Social and emotional learning

Published on Tuesday, 10 August 2021
Last updated on Monday, 09 August 2021

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Working with young children in early learning environments means that ELEC teachers are well aware of the rapid rate of development that infants, toddlers and preschoolers experience at this age.

Preparing preschoolers for the transition to primary school involves targeting specific areas for development and helping kids to improve in these areas first and foremost. For a long time, this focus was on the cognitive development of children in early learning environments, particularly literacy and numeracy. As a result, other areas of development that are equally important during these early years - if not even more so – were, at times, neglected.

Today, teachers and educators are becoming more aware of the need to guide young children through their social and emotional development, to help them get ready for starting ‘big school’ and make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone.

What is now called Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) includes helping early learners to develop skills in five key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. Building these skills enables children to understand feelings - their own and other people’s, manage their emotions, develop empathy, establish strong relationships, gain confidence in themselves and build a positive self-image.

These five key areas of social and emotional learning are described by Be You, a national mental health in education initiative powered by Beyond Blue, as:

Self-awareness - The ability to recognise and understand your own emotions, thoughts and values, and understand how they affect your behaviour. This includes self-confidence and an understanding of one’s strengths.

Self-management - The ability to manage and regulate your emotions and behaviour, including managing stress, controlling impulses and keeping yourself motivated. 

Social awareness - The ability to understand, respect and empathise with people from a range of diverse backgrounds, and to understand social and ethical norms of behaviour. perspective-taking

Relationship skills - The skills that enable children to develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with others. They include the ability to communicate clearly, listen, cooperate, resist peer pressure and negotiate conflict. 

Responsible decision-making - The ability to make informed and responsible decisions about personal behaviour and social interactions with others, based on adherence to ethical standards, safety concerns and social norms. 

How to Promote Emotional Learning

Recognising, understanding and expressing emotions are essential skills for children to learn in early childhood, to enable them to moderate their feelings and behaviours, interact with others in an appropriate manner, and gain strong, positive self-awareness. There are numerous ways for teachers in early learning services to help children with their SEL, for their long-term benefit and to enable them to transition more smoothly into school.

Educators can:

Pay attention - What emotions are the children in your care feeling, and how are they dealing with them? Notice their body language, listen to their verbal articulation of feelings, and observe their behaviour. It can be helpful to take notes of what you observe, for example how specific situations or events make a certain child react emotionally, so that you can talk to them about their feelings later.

Build recognition - Teach children what emotions are, how they affect us, how to recognise how they are feeling, and intuiting how other people are feeling by the way that they behave. This is a great time to return to your notes and help children to remember how they felt in different moments. When one child managed to balance walking the whole way across a low wall, did they feel happy and proud of themselves? When another child couldn’t figure out how to make a particular toy work, did they feel angry and frustrated? How did these emotions make them feel physically? 

Discuss managing feelings - Naming emotions is the first step to being able to understand and manage them. Once children understand the language associated with various emotions - I feel happy, today I am anxious, I am embarrassed because… - they can express themselves more appropriately and have their feelings validated. Using positive language to acknowledge a range of emotions - even less desirable ones - allows children to feel safe and confident enough to express themselves. 

It is then up to you to set boundaries on how certain emotions such as anger and frustration are expressed - it is ok to feel annoyed that another child has the brown crayon when you want to use it, but it is not ok to snatch it from them, or to hit them if they won’t give it to you. Can you use another colour to draw the tree trunk? Or can you work on another part of your drawing until they are finished with the brown crayon. This helps children to develop patience and work on their problem-solving skills.

Be a good role model - Show and tell the children in your care how you are feeling in different situations, and model good behaviour for how to express and manage your emotional state. If a child’s behaviour is frustrating you, let them know using descriptive language. ‘I don’t like yelling inside the classroom during story time. These interruptions are frustrating.’ Make sure you single out the undesirable behaviour as annoying or frustrating in these situations, however, rather than saying that it is the child that is annoying or frustrating. Then try to get them to identify how they are feeling and why they are reacting to those feelings in a disruptive manner; ‘I’m bored. I want to go outside and play.’ 

Next, help them to understand that their feelings are valid and understandable - everyone feels that way sometimes. But there are better ways of dealing with these emotions than acting out. Guide them through alternative reactions and behaviours; if a child is bored during a group activity, perhaps they can quietly go and find a toy to play with by themselves until everyone else is ready to move on to another activity.

How to Help Children Build Social Skills

Early learning services are the perfect environments for young children to practise and develop their social skills, but they will need help to navigate this often-confusing landscape, in ways that will at first not come naturally to them. Young children can have difficulty with sharing, remembering their manners, being respectful and interacting positively with others - especially their peers.

According to a Be You article on SEL, “Educators can build a welcoming and warm learning community by demonstrating respect, listening skills and positive expectations about respectful and caring behaviour.”

To make the most of the opportunity group environments present for positive social interactions, children will need plenty of guidance as well as modelling of positive behaviours. Educators can:

Teach cooperation - Taking turns, sharing and using good manners are all ways in which children engage in positive social interactions. Teach children the appropriate ways that they can work with one another, play with one another, and enjoy one another’s company by practising these skills, so that everyone can have fun together and be happy. Reading books, telling stories and displaying illustrative posters are all good ways to help children understand these concepts. 

Provide opportunities - Create times for interaction between children, perhaps in small groups so that the process seems less daunting. Set up small world play scenarios for two or three children to play with together. Create craft projects that require children to work together, such as needing one child to apply glue to a page and another to attach a handful of leaves or cotton balls to complete a printed scene. 

You can even ask a group of three or four children to work together to tidy up a small area of the classroom, maybe by putting away the STEM toys together. You’re likely to get mixed results when it comes to properly organised materials, but the opportunity for social interaction is far more valuable.

Acknowledge and praise - When you do notice children in your care playing happily together or modelling good social skills, be sure to remark on how well they are doing using positive descriptive language to boost their self-esteem and encourage further development. While negative interactions will need to be acknowledged and corrected too, try not to dwell on these but focus more time and energy recognising and reinforcing when a child is doing well.

Encourage independent problem-solving - Enabling children to solve problems and sort out squabbles among themselves without needing adult assistance is essential in supporting their social development, as well as their cognitive development. “Where possible, support problem-solving without taking over,” is the suggestion made by Be You.

“Ask questions in a supportive way to help children and young people think through situations and encourage them to take others’ feelings and perspectives into account.” In this way, teachers can help the children in their care to become more independent in their emotional and social development, helping them get ready for the transition to big school that is on the horizon.

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