Begin Your School Year by Maximizing Students’ Social Brain Power

back to school

“Being socially connected is a lifelong passion.”

I read this quote from neuropsychologist Matthew Lieberman in a UCLA Newsroom article, and my curiosity was piqued. I was so intrigued that I explored it further, which led me to a Ted Talk, a book review, and more articles. The need to focus on both academic achievement and social skills is real; there are over 1,000 unpublished and published studies on the topic, according to Lieberman. The back to school period is a great time to think about this connection. There’s so much potential to channel learners’ social power in our classrooms and schools, and Lieberman gives plenty of ideas for how to do that. Here are some of my takeaways from Lieberman’s writing on how we can maximize “the social brain and its superpowers” for lifelong impact.

Structure school with an understanding of social nature. Take seating arrangements, for example. Consider seating students in groups or pairs instead of rows to allow more opportunities for conversation. Teach and practice the skills needed for active listening and positive participation in group activities, and balance independent work with pair and group activities. Give two-minute opportunities to socialize throughout the day by posing key processing questions, such as:

  • What did you like about that?
  • What do you think the character is thinking?
  • What might you do differently next time? Why?

Show learners their social superpowers and strengthen them. Recognize and value learners’ social strengths by pointing out when they’re using them. Verbally recognize learners when you see them showing empathy, such as by showing kindness toward a classmate or successfully managing a strong emotion like anxiety, frustration, or anger. If they’re struggling to navigate their social strengths, give them a tip for what they can try in the future.

Show learners that you appreciate them, and give them opportunities to do the same for one another. Lieberman says feeling liked and respected activates the brain’s reward system. Take time during the first months of school to write a brief positive note to each of your students. Put the notes in personally addressed envelopes and share them during times of need, such as before a big test or on a bad day. You can also give each student a piece of paper with another classmate’s name on it, and ask them to write kind words to their peers to hand out at a later time.

Teach and promote the use of social skills. Because we’re connected to and dependent on our social world, we need skills to navigate it. The introduction of Lieberman’s book suggests we need to commit 10,000 hours to master a skill, and that by the time they are 10 years old, many people spend this many hours learning to make sense of their social world. Much of that learning happens in school, such as when we teach social-emotional learning with a comprehensive curriculum.

Generate excitement for learning by fostering it in both learners and teachers. Lieberman’s years of research and experience suggest that when people are socially motivated to learn, their social brains can do the learning better than the analytical network activated when trying to memorize information. Teach students how to teach one another by structuring peer feedback and collective decision-making opportunities.

Our brains are set up to connect, and we can maximize that social potential in many ways. What will you do to strengthen this superpower in your students this school year?


About the Author

Kim Gulbrandson has worked in education for twenty-two years, supporting the social and emotional needs of youth in grades PreK-12 at the school, district, and state level. As a school psychologist, researcher and evaluator, her primary areas of focus have included social and emotional learning, bullying prevention, classroom management, and behavior management.