August 16, 2018

Back to School with Mister Rogers… and Neuroscientists

If neuroscientists and Mister Rogers collaborated to write a Welcome Back to School Recipe, the first ingredient would be feelings of belonging.  


Belonging has been prioritized in Native American educational practices utilized and refined over the course of 15,000 years across approximately 200 tribal languages. On the medicine wheel, belonging resides in the east, where the sun rises. Instruction does not begin until each student feels connected to the community. For indigenous educators, nurturing feelings of belonging is priority número uno (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 2009).

Today neuroscience backs up these ancient practices. Social baseline theory, informed by the work of Beckes and Coan, teaches all humans are oriented to be interdependent. Close proximity to others decreases stress hormones, calms the nervous system and improves learning. In contrast, social isolation typically results in a decrease in a person’s capacity to regulate their emotions. Those who are marginalized may experience an increased need for sleep and food intake, decreased physical activity and maybe even decreased immune system functioning. When a person is physically or psychologically injured, the presence of others accelerates healing (Beckes & Coan, 2011).

Mister Rogers put it simply in his welcoming song:

“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day…
Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Now that is an attitude of an educator who knows their neuroscience! Won’t you please be my student?!


As we begin a new academic calendar year, here are some questions neighbors, educators and parents can ask and steps to take to be more effective activists.

  1. How is Your Community Measuring and Communicating Student Feelings of Belonging?

What are the attendance rates at your local schools? What about student and family retention data? If there are few school choices in your area, the retention rates might be high even if the quality of instruction is low. What are the high school drop out rates in your district? You might find yourself surprised to learn that a “top performing” school has a high student drop out rate. Most importantly, what do students have to say about how educators behave? This critical qualitative data is often overlooked. If our communities fail to make youth feel welcome and authentically cared for, nothing else matters. Measuring feelings of belonging aligns with excellence and equity goals. If you don’t have this data, ask for it, share it and use the information to inform decision making. Budget and time limitations? Start by surveying outlier populations that may already be feeling disenfranchised.

  1. Interpreting Current Policies to Support Student Well-being

School policies are written with the intent of supporting student well-being, learning and growth. Yet, often times they are not implemented that way. Similar to the judicial branch of the government where lawyers, police officers and judges apply the law differently, educators hold the power to interpret district and school policies through the lens of what will best serve each individual child.

If a decision appears to be hurting a student, say so. Whether you are a groundskeeper, parent, educator, volunteer, school resource officer, counselor or other community member, communicate the impact the decision is having on the child and invite the decision maker, often times a school administrator, to change their decision. This is especially important in districts with site based decision making where district level staff have fewer avenues to remedy injustices.

  1. Reform Discipline Policy to Actually Discipline

Discipline is practice. It is focused effort. Discipline is learning new behaviors and habits to increase access to opportunity. Suspension and expulsion practices are not discipline. At best they are exclusionary and worst injurious. As highlighted in this week’s Ed Week article, it is time to rethink policy. We challenge you to share an example of a time when suspending a student grew feelings of connection and improved their learning. Yeah, we couldn’t think of one either.


In mourning Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who passed away today, there could not be a more beautiful closing to this piece than the memory of her singing, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!”

Here’s to beginning with belonging – youth are the reason we are here!

Shine on,

Team SoulSpark

Looking for more information? Click here to read an article SENG published on the relationship between a student’s environment and their development.

Beckes, L., & Coan, J. (2011). Social Baseline Theory: The Role of Social Proximity in Emotion and Economy of Action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(12), 976-988. doi. 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00400.x

Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M. & Van Bockern, S. (2009). Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for The Future. [Kindle Version]. Bloomington: Solution Tree.