking” in the ’70s, or the ability to take another person’s point of view or understand that different minds have different theories of action–clearly this is all at least partly mediated by the ability to talk and the explosion in language.
Different Language Environments:
David Boulton: So to that extent then, what I want to do now is come in from another angle. Let’s connect the Hart-Risley domain of work, relative to different developmental trajectories based on language exposure. And in particular, one of the points that they make, which bears on our conversation today, is the differences in ‘kinds of talk’……the business-talk versus the open-ended, turn taking, extensional modes of conversation, and the affect qualities of those two–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: –such that parents who are more taciturn are basically creating an environment where there’s a much greater relative percentage of negative emotional stuff going on. How the volume of language, and then the kinds of language, is affecting children’s trajectories, which feeds into where we just were.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. Well, there’s no question that the amount of language input a child gets is critically important. We know that, for example, low-income children are exposed to much less communication. They hear fewer words, and that dramatically affects their experience. This is one of the major roles of early childhood education in America. Head Start programs create an environment in which children are exposed to lots of language, and not only just the amount of language, but the richness of it. Because language is not just about getting people to do things, “Come here, come there,” but it’s about explaining experience. The more that we use inductive language to explain experience and to encourage children to express themselves openly, the more likely they are to develop better language skills, as well as increase their cognitive abilities, because language and cognition, in that sense, can’t be separated at this age.
Emotionally Meaningful Language:
David Boulton: Something I found interesting, relative to theory of mind work, is Patricia Kuhl’s work on the development of children in relation to qualities of parentese they get and how the power of language is connected to its affective meaning. Children can be in a room with a television set on where there’s all kinds of language happening, but it doesn’t have the same meaning for them–it’s not as rich, they’re not pulled into it. The person – the connection–isn’t there, so it’s not just language, it’s language happening in the channel of importance at an emotional level.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right.
David Boulton: Right. So maybe you could speak to that.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Well, you know, Piaget talked about emotion and cognition. What he said is that there is no cognition without emotion. What he said, basically, is that all cognition and action is driven by people’s emotions. So to the extent that we’re in situations that are emotionally warm, emotionally stimulating, we’re likely to learn better. And so language– when we embed language in its emotional context–is very important.
We know that when children hear language on television it may build their vocabulary but it doesn’t build their ability to express themselves. Expression is a result of a reciprocal relationship in which there’s turn taking, and in which there’s emotional warmth. The more comfortable a child feels, especially when they’re younger, the more they’ll talk. And when they don’t feel comfortable, they clam up. So the ability to have a warm, reciprocal, secure relationship for children is critical to the opening up of this flower of language. Language is contextual just like everything else, and emotion drives both children’s cognitive abilities and their language abilities.
Language, Emotion and Reading – How Early?:
David Boulton: Excellent. So we see this really powerful correspondence between the richness of language exposure, the affective consequences of the kind of language that’s going on, and the threshold of emotionality–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah.
David Boulton: –in the emotions that are happening. And it’s setting the stage not only for the kind of self-regulation that you were just talking about, but for how their trajectory into learning to read forms. And all of this is happening and has established some inertia in trajectory by the time the children are three?
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Somewhere around this time.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: I don’t know, David.
David Boulton: Okay. Well, what would you say, as far as that goes?
Dr. Mark Greenberg: I would say that the first five years are very important in life, but the next five years are just as important. And while we know a lot about how language, emotion and cognition are forming– especially in this period of three to six years of age–and there’s no question that it’s a perfect time for intervention. We know that we can help children to become both emotionally and cognitively more competent at that age period, this is a continuing saga. We also know that children who receive good quality, social-emotional environments, for example, through school curriculums, even all the way through adolescence – these curriculums, that is, are likely to have an impact on both their own self-reflectivity as well as their ability to manage themselves.
So while early is important, we don’t want to confuse early with what’s necessary for development. There’s often a sense in American psychology and American policy these days that if we just do something really good early, then we’re finished. Of course early environments are good for children. They’re important because of brain maturation, but for children to become healthy adults who contribute to the wealth of society, from a community standpoint, a tax paying standpoint, a policy standpoint, it’s important that we have environments that are healthy for them throughout their development. So taking poor children in America and giving them fantastic early childhood programs but keeping them in neighborhoods where the schools are poorly provisioned, teachers are poorly trained, curriculums are not up to date is not going to solve the problem of development in adolescence. We know development doesn’t work that way. While early is important, we don’t want to mistake its importance for making it paramount.
David Boulton: Jack Shonkoff, talking about the “sensitive periods of development” from a neuroscience perspective, and others whom we’ve talked to essentially say: look, there’s no question that there’s sufficient neuroplasticity to affect children’s trajectories throughout the long span of development. But in terms of neurological ecology and efficiency, if children haven’t developed a sufficiently robust level of language processing in the three- to five-year-old range, then their trajectory relative to what’s necessary to break through the wall of literacy, for example, a year or so down the road, is off kilter to that task.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: And that puts them on a dangerous trajectory in general. It’s not that we can’t remediate it–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right.
David Boulton: –but it’s many times less efficient neurologically and systemically—
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: –in terms of strain on the learner and cost to the system.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right. So, rich and complex language environments in early childhood, there’s no question that they’re essential to help children set up the skills now to accomplish the challenge of reading. And we know that that’s also related to having warm environments. So warm, responsive parents and teachers that expose and engage them in frequent and productive communication are critical for early reading development.
David Boulton: Okay. Let’s zero in on reading development. From three-years old to fourth grade there’s this developmental trajectory that we’ve been talking about. There’s also this unnaturally confusing code processing challenge – a challenge which has no precedent in our social-emotional or cognitive evolutionary processes. So children have to have a certain level of language proficiency, meaning both vocabulary richness and phonemic awareness differentiation. They also need to operate at a processing speed that leaves enough processing power, so to speak, to assemble this virtual language experience. But, and here’s where we connect again, they also need a strength of self to stay in the ‘couldn’t be otherwise’ frustration without emotionally bailing out. That, too, is developed in this earlier window and it has less to do with the mechanics of reading skills, and more to do with the social-emotional self-regulation that you’ve been describing. All of these things hit together in the takeoff to reading.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right. One of the really important things that comes together in early childhood in this three- to five-year period is not only children’s ability to regulate their emotion and to begin to know how they feel and take others’ points of view, but it’s to maintain attention. And attention is what we often call a shuttlecock of emotion, that children who are able to maintain attention for longer periods of time are able to meet all kinds of challenges, challenges in their peer relationships, ability to monitor what their parents are doing [laughs] and to link to them, but also now to face the challenges of the first aspects of formal education.
And one of those, of course, is preparing for the reading challenge. Children who have difficulties maintaining attention are often children who also have difficulties regulating their emotions. And when that’s the case and they face the challenge of learning a complex task like reading, that’s when their social-emotional development impacts their ability to learn the process of reading. Here we’re not talking primarily about the mechanics of reading, but an approach to a task that requires high cognitive and attention demands.
David Boulton: Excellent.
I am both trying to make sure that we talk about certain points, but I also want to stay wide open to discovering new ones. I greatly respect where you’re coming from, and I want to make sure that anything that you think is important to share gets shared here.
Three Levels to Consider:
Dr. Mark Greenberg: When we think about the social-emotional issues, there are three levels we can think about in terms of how social-emotional development–social-emotional competence–affects reading and other complex tasks. The first, really, is the macro level of a classroom, or of a home environment. We know that in environments that feel safer or warmer, that are easier to take risks in, children will be more creative. They’ll attend more, and they’re more likely to be successful. So to the extent that a family creates a warm learning environment, a teacher makes a classroom like a warm family, children feel protected and safe and they’re likely to take more chances. So at the macro level we see social-emotional processes affecting children’s abilities to face challenges like reading.
The second level is in actual relationships. We know that teachers and parents who have warm relationships but high expectations for children, and parents who have warm relationships but high expectations for children, have children who are going to work more for them. And for anyone who has seen a child work with two different teachers, or with two different tutors, it becomes obvious that certain personal qualities of teachers, tutors or parents can draw out skills in children that they didn’t appear to have.
And this is what Lev Vygotsky called a “zone of proximal development.” That is, we’re interested in an environment that surrounds them, that brings them to the next level, where there’s a zone of development they’re just about ready to reach. And if they’re in an environment with a teacher, a mentor, a parent, a tutor, who is able to develop a relationship with them, who understands how they behave and think, then that individual is much more able to draw them to the next level.
That’s what good learning or mentoring is about. It doesn’t happen in a context in which there isn’t a sense of trust in a relationship. So like all aspects of cognition, they’re somehow surrounded by emotion and relationship. We are human beings and human beings are cultural beings. We do almost nothing in our world alone, as children or as adults. And thus, almost all of our activities are affected either positively or negatively by the other people we’re around. It’s the way we work.
Now, a third level is the direct relationship to the reading process. Now let’s go inside the child’s brain and their physiology and consider the role of emotion processing. When children read, or try to pay attention to something, they experience emotions that are coursing through their body and have physiological reactions that are related to those emotions. This emotion processing impacts their ability to pay attention and recruit their cognitive skills. The more they feel upset, anxious, distracted, the more likely that the emotion centers of the brain are affecting their ability to think and concentrate.
So children, as they become more and more upset are just like adults; when you become very upset, you make very poor decisions, and so do I. It’s not too different for children. The more they feel angry, sad, even excited, the less likely they are to think clearly… or attend to the task; and when you have a complex task like reading, the less likely they are to be effective. Now, that’s the first part of that internal aspect and the level of emotional arousal people have is going to affect their ability to attend and to learn.
Then when you get into a task like reading, which is difficult and often frustrating for children, especially early in the process–when they begin to feel disappointed, angry, bored, they lose that sense of curiosity and interest in the task. They begin to say things themselves like, “This is no fun. I’m no good at this. My mom thinks I can’t do it.” As these cognitive attributions begin to develop children start to feel, “I’m no good at this” and their emotional interest in the task begins to decline rapidly. Then their attention wanders and then you see another level of problem with the task. It’s not just their emotional arousal, because we’re all varying in emotional arousal all day. But now we have the cognitive attributions that “this task is too hard,” and “I’m never going to be good at it.” And when those attributions kick in, now we have another level of emotion regulation difficulty. The more that that happens, especially in a classroom context in which children of all levels of processing are trying to manage the same tasks with one teacher, this is where children start to get turned off to reading and learning processes.
David Boulton: Excellent. I really appreciate the three-point overlay.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Thanks.
Emotions Consume Processing Bandwidth:
David Boulton: Relative to this last point, I’d like to see if we can take it another step. Reading requires an enormous amount of cognitive bandwidth. One thing that’s now clear is that the more we’re occupied with lower level code processing, the less bandwidth we have for reflective comprehensional processing.There’s growing evidence, including the eye movement studies, that suggests that the moment we start becoming self-reflective about what we’re doing, talking to ourselves about not doing well, it eats up processing bandwidth, thus diminishing what’s available to do the task. So, in addition to the emotionally felt consequences, there’s actually cognitive consequences in terms of diminished capacity — the emotions are draining attentional energy.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right. When young children are learning a complex task like reading, the cognitive complexity of the task itself requires almost all their bandwidth or attentional abilities. So for example, the ability to process what the text is, to see the letter and recognize it, to be able to translate that into a sound, to understand that sound is part of other sounds that are going to form words, and those words are embedded in sentences–these are all complex cognitively attentive tasks for children. If they’re distracted by the feeling that they cannot do the task well, if they’re saying to themselves at the same time, “I’m not good at this, I don’t like this, this is not fun, other children do this better than I do, I’m never going to learn it” — all that talk and that emotional arousal are taking up what people call “M space,” or cognitive space, in the task. And when that happens, those distractions diminish their ability to actually do the task they’re struggling with.
David Boulton: Excellent.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: I don’t know if you know the work of Robbie Case who translated Piagetian stages into something more like a distributed information processing model, way back in the early ’70s. And he talked about “M space“. A lot of it may be quantitative caring capacity, if you will…
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: …what you call bandwidth.
David Boulton: Yes, the processing capacities required to do the many different tasks that are involved.
One thing that’s really interesting is that all this is happening in relation to this radically unnatural form of confusion engendered by this technology. I mean, the brain developing a language simulation module – something that can take instructions and information from an external code and generate an internal experience of language that we can then reflect on and comprehend. And the average time we’re talking about is around twenty-five milliseconds per letter-sound. It all must happen incredibly fast.
And the confusion is a result of the complex relationship between letters and sounds. There are hundreds of ways we spell forty-four sounds with twenty-six letters. It has nothing to do with any ‘intelligent design’ on the part of humans or others.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Sure, right.
David Boulton: And this engenders a kind of cognitive confusion that children are wrestling with when they’re only four and five years old. Their experience of the difficulty of this is connected to the trajectories that we’ve been talking about. It is not so much something wrong with them, in terms of some innate neurobiological difference, it’s more about their learning trajectories, and yet the context that we’ve set as parents, as a society, as schools, leads children who struggle with this to feel as if there’s something wrong with them, as if the struggle is a reflection of something wrong with them.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right.
David Boulton: So what we’re really talking about is a form of confusion engendered by an archaic, neglected technology that is causing millions and millions of our children to grow up feeling ashamed of their mental functioning. That just seems insane.
And learning is the issue here, rather than the outcome. We have to understand that children learn in a variety of ways, and at a variety of speeds. We know that there are developmental individual differences in when children learn. And we’ve just been discussing how social-emotional environments, genetic capacities – all kinds of factors are going to influence each child. Each child is not going to learn in the same way at the same time.
And yet we have the complex situation of having a teacher in front of a classroom of twenty to thirty children, trying to move them forward at a relatively normal pace. This will work well for some children, there’s no question. And in education in general, at least half the children seem to do fine in group instruction, independent of individual differences in their abilities.
But for the children who are not able to do it that way, classroom learning can become a very frustrating situation. And once the frustration sets in, and children believe that they are not able to do the skills that are necessary, we start to see the trajectory toward both behavior problems and the trajectory towards dropping out of school.
In American public schools in urban areas, we have a dropout rate between forty and fifty percent. Forty and fifty percent of children are not doing what’s necessary to learn the skills. Let me restate that: Teachers and classrooms are not creating a context for children to learn what’s necessary to have the skills to feel they’re successful. And when they don’t feel successful, they feel a sense of hopelessness, that schooling will not help them become effective adults. When that happens, we see the trajectory towards even poorer learning and towards dropping out.
I was at a meeting yesterday in Washington in which it was announced that only about thirty-five percent of eighth graders read proficiently in American schools. This is not a small problem. This is not a problem of learning disabilities. We’re not talking about seven percent of children who we believe have neurological damage that actually makes it difficult for certain circuits in the brain to work so that sound and visual schemes become linked to each other. We’re talking about children with relatively normal development, but we’re failing to educate them in a way that helps them learn how to read, how to do other things that are necessary to become educationally successful.
So we have to think about the problem a little differently. We have to think about the fact that we have to truly respect these individual differences, but it also means we need more individual instruction. Many children are not going to learn these skills well and feel bonded and committed to school, unless we educate them in ways in which they learn successfully. And for many children, they will not learn successfully by only being in a large classroom with children who vary dramatically in their abilities, with one teacher trying to lead them forward. So, to the extent that we identify children early who are not making it in our system in the standard way and help them before they begin to feel that they’re failing, give them that one-on-one process by highly trained people who are able to build warm relationships and technically take them through the steps of what’s necessary for the reading process, the math process–that’s what’s necessary in order to make sure that we succeed.
Emotional Aversion to Confusion:
David Boulton: Before we leave this area, I want to be explicit and try to tie into another body of work that we’re assembling here, which has to do with children developing an emotional aversion to the feel of confusion. What happens to children, who go through repeated frustrations and develop a sense of hopelessness like you’re describing, with respect to breaking through this task, what happens when they start to develop an unconscious aversion to learning to read?
Just like reading itself is an automatic, faster than conscious, assembly process, a lot of our emotions are happening automatically, in terms of their affect on–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: –cognitive processes. What happens when children start to develop a self-protective, faster-than-they’re-even-aware-of emotional aversion to going into certain things that cause them confusion? What does it do to their learning?
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Interesting.
David Boulton: So, when you say that only thirty-five percent of eighth graders read proficiently, it seems to me that the sixty-five percent of eighth graders who are not able to read proficiently are in danger of what I just described.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right, right.
David Boulton: That’s what makes reading so important to me.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Okay, good.
When children are not able to meet the challenges of the complex processes of reading or of early math, not only do they begin to say things to themselves, like “I’m no good,” or, “I can’t do this,” which inhibits their ability to maintain attention and actually recruit their cognitive processes, but over time they begin to develop an aversion to certain contexts, and to sitting down and actually looking at books. Even before they sit down, they’re already feeling upset, a sense of failure, maybe confusion, low frustration tolerance. And therefore, we get them to the point where they don’t actually even enjoy engaging in the process. It’s not just that they’re maybe feeling confused when they actually don’t know the difference between an F and an R–they’re actually feeling it before they even start to process that information.
And so for many children we see another level, over time, developing – not that they just show anxiety or confusion or frustration in the task itself, but now they show it in approaching the task. This really becomes bad, because at that point, children are not learning to learn anymore. And the goal of education is not content. Content is going to continually change in this rapidly changing technological world. The issue is learning to learn(1), and enjoying the learning process itself. And when children no longer enjoy the learning process, this is the real deficiency in our education. We live in a society where learning is a constant.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Now, there’s a fundamental research question here that has not been well studied yet, but given the new technology we have in understanding the brain, both fMRI and PET Scan–even more important, techniques like high-density ERP–the ability to now watch children and understand what these cognitive and emotional processes are in a second-to-second process of reading is something that’s had very little investigation. And we’re going to learn a lot more, I believe, in the next ten years as we apply these techniques – not putting children to sleep and looking at their brain imagining, not just watching what part of their brain lights up when they’re reading, but understanding the psychophysiology and the brain mapping together, understanding how emotion and cognition are operating together in the reading process, are going to be very important.
David Boulton: Yes, that’s one of the things we are very interested in. By the way, did you see the new issue of Scientific American Mind?
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yes.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right.
David Boulton: …I interviewed him last week in Zurich…
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: …and we talked all about this.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Uh-huh.
David Boulton: He confirmed that we are still far away from having scanning technology with sufficient resolution–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah, scanning is not going to do it.
David Boulton: –“to peer into”–
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: –“the time precarious processes that we’re talking about here.”
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Right, because they’re momentary processes.
David Boulton: Yes, and going back to something you mentioned earlier, we have to be careful about lumping math and reading together. I mean, at one level they both have downward spiral emotional aversions working against them. But math is something you can volitionally attend to. Reading is a construction that has to happen much faster than you can intentionally attend to.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
David Boulton: And spelling is also something you can intentionally attend to.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: That’s right.
David Boulton: So they’re all code processes but reading requires an assembly module that’s functioning in an entirely different…
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Much faster.
David Boulton: …way than the other two. And we’re talking about something that, by the time they pay attention to it, they’re in trouble.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah, exactly.
David Boulton: Unlike trying to work out a math problem or a spelling issue.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: You can repeat it to yourself.
David Boulton: Yeah.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: It has a different process.
David Boulton: You can’t do that with reading.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Yeah, right.
David Boulton: Right. So let’s close on the book point that I asked you to hold onto earlier.
Emotional Reading Experiences:
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Okay. So let’s think about this a minute. An important part of reading is hearing rich language, and an important part of hearing rich language in our culture is being read to. Almost all books that we read to children are about characters that have emotions that are going up and down and all around. We, as adults, escape into novels. And the reason why we escape into novels is we’re able to vicariously live the emotional lives of others. That’s what makes fiction so exciting to both children and adults.
Children who are read to regularly, and who have adults, teachers and parents who discuss what they’ve read, learn the richness of books. And this learning of the richness of books is very important early on to help children want to approach text and feel that, even though it’s a struggle to learn this, there’s something rich in there–there’s a vein in there that they want to strike.
When we do social-emotional curriculums in the classroom, it’s very important that we tie these together. We don’t think about the social-emotional development of a child in that curriculum, and the language and reading as being separate curricula. The goal here is to tie them all together to make a really rich curriculum in which children don’t know if they’re learning to read or they’re learning to know about themselves and others–there’s just a process of learning occurring. I would recommend that you check out the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to find out more about the connection between social and emotional learning and academic achievement
And so we spend a lot of time in our social-emotional work linking it to literacy, trying to make those bridges very clear so that we pick books for children that are both good books from a vocabulary standpoint, if you will–they have the right words in them given the children’s developmental needs–but that engage the children in the process of thinking about both the characters and themselves.
One of the effects we’ve found in the PATHS Curriculum with deaf children is that we found significant improvement in reading achievement in elementary-aged children who had the PATHS curriculum compared to random samples of children who did not receive it. When I went back to the teachers and I asked them why they felt that the reading achievement improved in the kids who had PATHS, they gave me two reasons. One is, they said, because children were less disruptive in the classroom, and they were able to settle themselves down. There was more on-task time. And we know that, to some extent, on-task time is related to achievement. The second thing they said is because the children now understood much more about emotions–about jealousy and pride and anger and frustration and joy and wonder. They were able to talk – they were more interested in the text, they were more interested in stories, and they had much richer discussions after the stories. And they felt that that got them more engaged in reading, which led to their improved reading achievement.
Now I actually don’t think either one of those is probably what caused the reading achievement test improvement, but I do think both are probably very important for children learning to read – being on-task more time in the classroom and being richly involved in characters. I think the reason they did better on the achievement tests is because achievement tests in American schools are multiple choice tests. And most children are impulsive; many don’t even read the entire question before they answer. So they’ve got the A, B, C, and D, and they impulsively tend to pick the first one they see that might be a good answer. I think what happened is a result of the way PATHS teaches children to plan ahead, that they all read all four answers before they made a choice, and therefore the probability of scoring higher on a test was better.
Now, is that an important skill? Yes, it’s a very important skill, because what we’re teaching children is to plan ahead and think before they act. And that’s true – it’s an important part of the reading process. It’s important though for a much larger process than reading, because all action requires us to think before we act. So it may be that the results were the result of on-task time, or the result of more interest in text. It might be the result of the fact that we have more of a master skill here, a skill of emotional and social competence, which is thinking before acting, which affects on-task time and reading in general.
And that’s the point here–that these things are linked together. We have one mind and one brain, and emotion and cognition are processing all the time. To the extent that we integrate them in the learning process, the more likely we are to be successful in making children who are more emotionally competent, but also more cognitively and academically competent.
David Boulton: Excellent.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Good.
David Boulton: Great place to land.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Good.
David Boulton: Thank you.
Dr. Mark Greenberg: Sure.