Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a term heard often these days in education circles -- with good reason. As Aristotle so wisely stated – about 300 years before the birth of Christ -- “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Although this is true for students of all ages, it has additional significance in the early years. That’s why I was excited to interview Katherine Zinsser, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose research focuses on identifying effective social-emotional teaching practices and the formation of educational work-place environments that promote teacher and child well-being, and Ellen Booth Church, author of the new book, Getting to the Heart of Learning: Social-Emotional Skills across the Early Childhood Curriculum.
In a follow-up to our discussion, Kate told me, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a process and it's not one that young children can do on their own. Teachers, parents, siblings and peers all play critical roles in helping children learn to be socially and emotionally aware, to manage their feelings and behaviors, and to make responsible choices.”
What are the best ways for teachers of young children to support SEL? Kate advises
Although there are many effective and beneficial SEL curricula that can be implemented in preschool classrooms, children benefit when teachers go beyond the boxed lessons. Teachers can support children's SEL throughout the school day from drop off to pick up. A warm hug or cheery hello helps a child feel welcome and valued in the classroom. Kneeling down and labeling a child's emotional expression (I see that you're feeling sad) validates a child's emotional experience and tells them that feelings are not inherently bad. Modeling your own emotion regulation strategies, such as taking deep breaths when things get hectic in the classroom, reinforces the skills you hope they will emulate.
She warns, however,
… supporting children's SEL necessitates that teachers themselves feel socially and emotionally competent. I think an often overlooked and critical component of SEL is the emotional well-being of our early childhood workforce. If we expect teachers to support children's SEL, we must make sure that their emotional needs are met as well. By some accounts, a quarter of our preschool teachers meet the clinical criteria for depression (Whitaker et al., 2013). Without support, these teachers cannot realistically be expected to serve as social and emotional role models for our youngest learners.
Ellen talked about the role of families in providing SEL support, saying that early childhood educators “need to involve families in the conversation about social and emotional skills and learning. They tend to see these topics are two separate things.” She added
One of my goals in an activity is to provide "spin offs" for families that support both social/emotional and concept learning in the home. This provides them with hands-on examples of how the two seemingly different areas of education relate and support each other. It is also important to share with families some of the recent brain research that supports the importance of social interaction and brain development. Studies are showing that the neural pathways that are needed for learning are actually constructed through positive interactions with others!
In Getting to the Heart of Learning, Ellen writes
All learning is social-emotional learning. Children do not learn skills in isolation but through social connection and interconnection to the real world – their world. It is their curiosity about the world that stimulates their desire to learn and to share what they have learned. We all learn best when we care about what we are learning and whom we are learning it with. Children live their lives with their hearts and minds open and connected. From that union of heart and mind, they develop into people who are balanced, happy, and successful.
I think Aristotle would agree.
Reference: Whitaker, R. C., Becker, B. D., Herman, A. N., & Gooze, R. A. (2013). The Physical and Mental Health of Head Start Staff: The Pennsylvania Head Start Staff Wellness Survey, 2012. Preventing Chronic Disease, 10. doi:10.5888/pcd10.130171