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

By Brittany Smith,
Every Hour Counts Program Intern and Graduate Student pursuing a Masters of Public Health at Columbia University

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, a 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 report from Stephanie Jones and her team at 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. Entitled Kernels of Practice for SEL: Low-Cost, Low-Burden Strategies, it serves as part of a larger initiative by the Harvard Graduate School of Education to understand how schools can use SEL building blocks to develop curriculum. In this particular report, data are driven from 25 SEL programs and analyzed using content analysis. Programs were qualitatively coded, vetted to eliminate non-kernel strategies, and then organized by focus.

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. But, all too often, barriers such as few resources, limited integration, and challenges with sustainability can impede providers’ attempts to incorporate SEL into programs.

Kernels serve as solutions 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. In addition, unlike more traditional programs that situate activities in a discrete time block, the report notes that kernels are “easy-to-use and applicable across school contexts (e.g., hallways, recess, etc.) as well as in home, afterschool, and early learning settings.” What’s more, they are “easy to adapt based on individual, cultural, and other contextual needs, making them well suited for use in a broad range of contexts and populations.”

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, 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.

Originally published at on February 7, 2018.

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