Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Responsible Decision-Making: Begins with Understanding Your Brain Health

August 9, 2019

Welcome back to the “Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast” this is Andrea Samadi. I want to first of all thank YOU for listening and providing feedback of the episodes. Since launching the end of June, without any paid advertising, we are on our 12th episode and we have reached 12 countries so far!  This is incredible! Thanks for all the DMs with feedback on the content and how you are implementing these ideas—I do appreciate hearing how these episodes are being received and how you are using this information. If you’d like to reach me with any questions, you can always find me on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Just search Andrea Samadi.

For those who don’t know the background of why we launched the “Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast” it began with the growing movement and interest in social and emotional learning in our schools and need to take these skills into the workplace with emotional intelligence training. Our goal is to close the gap recent surveys show exists in our workforce where 58 percent of employers say college graduates are not adequately prepared for today’s workforce, and those employers noted a particular gap in social and emotional skills like self and social awareness, and growth mindset that are crucial to college and career readiness and are finally being introduced into our schools. We want the ideas you take away with you to be actionable whether you are an educator working in a school, an employee of manager in a corporation, or someone just looking to take their skills to the next level.

As a recap, in our first episode, we shared with you the “Why behind implementing an SEL/emotional intelligence training program in your school or workplace” with some strategies that we offered on how to get started. In the second episode, we introduced the first of the six SEL competencies (self-awareness). This episode has been the most popular so far, and the one I’ve had the most feedback on, showing me that self-awareness is of high interest to those interested in this work—both the school market, as well as the workplace. We’ve tied in interviews to connect you to these skills so you can hear directly from experts from the field and those who are implementing programs with success. With each skill we investigate the best practices and strategies that you can use either in the classroom or workplace to develop and improve your own program and practice, before extending these strategies to others. Don’t forget to look for ideas, tools and resources in the show notes section if you want a deeper dive into the content. 

Today we are on the fourth competency, out of six—Responsible Decision-Making.

Understanding the neuroscience[i] behind decision-making can be an important tool when looking for new results.

In our last episode with Chloe Amen, we discussed the importance of brain development and results and the fact that “your brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 for females and 28 for males”[ii] so it is critical that we take care of our brain to ensure that we are able to make sound decisions later in life.  An understanding of our brain’s functions and form are crucial to our future success, since our brain is involved in literally everything that we do.

In the Brain Thrive by 25 Online Course (by Dr. Daniel Amen) that was designed to help teens and young adults improve brain function and performance, Chloe Amen (from our last episode) participated in the teen panel and noted that “People don’t realize the decisions they make now (as teens or young adults)—will affect their life later because we aren’t thinking about this at all! Decisions can affect our future—So how can I be my best self?”[iii] Imagine if we had all grown up protecting the organ that controls everything that we do? When I was thirteen, no one ever mentioned the importance of protecting my brain, or how it relates to my future success. We were all told to work hard, go to school and study, with the goal to graduate and pursue a career doing something that you love and enjoy. Future success occurred through hard work, perseverance and what we now call grit and many of us had to figure this one out through trial and error as well, or from an internal drive that had either been ignited in us by our mentors and role models or motivated intrinsically on our own. But with the most recent developments in neuroscience, there is now a new importance of taking care of our brain health, since our brain is involved in literally everything that we do. It controls our thoughts, feelings, how we act and interact with other people, our character, decisions, and actions, not to mention sensory motor functions, regulating internal chemical order and our brain’s alertness, whether we are asleep or awake.  There’s so much involved with this powerful organ going on behind the scenes, it shouldn’t shock for any of us to hear that the latest research shows “the brain’s memory capacity is a quadrillion, or 1015[iv] You can see how an understanding of our brain’s function and an emphasis on brain health is the first step towards making responsible decisions, since the brain is involved in everything that we do. 

So, what does this look like in action? We all have situations that happen in our lives where we must step up and assume responsibility for our future success. When we look at our lives, and don’t like the results we have created, it’s up to us to make the changes needed for new results. It all begins with the thoughts we are thinking—our mental mindset. It’s never a lack of knowledge or skill that holds us back, it’s our mindset, the emotional blocks and deeply engrained habits that we have acquired over time (either consciously or subconsciously) that we must release to clear the path for our future successes. It’s our thoughts that cause our feelings and emotions, leading us to take certain actions. The actions that we take cause results that set up our conditions, circumstances and the environment of our life (take a minute to look around you right now—where you are at this exact minute is all based on your past decisions) and if you don’t like what you see, you must go back to change the thoughts you are thinking, (back to your mental mindset) to create new feelings, new actions, new results, and this in turn will create new conditions, circumstances and environments.

Changing our thinking is the first step towards changing our results and no one can do this for you. The next step is taking action on the decisions. Most people get stuck here and end up blaming others for their results when they look around and don’t like what they see. They blame the job market for the fact they don’t have the job they would like to do, or what’s going wrong in the world for whatever results they have created. Responsible people never blame others for their results but take 100% responsibility and ownership. This is an important skill to learn in the classroom as well as the workplace.

Let’s start with the classroom. How do we teach this to our students, especially knowing that their brains are not fully developed yet? Their prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain) that contains the executive functions like focus, judgement, planning and impulse control have not yet developed, so we must begin there to help guide our children and young adults in the decision-making process.

5 Tips to Improve Decision-Making with Students and Young Adults:

  1. Teaching students about the three parts of their brain at an early age is crucial. Children as young as five have the ability to understand their reptilian brain (hindbrain) the oldest part of their brain where they have their survival instincts of flight, flight and freeze. When they realize these reactions happen automatically to keep them safe, they can learn strategies to deal with them when they occur so they don’t get caught off guard. For example, taking deep breaths when they are afraid or nervous instead of running away or avoiding a decision that is naturally shutting down their brain. For their emotional/limbic brain (midbrain) they should understand that this is where their feelings and emotions are controlled and that they must have strategies in place when their buttons get pushed and their emotions take over. Strategies like learning how to respond to situations (by asking questions) rather than automatically reacting based on assumptions without knowing all of the details of a situation. Finally, they have a decision-making brain, the neocortex (forebrain) that controls our thinking and reflecting, reasoning and planning—but this part of the brain is not fully developed until age 25 for females and 28 for males, so we must take guidance from our parents, teachers, friends and role models until we are old enough to make responsible decisions on our own. Parents and teachers must remember that although young adults “think” they are old enough to make their own decisions, we must be there to support, listen and influence the decisions that they make, since these decisions often will impact their future. We can be there as guides to offer tips based on our experiences and role model the results and behaviors we expect of them, but also giving them room to make their own decisions whether they are the best ones or not, they must learn the process of failing forward.
  2. Teens and young adults should understand the power of taking responsibility for themselves and their own decisions. Remember that responsible people never blame others for their results. Think about a time that someone blamed you for something you didn’t do. How did you feel? What did you do about it? Blaming does not change what happened. When you blame others for the results you achieve, you are not being responsible. When you take responsibility for yourself, you understand that you are responsible for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and all the results you create in your life. You realize when something goes wrong in your life that you brought the situation on yourself. No one did it to you. This is a powerful concept when it becomes a habit as it will propel you forward.
  3. Remember that “everything young people do either helps or hurts your brain development”[v] and hurts your long-term success. We know that drugs and alcohol are not good for the developing brain and current research goes far into this understanding proving that there is an epigenetic connection between drug use at an early age and how it impacts not just your future, but the future of your children[vi] proving that drugs and alcohol are not good for anyone’s brain, and especially damaging to the developing brain.
  4. Learn to stop and think when making a decision. Ask “does this feel right?” and you should be able to listen to your gut instinct to know if the decision is responsible. Ask “will this hurt or harm my brain?”[vii] to help make the best decisions for my brain health and future success.
  5. Write it out. Write out the problem you are looking to solve with ideas on how you think you could solve it. Create specific strategies with a timeline attached so you stay on track with your plan. Send this plan to someone you know for new ideas, thoughts, or suggestions, as well as to provide accountability that you will complete the steps to solve the problem. Remember that since your prefrontal cortex is still under construction, you will need support with making decisions until your brain has fully developed. Ask for support or help when needed, whether it’s from a teacher, parent or adult. We all need guidance at certain times in our life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Decision-Making Tips for the Workplace:

Even though adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that makes decisions, we still need a process to follow to ensure we are making effective and smart decisions that yield the results we are looking for. Remember that to make an effective decision, you must first learn how to think, and this process is carried out by the executive functions in your brain (in your prefrontal cortex): functions like planning, implementing, monitoring, and making adjustments to overcome problems. When working on a goal, or solving a problem, try these 4 simple steps. Eventually they become habitual but having a process will increase your performance.[viii]

Start your decision-making process with these 4 Steps:

  1. Evaluate the Problem You Want to Solve: This process begins in your frontal lobes. What’s the problem? What outcome are you looking for? Is your outcome achievable? Is it meaningful? Attach meaning and emotion to help increase motivation. Make sure everyone on the team is on board with the “why” behind the goal.
  2. Plan Your Strategy: Next, your frontal lobe maps out the strategies needed as you ask yourself “where am I now, where do I want to go, how will I get there and what strategies and tactics do I need?” Create your plan. I’ve seen this plan mapped out many different ways but knowing where you are starting from, what your end goal is, and identifying what’s missing (your gap) is crucial to this step. This is where skill development takes place and the gaps are filled. Get clear on what’s missing and what must we learned to achieve the goal? Who can we consult with to fill in our gaps? Identify the experts you will need.
  3. Implement Your Strategy: Once you have listed the strategies that you will use and the tactics that will follow, your frontal lobe works with your body to put these ideas into action. This is where the hard work comes into play.  Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
  4. Monitor and Adjust: When you take action, your frontal lobe is ready to make changes as obstacles come up. Be ready to pivot when needed as you monitor what’s working and what isn’t. Effective decision-making requires ongoing evaluation of these four steps.

The Outcomes of Responsible Decision-Making

With practice, decision-making becomes easier and with students, they will learn to take their time with important decisions, weighing out the pros and cons. Decision-making in the workplace also becomes easier with this four-step approach. Take the time to think and plan ahead of time and it will better prepare you for the future success of the desired outcome and this process with practice will be executed with confidence and certainty as the results you are looking for emerge. It does take effort, hard work and focus, but it’s the first step towards creating predictable results as you follow your decision-making plan, with your brain in mind.

This brings us to the end of this lesson, thanks for your interest and sticking it through right to the end. Next week we have the fifth SEL competency, self-regulation and an exciting interview that ties these competencies all together. See you next week!

RESOURCES:

[i] The Neuroscience of Making a Decision https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/the-neuroscience-making-decision?amp

[ii] Brain Thrive by 25 Online Course https://www.brainmdhealth.com/brainthriveby25

[iii] 13-year-old Cloe Amen in the Teen Panel in the Brain Thrive by 25 Online Course https://www.brainmdhealth.com/brainthriveby25

[iv] 72 Amazing Human Brain Facts https://bebrainfit.com/human-brain-facts/?fbclid=IwAR0wepcGNA2FqFjv6XrYBpxakFkI7r4hyyqrwb01a3b01u4UIf4G-228maA

[v] Brain Thrive by 25 Online Course https://www.brainmdhealth.com/brainthriveby25

[vi] How an Understanding of an Individual’s Epigenetics Can Help Measure and Treat Addiction (January 3, 2017) https://www.whatisepigenetics.com/how-understanding-an-individuals-epigenetics-can-help-measure-and-treat-addiction/

[vii] Brain Thrive by 25 Online Course https://www.brainmdhealth.com/brainthriveby25

[viii] Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success (Diversion Books, January 31, 2017) https://www.amazon.com/NeuroWisdom-Brain-Science-Happiness-Success-ebook/dp/B01N9BLBDH/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=neurowisdom&qid=1565268860&s=gateway&sr=8-1

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