Social-emotional learning and the missing link in ed reform

First three years of life are crucial

UNDER THE UMBRELLA of “social-emotional learning” (SEL), there has been an explosion in knowledge about how children develop the kinds of skills that are crucial to academic and lifelong success. As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning includes five interrelated competencies: self-awareness, self-management (or self-regulation), social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. We know that SEL strengthens executive function, and that it lays the foundation for these “soft skills” that we now recognize are essential for success across academic and professional disciplines. Self-regulation, in particular—the ability to control and manage our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and keep one’s attention focused—is fundamental to all SEL competencies. The missing link is in being able to provide the building blocks for developing self-regulation within the first three years of life.

New research into the brain clearly suggests that age four is too late in children’s developmental process to introduce SEL. Learning begins at birth, and research confirms that 90 percent of the brain is already developed within the first three years of life. The brain develops the fastest and is at its most malleable during these first three years—and early life experiences have an oversized impact on its development.

In Social and Emotional Learning: Opportunities for Massachusetts, Lessons for the Nation, a new report published by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy with ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), we see a call for state-level SEL standards and additional supports and mechanisms for implementation. These are important steps, but they are also limited. Starting in primary school misses a critical window—the most critical window—to maximize the benefits of an emotion-driven curriculum.

Self-regulation unleashes intellectual curiosity. Children as young as preschoolers who can regulate intense emotions are better able to pay attention and perform the essential critical thinking tasks of listening, concentrating, and problem solving. We have observed that children with these skills are even able to retain and discuss complex concepts like physics, astronomy, and mathematics.

Conversely, when a child is preoccupied with worries or distressing emotions, his or her energy is no longer available to attend to learning. Children with poor emotional competencies and lower self-regulation skills are at increased risk for low academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, peer rejection, and dropping out of school.

And yet, none of this research has been widely translated into new thinking about how we best structure early childhood education—the time when applying these lessons could have the greatest lifelong impact.

Why is this SEL groundswell ignoring the most critical years to change the trajectory of students’ lives? More importantly, how can we effectively apply what we know to early childhood education?

We need to rethink when we start educating children and how we educate them if we expect to raise emotionally healthy children who are able to cope with heightened stress and anxiety, thrive intellectually, succeed in work, build strong interpersonal relationships, and contribute to society by becoming creative thinkers and innovative leaders. We cannot wait to introduce SEL concepts and an emotion-driven education until children are four or five years old.

Some education “reformers” – who may or may not have ever stepped foot in a classroom – are pushing entirely inappropriate curricula on three- and four-year-olds. A narrow focus on mathematics and literacy skills at such an early age is at odds with what we know about child development and is only likely to cause children stress, anxiety, and frustration. Instead, children should have a curriculum that is appropriate for their developmental stage. In other words, children should focus on the “work” of creative play and socializing, and starting to develop early emotional and social competencies; this will help them to deal more successfully with daily challenges and growing empathic relationships.

At Beginnings School, an early childhood education center for children three months through kindergarten in Weston, we have drawn on scientific research in child development, education, and neuroscience to develop the Emotional Cognitive Social Early Learning (ECSEL) curriculum. ECSEL uniquely emphasizes the importance of emotional competence for learning and cognition, and Beginnings School is the only early childhood education program in the country to employ this approach beginning with children from birth to three years old. ECSEL accomplishes this through targeting the early period of neuroplasticity and incorporating real-time communication in the heat of the emotional experience.

Children learn how to control emotions within the context of relationships with other people. It’s relatively common knowledge that parents are the primary socializers of children’s emotion and behavior. But teachers often have more opportunities to observe children as they interact with peers and help them develop their ability to manage the inevitable conflicts and frustrations that come with social interaction.

ECSEL employs a number of unique, developmentally appropriate tools to assist teachers in fostering emotional awareness and understanding. These tools teach children how to manage and constructively deal with their emotions and those of others by identifying, understanding, and processing those emotions in real time. Teaching children how to manage and deal with their emotions in the heat of the moment is far more effective than just learning about conflicts that can and do happen in a displaced situation (e.g., from a storybook) or long after the incident.

By learning how to engage in these practices, teachers can provide opportunities for helping children feel better, learn effective ways of dealing with anxiety and stress, figure out constructive and productive ways for resolving problems, and give them tools to use when expressing and regulating emotions. With the appropriate training, ECSEL is a curriculum that can be employed in virtually any childcare or early learning setting. Providing children with the architecture to develop emotional intelligence will not only help them reach personal, social, and academic success, but also foster education for character and moral development.

As we continue to push for education reform, let us remember the foundation upon which all other learning and achievement is built. We have the evidence proving that age 0-3 is a critical window for child development, and we have proven at Beginnings School that children can and do respond to the developmentally appropriate emotion regulation education curricula during this time. It is time to bring these lessons to scale, and push for expanded standards, tools, and training to equip all educators—including those teaching our youngest children in both public and private school settings—to give our kids the building blocks for success from day one.

Meet the Author

Emotional competence and emotional intelligence create strengths in compromise, negotiation, and problem-solving. One can imagine the impact that a generation of children taught in this fashion could have in all areas of society: politics and governance, business and economics, or science and innovation.

Donna Housman, EdD, is a clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School.  She is also assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.