The neuroscience behind social & emotional intelligence.

According to prominent findings in neuroscience, neuroplasticity is the process of creating new neural pathways through activities which are visceral, novel, intentionally focused, experiential, redundant, aerobic, meaningful, and consistent (Siegel, 2011, 2012). Engaging in activities which include these ingredients strengthen synaptic connections allowing us to learn, practice, and master new skills or reacquire skills we may have lost due to lived experiences which lacked necessary social contexts for these opportunities, or learning that was disrupted due to various trauma, mental illness, or other significant disruptions in one’s developmental trajectory (see the A.C.E.’s Study). More recently however, we have noticed an exponential increase in emotional and behavioral dysregulation in younger and younger children, as well as these manifestations increasing in frequency and intensity.

it appears we may have reached the tipping point in our obsession with convenience (easy, fast, fun, now) as evidenced by more screen-based learning, and children consuming more and more screen time. Although learning about and understanding technology is important, our obsession with convenience and efficiency has lead to a lived experience which lacks time spent in a social context necessary to develop social and emotional intelligence. There is only so much time in a day, and based on what now seems like common knowledge, youth ages 8-18 in the United States consume over 60 hours of screen time each week. The amount of time left for lived experience is virtually non-existent. This lack of lived experience inhibits and/or prevents opportunities for social and emotional learning resulting in more incidents representing emotional and behavioral dysregulation. Without real lived opportunities to deal with frustration, disappointment, failure, rejection, discomfort, etc. children’s nervous systems repeatedly miss out on opportunities for their bodies to learn, practice, master, and generalize dealing with these experiences which help us become socially and emotionally intelligent.

What is social and emotional intelligence:

Lived experience is required for social and emotional learning to take place (see neuroplasticity above).  Although technology is very important to learn, it does not provide lived experiences which promote or foster social and emotional learning/intelligence. It may actually do the opposite.

The DIRT GROUP Paradigm is the integration of experiential learning, social learning, symbolic interactionism, strength-based, and ecological systems theories and neuroplasticity, also referred to as the “MARINADE”.

A “marinade” is a great metaphor to understand how these combination of ingredients (through lived experiences/experiential learning) are necessary for social and emotional learning to take place. Just like we “soak” foods in a marinade of various ingredients sometimes for grilling/cooking, we create the MARINADE (milieu) with the ingredients of neuroplasticity and applied theory in practice, creating a social context which provides rich experiential learning opportunities to “soak” (learn, practice, master, and generalize) in this context and thereby increase social and emotional intelligence through lived experiences.

The DIRT GROUP Paradigm is an award winning after school youth development and children’s mental health application grounded and informed in theory and neuroscience. DIRT GROUP is rooted in social and emotional learning in the context of a gardening, farming, foods, and creative arts project.

Our Mission – DIRT GROUP Global, Inc.

Through integrity, competence, and service, DIRT GROUP Global, Inc. honors the dignity and worth of every person, the importance of human relationships, and works toward social justice for all people by growing to learn, and learning to grow in human, community, and economic development focused on increasing social and emotional intelligence through participation in experiential group gardening, farming, foods, and creative arts projects.

DIRT GROUP Global, Inc. 2019


Some Definitions:

Social and Emotional Intelligence: How we recognize, understand, and manage ourselves/our emotions and navigate social contexts successfully.

Experiential Learning: Learning by doing, “hands on learning”.

Social Learning: learning by observing others, “monkey see, monkey do”.

Symbolic Interactionism: assigning meaning and symbolism to poignant, salient events, people, places, things, experiences in our lives which then defines our worldview or personal perspectives.

Strength-Based: acknowledging/recognizing an individual or group’s skills and talents and building on them and channeling them in productive ways.

Ecological Systems: How organisms (in this case people) interact with and within systems, lived experience.

Neuroplasticity: The brain physically changes based on the intentional focus we engage in learning to create and strengthen neural pathways through redundant, novel/visceral, experiential, consistent, aerobic/action oriented, meaningful activities/exercises. As Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb’s remarked, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Action or movement is required for neurons to fire. When we intentionally focus the above ingredients–we create new neural pathways and strengthen synaptic connectivity in our brains through neuroplasticity.




What happens when you combine the ingredients for neuroplasticity and applied theory in practice? You get what I have referred to for years as THE MARINADE. The integration, or melding of these ingredients (recent findings in neuroscience combined with 5 major theoretical basis/applications) are necessary for social and emotional learning to become social and emotional intelligence.

Experiences (lived experiences/experiential) that are (ingredients for neuroplasticity):

  1. Visceral
  2. Redundant
  3. Require intentional focus
  4. Experiential
  5. Consistent
  6. Novel
  7. Movement/Aerobic (action/movement is required to activate neurons)
  8. Sense of meaning/purpose

Combined with the five following theoretical basis/applications:

Experiential Learning

Social Learning

Symbolic Interactionism

Strength-Based and

Ecological Systems Theories =


DIRT GROUP is an award winning, trauma and resiliency informed children’s mental health application grounded in social and emotional learning, in the context of an experiential group gardening, farming, foods, and creative arts project. Informed by recent findings in neuroscience and applied theory in practice the implications for practice in youth development are profound.

For more information please visit

Menakem, R. (2017) My grandmother’s hands

Siegel, D. (2011) Mindsight

Siegel, D. (2012) The pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology

Turck, K.S. (2011) DIRT GROUP: Growing to learn, learning to grow. How does participation in experiential gardening groups influence social skill development in at-risk youth.

Van der Kolk, B. (2017) The Body Keeps the Score

Social & Emotional Learning-the Power of Our Lived Experiences.

Emotional Dysregulation. Intentionally and redundantly focused on “easy, fast, fun–now” (Walsh, D. 2004)–severely limits opportunities to experience discomfort, disappointment, frustration, failure, rejection, problem solving, etc.

How do we learn to bounce back in life without having intentionally focused, redundant opportunities to live/learn, practice, and master these skills if we never have to face these challenges throughout our formative years.

In an upcoming webcast, Kenny will explore the implications for child/youth/human development and mental health in this era of immediate gratification/emotional dysregulation and how our obsession with convenience and ever increasing ease has impacted everyday, common opportunities for social and emotional learning.

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4 1/2 pints of processed, organic rosemary, November 2018. St. Cloud DIRT GROUP

"Growing to Learn…Learning to Grow"