General Education

Social-Emotional Learning in the Preschool Classroom

Social-Emotional Learning in the Preschool Classroom
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Kate Zinsser April 28, 2015

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is key in preparing preschoolers for kindergarten. Learn about successful SEL curricula that teach young kids these skills.

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In a 2000 study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, researchers asked kindergarten teachers which skills preschoolers need most for a smooth transition. The teachers resoundingly indicated that kids need to be able to communicate their needs and feelings, ask for help, manage their behaviors, and begin to be able to regulate their emotions.

The process of developing these competencies is lifelong and is commonly referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL). Parents, teachers, peers, and siblings all play important roles in helping children with SEL, and there are many ways to promote this learning in young children. Children learn about emotions and social behaviors through direct instruction, by observing what others do and say, and by attending to how others react and respond to their expressions and behaviors.

This article will focus on reviewing one particular aspect of SEL: curricula used in preschool classrooms to promote SEL through direct instruction. Using these programs, such as the four common programs described below, in conjunction with providing a positive and supportive classroom environment, enables teachers to develop children’s SEL.

Curricula Overview

Al’s Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices

Developed by Susan R. Geller, this resilience-based early childhood curriculum and teacher training program develops social, emotional, and behavioral skills in children who are between three and eight years old. Over the course of 46 lessons, children learn how to get along with others, use self-control, accept differences, resolve conflicts peacefully, and make healthy choices.

Al’s Pals uses twice weekly puppet-based discussions, role-playing, songs, and movement to introduce social-emotional skills and decrease precursors to aggressive behavior. According to a 2004 follow-up on the program’s success, teachers who have used Al’s Pals rate children lower on problematic behaviors, such as antisocial/aggressive, social withdrawal, and anxiety.

The Incredible Years

This curriculum aims to reduce challenging behaviors in children from infancy to early adolescence by reinforcing SEL both in school and at home. Teacher training workshops focus on classroom management techniques and promoting children’s prosocial behavior, emphasizing empathy, emotional literacy, problem-solving, and self-control. The “Dinosaur Curriculum” for preschool-aged students includes 60 lessons, presented through puppetry or vignettes, followed by group discussions, practice activities, and homework assignments for reinforcement.

Lessons focus on developing skills to understand and recognize feelings, solve problems, manage anger, and develop and maintain friendships. Studies have found that when teachers use The Incredible Years program, there is measurable improvement in positive atmosphere of their classroom, and their students show increases in their use of problem-solving skills and overall school readiness.

Preschool PATHS Curriculum

Another common program is the rigorously tested Preschool PATHS Curriculum. This program provides classroom teachers with lessons, activities, and planning tools to assist children in learning social-emotional skills. The preschool version of PATHS delivers 30 “circle time” lessons to promote social and emotional competencies, including compliments, basic and advanced feelings, problem-solving, and the “Turtle Technique” to increase preschoolers’ self-control.

Crucial to the success of the PATHS curriculum is training teachers to use extension activities and integrate PATHS concepts throughout the preschool day. A study in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders found that children participating in the PATHS curriculum were more likely to demonstrate self-control and choose non-confrontational solutions to peer problems, had a larger affective vocabulary, and were less likely to be rated by their teachers as displaying internalizing and externalizing behavior problems.

Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum

Developed by Karin Fray, Miriam Hirschstein, and Barbara Guzzo, this program seeks to reduce aggressive behavior through three separate curricula for preschool/kindergarten, elementary, and middle school children. Preschool classroom lessons include labeling emotions, managing emotional reactions, making decisions, and choosing positive goals. Younger students are encouraged to interact with the Impulsive Puppy, Slow-Down Snail, and Be-Calm Bunny puppets and toys throughout the curriculum.

Second Step also connects new skills to other areas in the curriculum (e.g., literacy and the arts) and provides a structure for each day of the week. After a single year of program involvement, one study found that children learning SEL through Second Step demonstrated increased knowledge of social skills and decreased observed behavioral problems.

For a thorough review of all of the widely-recognized preschool SEL curricula, see the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s online guide.

SEL at Home

If your child’s preschool classroom is using one of these curricula (or a similar one), you can play an important role in helping your child’s social emotional learning. One great way to do this is to use consistent language. Did you hear your son singing the “calm down song”? Or does your daughter talk about “turtling” when she’s frustrated? Familiarize yourself with the terminology used in the classroom curriculum and encourage your children to talk about what they’re learning about their feelings at school.

Curriculum: Not the Whole SEL Story

High quality curricula, such as the ones described here, have been shown to significantly improve children’s social and emotional competencies, a key contributor to kindergarten readiness. But implementing a curriculum is not the only way that preschool teachers and parents can support children’s SEL. In an upcoming article, I will look at how SEL occurs throughout everyday interactions with young children.

Further Reading on Noodle

You can use Noodle to search preschools near you for the right one that fits your family’s needs. There is also space for you to ask questions and find expert guidance about preschool. If you were interested in this article, you may also find helpful the following articles:

What it Looks Like to Teach Your Child Social Skills at Home

How to Choose a Preschool: Which Program Philosophy Is Right for Your Child?

What Can My Child Expect From Pre-K?


Domitrovich, C., Cortes, R., & Greenberg, M. (2007, January 1). Improving Young Children’s Social and Emotional Competence: A Randomized Trial of the Preschool “PATHS” Curriculum. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from NCBI

Kam, C., Greenberg, M., & Kushe, C. (2004, January 1). Sustained Effects of the PATHS Curriculum on the Social and Psychological Adjustment of Children in Special Education. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from Evidence-Based Prevention Programs Committee.

Lynch, K., Geller, S., & Schmidt, M. (2004, March 1). Multi-Year Evaluation of the Effectiveness of a Resilience-Based Prevention Program for Young Children. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from Springer Link.

McMahon, S., Washburn, J., Felix, E., Yakin, J., & Childrey, G. (2005, January 1). Violence Prevention: Program Effects on Urban Preschool and Kindergarten Children. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from Science Direct.

Rimm-Kaufman, S., Pianata, R., & Cox, M. (2000, January 1). Teachers’ Judgments of Problems in the Transition to Kindergarten. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from The Children’s Learning Institute.

Webster-Stratton, C., Reid, M., & Stoolmiller, M. (2008, January 1). Preventing Conduct Problems and Improving School Readiness: Evaluation of the Incredible Years Teacher and Child Training Programs in high-risk schools. Retrieved April 22, 2015, from NCBI.


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