How children learn social and emotional competence in care

Published on Wednesday, 18 March 2020
Last updated on Thursday, 12 March 2020

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When we talk about social and emotional competence, we’re talking about the abilities and skills people need to be resilient and able to manage their emotions, behaviour and social skills. 

For under fives, social and emotional competence is something that needs to be learnt and practised, and educators at early childhood education (ECE) services play an important role in teaching, supporting and encouraging these abilities.  

Day-to-day, educators teach young children how to:

  • Cope with new or challenging situations
  • Build resilience
  • Recognise and manage their feelings
  • Develop care and empathy for others
  • Cooperate with one another
  • Manage their learning
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Make friends

To help educators do this effectively, the Ministry of Education has released a book entitled, He Māpuna te Tamaiti: Supporting Social and Emotional Competence in Early Learning, along with a self-assessment tool and some ‘quick tip’ cards that educators can refer to as needed.

He Māpuna te Tamaiti is underpinned by the Te Whāriki early learning curriculum, and this book shows how educators teach social and emotional skills by:

  1. Creating a supportive environment
  2. Promoting emotional competence
  3. Promoting social competence
  4. Supporting learning and engagement

Here we summarise the book, and see how these four strategies support children’s wellbeing and positive behaviour in the ECE setting. 

1. How do educators create a supportive environment?

A positive, inclusive ECE environment provides opportunities for children to practise their social and emotional skills, take some risks and test boundaries, safe in the knowledge that their educators will be calm, caring and consistent. 

To create an environment that’s conducive to social and emotional learning educators: 

  • Establish a positive climate, complete with friendly voices, personalised welcomes and send-offs, warm relationships with children, and a generally ‘big-hearted’ atmosphere. 
  • Construct values, taking into account the beliefs and aspirations of children, whānau and community members. Educators display these values with pictures and signage, and talk to children about the values and how they’re expressed.
  • Develop and promote expectations. They think about the values and behaviours needed for different activities, agree on expectations of behaviour with children (like ‘using gentle touch’ to ‘look after one another’), and provide consistent responses and positive feedback. 
  • Establish consistent routines. This creates feelings of comfort and security for babies and toddlers, and helps preschoolers gain competency as they manage their day. Routines create a feeling of belonging and help children think about the needs and safety of their peers.
  • Create a safe and inclusive space, by making sure physical spaces are welcoming for children and whānau, resources are easy to access and share, there are spaces for ‘quiet time’, cultural diversity is celebrated, and children are taught how to use the space and resources carefully and responsibly (e.g. by showing, prompting or reminding them).  

2. How do educators promote emotional competence?

Emotional competence is when children learn to understand their own feelings, appreciate the feelings of others, see how their actions impact on others, and learn to manage and express their emotions appropriately (e.g. by calming themselves down).

The Ministry of Education explains that this competence develops over time, as children have different learning opportunities and interact with whānau, other children and the community. 

When it comes to ECE, educators promote emotional competence by:

  • Supporting children to understand, express and regulate their emotions. They talk about feelings with youngsters, ask them to name and describe different emotions, and give feedback when children show self-regulation. 
  • Educators help youngsters build resilience and a sense of self-worth by offering positive feedback about children’s developing skills, and preparing them for change and other situations that might trigger big feelings. They help children ‘bounce back’ from disappointment or frustration, and acknowledge youngsters’ attempts to meet social and emotional expectations. 
  • Educators provide positive guidance during heightened emotions. They support children, model ways to manage emotions (e.g. by thinking aloud) and have dedicated spaces, resources and approaches for self-calming. 

3. How do educators promote social competence?

Play is an important way that young children learn social skills, and educators promote social competence by: 

  • Fostering peer friendships and interactions. They help children notice one another and join in play, they praise/encourage children when they show their social skills, and they support children with the behaviours needed to socialise in a group. 
  • Educators support children to care for and empathise with others. This involves noticing a child’s caring behaviour if another child is upset, and supporting children to understand how their behaviour affects others. 
  • Educators help youngsters support others in their learning, by supporting tuakana–teina relationships between older and younger, and giving children opportunities to be leaders and teachers of their peers. 
  • They also help children solve social problems when there’s conflict between peers, by establishing clear expectations and boundaries around behaviour; and teaching them problem-solving skills to avoid or navigate conflict. 

4. How do educators support learning and engagement?

The Ministry of Education says that, ‘Self-regulated, self-managing behaviours help children make the most of opportunities to learn,’ and quality educators are skilled at delivering a curriculum that’s responsive to children’s interests and taught in a planned and intentional way. 

When it comes to social and emotional competence, educators:

  • Support children to manage their learning, by discussing their plans, projects and experiences, and giving feedback when children show self-managing learning behaviours. They motivate children to challenge and extend themselves beyond what they already know. 
  • Educators provide rich and varied learning experiences. They draw on the wider community and environment to create a rich curriculum, they make sure each activity is interesting (with a balance between continuity and change), and they provide lots of opportunities for youngsters to engage in physically active play.  
  • Educators remove barriers to participation, engagement and learning by leaving more time for complex tasks and less time for tidying up. They make sure routines have a positive effect, and they change policies or practices that are confusing to children or whānau. 
  • Educators also support transitions, whether a child is switching from outdoor play to lunch, or heading off to big school. They provide reminders about daily transitions, prepare children for major transitions, and give children choices so they feel more in control. 

At the heart of all four strategies is the importance of ‘warm, caring relationships and culturally responsive, inclusive teaching.’ Quality educators understand children’s behaviour, and partner with whānau to build respectful, reciprocal relationships. 

How can He Māpuna te Tamaiti help parents?

Although this book is written with educators in mind, it contains many teaching practices that parents can use outside ECE hours. 

Whether you’re describing your child’s behaviour to them, praising them for sharing, thinking aloud or preparing for a transition, there are lots of ways to support your child’s social and emotional competence. 

To read about different techniques, head to page 107 of the book. 

Additional reference

Victoria State Government

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