Young children spend their days learning all sorts of things about the world around them and how to understand it. They may have lessons in science, math, and literacy. But they also learn and grow a great deal in response to their interactions with others, their attempts to concentrate on one task for an extended period of time, and their ability to resolve conflicts with fellow classmates. From birth and at least up through the third grade, opportunities to develop children’s social-emotional skills are essential to helping them thrive not just throughout their schooling but also in life.
The National Academy of Medicine’s “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth to Age 8: A Unifying Foundation” report explains why these skills are so important to build in young children and how educators can help young students build these skills. Ensuring social-emotional competence in children means building up a set of interconnected skills that include emotional and behavioral self-regulation, responsible decision-making, and an ability to build and maintain positive relationships with peers and teachers (see this useful graphic below from CASEL).
Building up this set of skills early in a student’s life is important for several reasons. Learning is a social activity that involves the ability to both work collaboratively with peers and maintain sustained attention to a given task. Research provides a clear link between young children’s social-emotional skills and early academic success.
Building these skills early is also an effective method to ensure mental health later in life. By building social-emotional competence at a young age, educators can identify possible mental health problems early and provide interventions before they become more serious and adversely affect adolescence and adulthood. Studies suggest that K-12 students with emotional and behavioral problems have large academic achievement deficits in all subject areas that often worsen with time. Early intervention allows students who struggle in social-emotional competence to receive supports before problems worsen and lead to future academic and behavioral difficulties.
Developing social-emotional competence early in life is important for reasons other than academics alone. Early education programs that emphasize social-emotional skills have also been linked to positive long-term outcomes like higher rates of labor participation and lower instances of criminality.
But children don’t just develop these skills on their own. They need to see them modeled by parents, educators, and peers. While a secure parent-child attachment is highlighted as the key foundation of healthy social-emotional development among young children, the report also makes clear that a healthy, positive attachment between a child and his or her teacher is essential for developing social-emotional competence. Research suggests a clear link between the quality of the teacher-child relationship in kindergarten and academic and behavioral outcomes all the way through eighth grade. Simply put, children who build warm, trusting relationships with teachers are likely to learn more and succeed in school.
What specifically can teachers of young children do to promote a strong teacher-child relationship? The report emphasizes the importance of incorporating daily practices into the classrooms that help students build social-emotional skills. This starts with having appropriate expectations for the level of self-control young children are able to exhibit. For example, when I taught pre-K, it was perfectly normal for a student to be happily playing with blocks one minute and bursting into tears the next minute over the fact that a fellow student “borrowed” one of the blocks he was using.
A teacher with appropriate expectations for prekindergarteners doesn’t chastise a student for being emotional, but instead models language the student can use to express his emotions in a healthy manner. Teachers should also suggest strategies for resolving conflicts between peers, such as helping facilitate a conversation between students about how best to share in the block area.
In an infant and toddler classroom, this means helping children make sense of their feelings by using words to describe emotions. Children as young as two are capable of feeling empathy for their peers and can be encouraged to do so when teachers ask how their behavior might affect others.
The words that teachers choose to use in a classroom can have a major impact on the quality of the teacher-student relationship. “Transforming the Workforce” discusses the importance of teachers verbally promoting effort and persistence, asking open-ended questions, and encouraging responsibility and sensitivity among students. This can be as simple as encouraging classmates to guess what a peer is feeling when he or she looks mad or upset and then brainstorming how the class can make their fellow student feel better. In order to promote a calmer classroom environment, teachers might set up a “cozy corner” full of bean bag chairs for students who need to take a break and calm down before rejoining the class.
And for teachers of younger children, their words matter, too. Research suggests that babies who experience a close, secure attachment to their caregivers are more likely to have the confidence necessary to explore their surroundings and gain experiences that aid future learning.
These types of educator skills aren’t inherently known - they must be taught. Research illustrates a link between teachers receiving specialized training in classroom management techniques intended to help young students better regulate their own behavior and improved behavioral and academic outcomes for students at the end of the year. And a new federal report points to the importance of ensuring educators are adequately prepared to teach important self-regulation skills to students.
Connecticut offers an example of a promising practice intended to assist educators in managing problematic behavior and building student social-emotional skills. The Early Childhood Consultation Partnership, run by the state’s Department of Children and Families, brings licensed social workers directly into pre-K classrooms to observe student behavior and offer pointers to teachers on how to help students manage their emotions.
Early evidence suggests that the intervention is working: classrooms that take advantage of the partnership report a significant decrease in challenging behaviors that, in the past, might have lead to suspension or expulsion. This type of early prevention and treatment is key to ensuring that social-emotional deficits are addressed early before they become more serious.
The “Transforming the Workforce” report makes clear that social-emotional skills must be explicitly taught by a trained educator aware of the need for building skills such as cooperation, self-control, and empathy for others. Starting early with efforts to strengthen the social-emotional competence of children is key to putting students on the road towards a future marked by success both in early childhood and beyond.