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Early Childhood Critical for Key SEL Skills

There are two phrases that have cropped up a lot over the last decade or so in education circles: “early childhood development” and “social emotional learning” (SEL). Now, increasingly, they are becoming part of the same conversation.

The Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning  reported on the connection between the two this way:

Research has clearly shown that children’s emotional and behavioral adjustment is important for their chances of early school success, yet the emphasis on cognitive and academic preparedness often overshadows the importance of children’s social-emotional development,” a team of researchers reported. “When children feel good about themselves, they are able to develop positive relationships with others, and know how to identify, express, and manage their emotions, they are more likely to be ready to learn and succeed.”

They noted that research also shows that 60 percent of children enter school with the necessary cognitive skills, but only 40 percent have the necessary social-emotional skills, and a study at Yale showed similar results. One other study shows 25 percent of low income children have social-emotional problems and that while their parents wanted assistance, they were rarely offered it. A report earlier this year in Prevention Science notes that students with significant socio-emotional difficulties often don’t benefit from early childhood education and then become behavior problems for schools later.

Sheldon Horowitch, senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which also has carefully studied the issue, says all sorts of social and emotional concerns arise in these early years, some actually caused by the deficits in learning themselves.

“It's only natural for children to measure their performance against that of their peers, and when frustration and poor performance become their norm, children are often prone to doubt their ability, loose interest and enthusiasm for learning, and become passive rather than active participants, both academically and socially,” he says. These limitations also create very high levels of stress, he notes, which can have significant effects on a young child.

So what can schools do?

Develop detection. Early childhood education facilities should develop structures for screening children or detecting problems. Those that don’t have them might benefit from working with their school district or elementary school partners or training staff to help.

Work with experts. Pre-school facilities also should make connections with professionals to help them train the staff, identify potential problems in specific students or help screen the entire student body. Those providers also can become resources for parents. Even pediatricians can help.

Train teachers. Horowitz says teachers need training to recognize the signs that a child is struggling with social skills or has an emotional problem. Research shows even brief training helps, particularly related to communications with parents.

Collect data. Have a standard system for teachers to report their concern – and share it as appropriate with other teachers or supervisors.

Have them report. Experts say it is critical for instructors in early childhood education to have a basic understanding of social emotional issues and how problems might become visible in a child. They should also know how to report their concerns. “Perhaps even more important,’ says Horowitz, “they need to understand what the issues are and be encouraged and empowered to share their observations and concerns with colleagues who can help plan and implement steps to intervene.”

Don’t over accommodate. Horowitz and other experts are wary of pre-school teachers who believe they can help a student or give them time to develop by bending the rules for them or downplaying the problems they have socially or emotionally. “Lowering the bar” too much can cause problems to be overlooked.

Recognize parental issues. Often emotional issues in children are a result of having parents with problems of their own. This may include concerns about abuse.


Article by Jim Paterson, Education World contributor