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High quality social–emotional learning (SEL) curricula, such as the ones described in my prior article on social-emotional learning in preschool, have been shown to improve social and emotional competencies in childhood significantly—on top of being contributors to elementary school readiness.
But implementing curriculum and programs across school districts isn't the only way to support early childhood development of emotional skills, social awareness, and a growth mindset.
All adults who regularly interact with preschool children have the opportunity to contribute to SEL in a variety of ways, promoting core competencies like managing emotions, conflict resolution, empathy, and relationship skills.
Traditionally, SEL has been considered part of the parents' realm. But as kids spend increasing time in child care and preschool, a wider community of caregivers is accountable for creating learning environments to develop these critical skills in early childhood. In truth, all adults actively provide a model for social and emotional competencies, and the more closely parents and caregivers align in their modeling, the more consistent the lessons they convey will be.
You can ask children directly to demonstrate their SEL skills through certain prompts and activities. For instance, you can show children different picture cards of emotional expressions and teach them the names of new emotions (like disgust or surprise). This may occur in the context of an SEL curriculum, or as a stand-alone lesson, such as during story time at school or at home. The lesson can be as simple as saying, “When I make this face, it means I’m feeling ____."
Another activity teachers can implement at school is displaying pictures showing children making different facial expressions and asking students to point toward the image that represents how they’re feeling that day.
Teachers and parents can support children's emerging social and emotional skills through scaffolding. Scaffolding describes progressive supports that build upon what children already know, such as the names of basic emotions, so that they can learn new skills, like how to identify when a playmate is sad. You can guide a child to notice the feelings of an affronted peer and suggest possible solutions. For example, “Serena is crying. She seems sad that no one has invited her to play. I bet she would feel better if you would be willing to share your trucks with her."
You can read a book and prompt children to think of times when they have felt the same as the main character. For example, the Mercer Mayer classic I Was So Mad can encourage children to think of times they’ve been mad and what they do to feel better. For a great list of story books that can support children’s social and emotional learning, check out the list published by Vanderbilt’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.
Articulate the rules you set about expressing emotions in the classroom or at home. This includes providing specific rules — no hitting, share your toys, and so on — but also means following the rules yourself. Children learn a great deal through observing and imitating others, especially their parents and teachers. As such, adults can promote SEL by conscientiously modeling ways in which emotions are expressed and regulated in social situations. This can be through elaborate role-playing activities, or just by expressing emotions and narrating to children how you feel and what you’re going to do about your feelings.
Respond to a child’s emotions by validating her feelings as opposed to dismissing them. For instance, this means asking, “What’s wrong?" rather than saying, “Stop crying." Teachers and parents can encourage a child’s emotional expressions by responding constructively to them. Only when an adult understands why a child is upset can the adult help the child cope with her emotions and what has caused them. Minimizing, punishing, or dismissing a child’s emotions does not give the child the opportunity to learn how to respond constructively to those emotions.
John Gottman’s classic book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, provides great examples of how parents’ reactions to children’s emotional expressions can teach children how to regulate and understand their own feelings. Emerging research is showing similar associations between preschool teachers’ reactions and their student’s SEL. When teachers respond positively to a child’s emotional expressions, the child is more likely to respond positively to others’ emotions; the converse is also true.
It is important for children to associate social and emotional competence with some relief from strong emotions, either on their part or on others’. This is key to their development of traits such as altruism and empathy later in life. You can point out moments at which these occur to help your child understand them. For example, you might say, “I like how you noticed Johnny was upset and gave him a hug. How did that make you feel?"
The preschool classroom is a busy, emotionally-charged place. Children are observing and absorbing lessons about emotions throughout the day, even when those lessons are unintentional. Children are learning social and emotional competencies through nearly all of their regular interactions with teachers and classmates. These lessons continue on the playground and at home, where parents can continue to teach social and emotional competencies to their young children — and in the process, better prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.
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