Why social and emotional skill building in early childhood matters

BlogJul 18 2016

I started my career as a preschool teacher. For 13 years, I helped 3- to 5-year-old children learn how to write their name; count, sort and use other foundational math concepts; manage their toileting and dressing independently; and meet other easily-observable school-readiness milestones. The children were flourishing, and their families were delighted with their achievements! But woven throughout the multi-faceted learning experiences supporting cognitive, language, physical, and self-help skills was something less tangible: the social and emotional skills that made all the rest possible.

Now, I’m a researcher, studying social and emotional development. Child Trends recently completed a project recommending measures of early childhood social and emotional development that can be used by federal statistical agencies to develop indicators for this domain. While the sequence and timing of achieving various milestones and skills varies greatly among young children, having such benchmarks would be helpful to practitioners supporting this area of development. During my own time teaching, very little formal assessment of this domain took place, but for the identification of problem behaviors. Although trends toward including this area of development in routine assessment activities seem to be shifting, good-quality tools that are designed and validated for use by early childhood teachers and that do not unduly burden children are limited.

This is a challenge for K-12 teachers, too. As noted in this recent article in The New York Times, social and emotional skills are not easy to measure, and current school-age assessments are also lacking. Recent federal education policy changes call for states to include non-academic measures in their accountability systems. Proficiency in social and emotional skills is one among a number of dimensions being considered to fulfill this requirement.

Learning experiences in early childhood almost always involve interactions with others. These interactions can foster positive relationships as well as build specific social competencies that support effective communication, turn-taking, or sharing skills. Many experiences also elicit strong feelings – such as anger, sadness, anxiety, or frustration – which require emotional competence and self-regulation skills to manage. As children move from “other-regulation” (wherein adults manage and sooth them) to a state of self-control, they need skills to manage their emotion and behaviors and focus their attention in response to the demands of the environment.

Research shows that a firm foundation of social and emotional skills sets the stage for academic and even career achievement. But in one national survey of 3,600 kindergarten teachers, 20 percent reported that at least half of the class did not have the social skills necessary for school success. During my time in the classroom, I was amazed at the proportion of time necessary to support the development of young children’s social and emotional skills, but I also discovered that it was one of the parts of teaching I loved most! This entailed guiding children in understanding themselves, their emotions, and their preferences; helping children learn to perceive and understand the wants and needs of others around them; and teaching children to reconcile the inevitable conflict between their needs and the needs of others.

Here is an example. One day, Julio (not his real name) wanted to ride a tricycle. But his classmate, Beatrice (not her real name) was currently riding it. In order for him to be able to ride that tricycle, he first had to ask for a turn (language and self-confidence), which Bea promptly denied (“No! I’m never getting done!”). Then Julio had to manage the well of tears at being rejected (“Miss K, Bea said she’s not gonna share, ever!”) and tell me his story (emotion management and communicating feelings). I helped Julio explain to Bea how hard it was to wait (empathy-building) but also validated how much she seemed to be enjoying the tricycle (protecting “property” to promote her sense of emotional safety and trust). I reminded her that school toys must be shared (modeling setting boundaries and fairness) and helped the children work out a solution (problem-solving; taking turns). We ended up instituting a waiting list by the bicycle area, with a timer, and as a bonus, the children were writing their name on the list (fine motor and print skills) and learning time concepts (foundational math).

When we expect children to manifest all these skills out of thin air, without thoughtful planning and patient guidance, we are making a tremendous assumption. Such skills need to be intentionally embedded into typical classroom activities, just like using a pencil, reciting the alphabet, or assembling a puzzle. Social and emotional skills are assets to children in the present, and to society in their future. Going forward, it’s time for child-serving programs and policymakers to ensure that measuring and supporting the development of social and emotional competencies is a priority on par with building academic school readiness skills.