By Molly Breen
If you are a human teacher—of human children—you must know the foundational importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). If a child does not trust or understand you, or if a child feels as if you do not trust or understand them, how likely are they to learn from you or with you? This is not a trick question. When children don’t have self-regulation skills, emotional and impulsive behaviors rule the day and we find ourselves in a never-ending loop of corrective guidance. And what about “making good choices”? This is certainly not something young children are born knowing how to do.
All teaching and learning is relational; its “success” is contingent upon building a development skill set (for you and for the children) of social and emotional awareness and vocabulary. Without this, and the trust in relationship that is built over time with practice and reflection, we early childhood teachers might as well be living a preschool version of the movie Groundhog Day. Do you have any children who cry every day at drop off? Who seem unable to share or wait for a turn?
There are many reasons why SEL matters. According to CASEL, students who participated in programs that incorporated SEL had higher overall academic achievement, fewer behavioral challenges, a higher return on dollars invested in education, and overall “better” lifelong outcomes. And if you’re still not convinced that SEL is foundational for all learning, you can read this study in which 93 percent of teachers surveyed believe that SEL skills are 1) teachable and 2) critical to lifelong success.
So what are the key features of SEL? CASEL identifies five core competencies that we can develop through social and emotional learning:
- Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
- Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
- Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
- Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
- Responsible decision-making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.
Bruce Perry, the child psychiatrist and author, writes that all learning and development happens within the context of relationships, not in a vacuum and certainly not because of our genetic hardwiring alone. Even Lev Vygotsky, the psychologist and developmental play theorist of the early 20th century, knew before we had access to neurological maps of the developing brain or research findings in epigenetics that learning is a socially dynamic process.
In the early childhood setting, we are poised to lay the strong foundation for future learning success by incorporating SEL strategies into our daily routines. One fantastic and developmentally appropriate way to incorporate SEL is through children’s books. Make it a goal to include at least one SEL-focused story into your weekly read-aloud repertoire. Reflect after you read the book: “I wonder how (character name) felt when _______?” Or: “What would you do if you were (character name)?” In my setting, these stories become favorites that we read over and over again.
In addition to book-based learning, we can make SEL fun with games like “Guess My Feeling Face” (you can come up with a better name!). This is a perfect game to play with your students during transition times. You or a child can make faces and ask the rest of the group to identify how you are feeling—develop children’s emotional vocabulary to include more nuanced emotions like jealous, disappointed, anxious, embarrassed, proud, and so on. If you aren’t sure where to begin, this chart provides some helpful descriptors!
If you are even somewhat musically inclined, it’s easy to make up little tunes that help with self-regulation. For example, I sing a line-up song to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”: I’m ready for the hall, I’m standing straight and tall, my arms down right at my side, I’m ready for the hall. And if you’ve ever watched an episode of Daniel Tiger, you know that these tunes don’t have to be complicated to be effective. One of my favorites is: When you feel so mad, like you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four. And if coming up with songs on your own feels tough, you can use this resource to get started! Or get a copy of the book Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning by Amadee Ricketts.
Whether or not we intentionally incorporate SEL strategies into our everyday learning in early childhood, the truth is that we are planting seeds for future learning. Instead of haphazardly sowing seeds, uncertain of what they will grow into or how to tend to them, we can choose to be more careful, more intentional. While there are no guarantees when it comes to individual child development and teaching strategies (one size does not fit all), SEL is a proven winner in the preschool garden and beyond.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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