Strong Social-Emotional Skills Are Vital for Kids to Thrive in School and in Life


Strong Social-Emotional Skills Are Vital for Kids to Thrive in School and in Life

When was the last time you assembled some intricate piece of furniture? You had an Allen key and some indecipherable instructions. You were confused. Frustration built. How did you end up with a functional item in the end? You focused closely on the directions, took a deep breath and looked again. Then you tried using the Allen key in a few different ways until it worked. Finally, you asked for help when you were stumped. 

Now imagine being four, and being asked to sound out the word “cat”. Guess what? You NEED that same ability to focus, to calm yourself, to problem-solve, and to express your need for support, in order to make those letters have meaning. These are social-emotional skills and they are critical for learning. A four-year-old is just starting to learn these skills, and whether it’s the word cat to read or a new TV cabinet to assemble, success is impossible without them.

Importance of early social-emotional skills

The push towards preparing kids for standardized testing has taken over some pre-K and K classes in place of play-based programs. Yet numerous studies have shown that Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) must happen before academic learning can be successful. Research shows not only do social and emotional skills such as open-mindedness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability correlate with both academic and career success, but the lack of these skills can lead to greater chances of unemployment, poor health, and criminal behavior. A 2013 study shows a definitive link between preschoolers’ social functioning and their academic skills. The idea of social stability before growth isn’t new; it dates back decades to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs focuses on social-emotional skills.

Incorporating social-emotional learning in the classroom

What can teachers and early childhood educators do to make social-emotional learning a priority in the classroom while still aiming for those district-required academic milestones?

1. Make personalized greetings routine.

Establish routines that foster connections with each of your students and help them feel loved and safe. Greeting each child individually by name each morning, as opposed to a generalized “Good morning class”, is a great way to start. Personalized handshakes may be a casualty of the pandemic, but creative waves, verbal greetings and a big smile could come close. When students have been away, make a point to say, “I am so glad you are back. I missed you!” 

2. Incorporate social-emotional skills into circle time.

Start your day with a circle time that isn’t just about doing the calendar, but also includes modeling, discussing, and practicing feelings. Go around the circle and encourage students to express their feelings. This gives you the opportunity to check in with each child, and also helps them practice the skill of expressing themselves clearly and appropriately.  It gives the other children in the circle practice listening and developing empathy.

3. Choose high-quality books.

Make sure to choose high quality books for reading aloud. Choose diverse books written by authors of all types of backgrounds. Make sure your students can see themselves represented in the book. Look for strong story-lines that will help spark deep discussions on topics related to social-emotional development. Here is a list of 50 great books about race for kids and YA, and another extensive list of inspiring LGBTQIA+ books for the classroom.

4. Provide opportunities all day to practice social and emotional skills.

Don’t limit exposure to social and emotional learning to a few minutes of talking about feelings at circle time. Provide opportunities for students to practice the skills you’ve introduced throughout the day. Incorporate it into center playtimes, student-directed projects, class meetings, and small-group games. Young children learn through play and social emotional skills are no different. Provide materials that encourage children to work through social situations and emotions in all areas of the classroom.

5. Build on children’s interests.

Follow the children’s interests for impactful learning opportunities. For example, a morning circle story from someone who found a frog that day could lead to practicing social-emotional skills through learning about frogs. You could read books aloud featuring frogs, discuss what frogs need to be healthy, do a project where students use found materials to build frog habitats, and create a book filled with students’ frog drawings and writing. Working together to learn about other living creatures is great for social-emotional learning.

6. Don’t stop with early childhood.

Older kids and teenagers still need opportunities to strengthen social-emotional skills. Model appropriate interactions. Set up role-play scenarios to teach conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. Continue assigning diverse books that encourage thought and discussion – and read them together in class. Provide opportunities and a safe space for students to express their feelings.

Pandemic impact on social-emotional skills

Pandemic health guidelines may make some social-emotional learning activities more challenging to implement, but it is key in these times that we continue helping children develop these skills. Teacher ingenuity and creativity will be needed now more than ever! The pandemic created changes in today’s society. The resulting stress makes social-emotional learning even more crucial.

These strategies will give you the opportunity to model and cue appropriate behavior, The rich learning environment a social-emotional learning approach fosters also results in better academic results. It’s a winning combination for everyone involved – students, teachers, and parents. It’s also great for school districts because it strengthens test scores.

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Strong Social-Emotional Skills Are Vital for Kids to  Thrive in School and in Life

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Anne Lefebvre

Senior Member

I grew up in the city but now call small-town Ontario, Canada home, along with my husband and two teenage boys. I’m a passionate elementary school educator, but when I’m not at school you can find me playing a sport, reading, or drinking a cup of tea.

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