The importance of social-emotional learning in the lives of young children

School is an experience with society that shapes the rest of a child’s life. Peter Kopriva, professor in special education and early childhood development, looks at ways to help children adjust that pay off beyond the classroom.

It is not easy to be a child on the first day of pre-school or elementary school. You enter a strange building full of children and adults you don’t know, yet they seem pleasant enough and welcome you. There are interesting toys and materials, and walls with information as well as what appears to be work completed by children.

There are many things to learn, but you must be willing to wade in and try. You may already know learning is hard work that involves taking risks….risks of being wrong about something, of being laughed at, of being ignored or rejected, of feeling alone even when you are surrounded by others. Yet even so each girl and boy desires to be socially and intellectually competent. It is nearly impossible for children to have the courage to even begin this journey without a foundation of emotional security.

Where does emotional security come from? Ideally from the warmth and embrace of a mother, father or other family member. It is further enhanced by a good relationship between the adults as well as towards the child. We know many children lack these advantages, but perhaps they may happen in early childhood education.

Teachers today confront special challenges preparing preschoolers to face a complex and rapidly changing world. Media images present young children with often conflicting expectations for individual behavior and social norms. Pressure to perform academically at ever-younger ages adds stress at the very time training to help children develop coping skills is cut from the curriculum.

Socially competent children

Children who can regulate their emotions well are better equipped to make and keep friends and to work and play for extended periods with peers. They have developed skills for positive interactions and relationships—including cooperating, searching for help, joining in, listening and negotiating.

Emotional competence promotes social competence and helps children succeed in school. Socially competent children:

  • Relate well to other children
  • Respond agreeably to others
  • Develop good social skills

Getting along well

Socially competent children relate well to other children at three levels—interactions, relationships and with groups of children. They have mostly positive interactions with other children under a wide variety of conditions. For example, Josh says “hi” to other children, gets along well with classmates at recess, in the lunchroom and during group activities.

Josh’s classmates like him, but being accepted by peers socially is also an indicator of even more potential success in school. Acceptance predicts children’s academic readiness and classroom involvement, while rejection is linked with negative attitudes toward school and poor academic performance.

Developing good social skills

Socially competent children have also developed good social skills,which show they can regulate thoughts and emotions. Not interrupting a conversation, for example, or comforting a friend. They can:

  • Correctly interpret another person’s actions
  • Take turns
  • Follow directions
  • Come up with good solutions to conflicts
  • Carry on a conversation
  • Persist at tasks

Tuning in to the social setting

Socially competent children are good observers, watching others at play and skillfully assessing their behavior. This gives them information useful in figuring out what to do in different situations. Socially competent children, for example, do not get upset when they fail to get what they want.

Children construct ideas about emotional intelligence from models. Parents are generally the first models and are paramount to a girl or boy constructing lifelong skills. Other likely models will be extended family, adult family friends, teachers, coaches, clergy, community members and, of growing importance as the child matures, peers. It takes many years for children to learn to control themselves, get along well with others and understand how they feel.

Children require guidance

Social-emotional learning (SEL) teaches children about feelings (the emotional domain) and about getting along with others (the social domain). To educate the whole child we must focus on all domains of a child’s development, not just cognitive learning. Teachers who know this can effectively guide children’s learning about feelings and others.

Schools today are busy places that attempt to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Still, children benefit when teachers focus on SEL. Instruction about emotions and social relationships actually shapes a child’s brain by helping build circuits linked to emotions and social development. Children need to know they are valuable and valued.

Certainly we have not become too busy in schools to help children understand and appreciate themselves as well as others?

Main Image