Can SEL deliver on its promises? Yes, but only if we start with early educators.

Early education is when we build a child's foundational understanding of their emotions and how to respond others' behaviors
Donna Housman
Donna Housman

With its capacity to improve academic outcomes and behaviors and build safe learning environments, educators are clamoring for training and support to help them integrate social-emotional learning into their teaching practices.

In fact, as shown in a recent McGraw-Hill 2021 Social and Emotional Learning Report, most teachers believe that SEL should be integrated into the curriculum along with other core subjects. In fact, 84% of teachers feel that SEL has become even more important since the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the impact that these foundational skills can have on a child’s well-being.

At the same time, scholars, professionals, and educators are also questioning whether teachers should be expected to handle the trauma and mental health issues that can easily accompany social-emotional learning, especially in a pandemic-impacted world. Currently, “three-quarters of [K-12] teachers receive some professional development that addressed SEL during the 2018-2019 school year,” according to a recent RAND report. But what about early childhood educators who work with children during their earliest years, when their brain growth and development is at their peak and their emotional foundation is being built?

If there’s a feeling that we’re “placing more into teachers’ laps” in K-12 by asking them to incorporate SEL, it’s because we’re getting it wrong from the start by not training early childhood educators to build children’s emotional competence and self-regulation at the most critical, developmental time. A child’s impressionable brain achieves 90% of its development before the age of five. And up until the age of five, the brain is developing more rapidly than at any other time in life.

It is imperative that early childhood educators have the support and training to guide children’s emotional development. Unfortunately, our current system isn’t set up to regularly offer such support and training to early childhood educators.

Why post-preschool is too late

If K-12 professional development standards feel like the Wild West, then early childhood is a desert. Our nation’s lack of a universal preschool or child care system makes it incredibly difficult to track let alone enforce standards of quality, including for professional development requirements.

The closest metric we have are states’ credentials and Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. There’s little data about whether early child care educators are actually getting high-quality training in emotional competence. In fact “half of K-12 teachers did not know whether their states or districts had adopted SEL standards.”

So while the push and prioritization of SEL is welcome and needed for children’s continued growth and development, if we don’t start early—from birth—and provide comprehensive training and support for preschool teachers, it’s all good money after bad at the K-12 level. Early childhood education is when we build a child’s foundational understanding of their emotions and how to respond to those and others’ behaviors. Social-emotional learning should be rote and an ingrained practice by the time children enter primary school.

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The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the gold standard for early learning accreditation, calls for building relationships and social-emotional learning throughout their programming. Too often, though, SEL training opportunities are introduced after pre-K.

We must align our standards and interventions with the window of opportunity that opens at birth. Evidence-based research shows that children who gain these building blocks as part of a curriculum from their earliest days significantly outperform their peers in key emotional competencies, self-regulation, empathy, and other prosocial skills.

How educators manage their own emotions

Before educators can help successfully guide their students they must first be able to have the awareness and understanding to appropriately express and manage their own emotions. In order to help children build a foundation of emotional intelligence, educators require comprehensive training and development in these key competencies. Coaching and mentoring grounded in emotional well-being can help elevate teachers’ self-reflection, mindfulness, emotional understanding, and awareness so they can mirror these key skills for their students.

When this modeling happens, the impact is astounding. When early educators receive high-quality, consistent professional development and training that is rooted in emotions, the children they introduce to these skills are better able to focus, problem-solve, understand complex concepts and develop empathy and resilience. Not surprisingly, the educators are also better positioned to handle the myriad of challenges that can occur in any preschool environment, which reduces burnout and increases retention.

No one is debating the importance of social-emotional learning, with districts spending nearly 50% more on SEL over the last school year. K-12 teachers are being asked to address the full depth and breadth of social-emotional learning because early childhood educators are not supported to do so. We must educate and train educators at all levels to effectively recognize and build their own emotional competencies and those in their young learners if we hope for SEL to deliver on its full potential for students and educators.

Donna Housman is the founder and CEO of Housman Institute, which conducts research on emotional intelligence in young children and develops high-quality programs to train early childhood educators.

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