Stoplight Exercise Gives a Green Light to Learning

[This post is excerpted from Daniel Goleman’s new book Focus]

When second and third graders in a Seattle school are getting upset, they’re told to think of a traffic signal. Red light means stop – calm down. Take a long, deep breath and as you calm down a bit, tell yourself that the problem is and how you feel.

The yellow light reminds them to slow down and think of several possible ways they might solve the problem, then choose which is best. The green light signals them to try out that plan, and see how it works.

The stoplight exercise was the brainchild of Roger Weissberg, a psychologist then at Yale who in the late 1980’s developed a pioneering social development program for New Haven’s public schools. Now that same image can be found on the walls of countless thousands of classrooms worldwide.

The stoplight rehearses the shift from bottom-up, amygdala-driven impulses to top-down, prefrontal executive-driven attention. The stoplight exercise strengthens circuitry between the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s executive center, just behind the forehead – and the midbrain limbic centers, that cauldron of id-driven impulses.

The findings for those schools with social development programs using exercises such as stoplight: classroom disruption and misbehavior down 10 percent; attendance and other positive behavior up 10 percent; and achievement test scores boosted by 11 percent.

These lessons in emotional intelligence – that is, in self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and social skills- are synergistic with standard academic courses. Adding the basics of attention training is a low-tech method for boosting neural circuitry at the heart of emotional intelligence.

Roger Weissberg, the developer of the stoplight, says, “cognitive control and executive function seem crucial for self-awareness and self-management, as well as academics.” One of the teachers using tools such as stoplight says, “When I added the mindfulness piece, I saw a dramatically quickly embodiment of calming ability and the readiness to learn. It happens at earlier ages, and earlier in the school year.”

(Roger Weissberg is now president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) co-founded by Daniel Goleman. One of CASEL’s major partners is the country of Singapore, the first country in the world to require every one of its students to go through a social and emotional learning program. With no natural resources, no great army, no special political sway, the government has chosen to intentionally cultivate its human resources as the driver of its economy, now an international powerhouse.)

Exercise: Stoplight

You can try the stoplight exercise every time you are stopped at a traffic light, focusing your awareness on your own inner landscape: How am I doing? Is there anything needing my attention right now? As I focus on that, can I see options and alternative? Can I focus the attention of my higher brain on those alternatives, and discern which one I want to try next?

You may not have time to go through the entire checklist as the traffic light turns to green, but you can use the image of the stoplight again and again as you go through your day, focusing your awareness on what’s happening, your reaction to what’s happening, noticing various options for addressing the situation, and choosing what to experiment with next, with openness and curiosity for the results.

For more information about CASEL: