Kernels of Practice: Growing Bite-Sized Elements into Effective Programming

Take a deep breath and feel your belly grow bigger. Slowly exhale and feel your belly get smaller. Try this again. Do you feel any better?

Belly breathing, a technique designed to help kids develop their emotion regulation skills, is easily taught in a short period of time. It’s also effective for children encompassing a wide range of ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Kids can use belly breathing to calm themselves down when frustrated with a tricky math problem, complex sculpture project, or difficult social interaction.

In this instance, belly breathing is an example of a kernel, a bite-sized version of “active ingredients” found in larger, more complex programs already shown to be effective. Kernels center on one specific behavior that kids can utilize in a variety of settings. A new report from the EASEL Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, focuses on kernels and their useful applications in developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.

SEL programming is key for helping kids develop their empathy, self-regulation, motivation, and more. It can even buffer the effects of exposure to stress and trauma, resulting in stronger social-emotional skills, especially for those from low-income backgrounds or who are considered at-risk. But, all too often, barriers such as lack of resources, poor integration, and low sustainability can impede providers’ attempts to incorporate SEL into programs.

Kernels serve as a solution to such obstacles. Because they are low-cost, easily taught, and focus on one specific behavior at a time, they can be used in a variety of settings and within diverse populations. Over time, as kids become more comfortable with kernels, and the lessons they’ve learned from them become more impactful and effective. For providers who have the opportunity to work with the same group over time, kernels offer the ability to build off simpler lessons and integrate more complex techniques.

Wallace Foundation

The authors offer this image of a seed to better illustrate how kernels work. The germ part of the seed, or core of the kernel, is the specific technique used for one particular behavior. It can be tailored to each program’s particular needs and planted in different kinds of soil. Providers can utilize a variety of kernels to form a garden of specific tools that kids can easily access to calm themselves down, reduce feelings of aggression, motivate themselves to be more engaged, or express admiration for their peers.

For educators looking to use kernels for their programs, the EASEL Lab is working on developing guides detailing different kernels and how to implement them. The authors plan to provide guides based on setting (school, home, and out-of-school time programs), ages of the students, and related SEL focus.

Instructors will also have information on how to scaffold this learning over time, providing new, developmentally appropriate insight on kernels that kids have already mastered.

Concerned about the difficulties of incorporating SEL into your programs? Don’t be. Take a deep breath in, feel your belly expand, and remember that you can always use kernels to help your students develop the same critical skills that they would find in more complex programs.