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Let us take care of the children 
For they have a long way to go.
    ~ Nelson Mandela

 

 

Research into Practice: The Importance of Fostering Social & Emotional Development in the Early Years

Research Into Practice Volume 3

Why focus on social emotional development in the early years?

by Iris Berger

The importance of social emotional development is sometimes overlooked because of the emphasis on academic preparedness.

However, in recent years a body of research has been building to suggest that there is a strong link between young children's socioemotional competence and their chances of early school success (Raver, 2002). In fact, studies demonstrated that social emotional knowledge has a critical role in improving children's academic performance and life long learning (Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2004).

Children who are aware of their emotions and have good planning skills by the time they enter school also have a lower risk for problems of aggression and anxiety disorders (Greenberg, Kusch, & Mihalic, 1998).

Special programs that promote social emotional learning (see below) reduce violence and increase prosocial behaviour (Schonert-Reichl, Smith, & Ziadman-Zait, 2002).

Although the importance of social emotional development is not new to early childhood educators and parents, in light of the findings of recent research projects caregivers could rededicate themselves to the value of educating the whole child, and take an active role in encouraging and promoting social emotional leaning by focusing on key dimensions of social and emotional development.

Key dimensions of social emotional development

Caring environment: Developing warm, trusting, relationships with responsive caregivers in early childhood settings are crucial. These relationships provide the child with an internal working model of positive social relationships (Denham & Weissberg, 2004).

Emotional knowledge and emotional regulation: The ability to recognize emotions in one self and others, and to postpone reaction to emotions while channelling these feelings into socially acceptable behaviours is fundamental to social competency.

In the early stages of social emotional development infants and toddlers experience emotions and react to them on an affective level. With the onset of language and other cognitive skills, such as attention maintenance, and reasoning, children are able to respond to the emotional arousal by using their new cognitive skills to think ahead and create alternative plans for action.

The act of labelling an emotion helps to shift it to the language/cognitive centre in the brain. This creates a "distance" between feeling and action, helping children to process feelings in a matter that is more cognitive than reactive. (Greenberg, Kusch, & Mihalic, 1998).

Although children as young as two years of age can generally recognize the basic emotions, particularly happy and sad, they often confuse anger with fear. Between ages four to seven children begin to comprehend more complex dimensions of emotions such as recognizing that people can experience mixed emotions, or that different people can feel differently about the same event) (Denham & Weissberg, 2004).

Social Understanding: Around age four children begin to understand that others have internal worlds where they keep thoughts and feelings, and that certain events/actions are reasons for certain emotional responses. This major developmental stage allows for perspective-taking – the ability "to be in someone else's shoes" which leads to the ability to empathize.

Relationship management: The ways children approach each other often depends on the social knowledge they have acquired about social norms (e.g. how to express emotions effectively, or to respond to problems in a problem-solving manner).

Social responsibility: Knowing about emotions is not enough. The goal of social emotional education is for children to be internally motivated to act compassionately; and to develop a system of ethical values. These values should guide their behaviour and stem from the concern for the welfare of others.

Fostering social emotional development

Create a caring community:

  • Establish a positive, supportive climate where children feel safe to express emotions, take risks, and seek help.
  • Model empathy – be emotionally responsive.
  • Make expectations clear. Let children know that you expect them to be considerate to others.
  • Set clear limits. Establish a few simple basic rules (e.g."Hurting others is not allowed").
  • Guide children's behaviour by providing reasons ("I can not let you do this because it is not safe").

Actively teach emotional literacy:

  • Use "an emotional vocabulary" in context. Start with basic emotions and gradually move to more complex ones.
  • Involve children in the process of identifying and expressing emotions. Ask: "What makes you feel angry"? "How can you tell when you are angry, sad, scared"?
  • Focus attention on children's facial expressions, voice, and posture for different emotions.
  • Use stories to infer and discuss characters' thoughts and emotions "How do you think the princess feels? Why?" "What happened in the story that made her feel like this?" "What can she do?" Stories can also be used for looking at problems from different perspectives.

Facilitate social understanding:

  • Take advantage of teachable moments to explain the concept of accidents as opposed to intentional aggression.
  • Help identify the impact of actions and events on feelings ("How do you think Jaimie feels about his dad going away?"). Considering another's emotional viewpoint is the beginning of empathy.

Support emotional regulation and self-control:

  • Play games that encourage control of body parts ("Simon Says", "Stop and Freeze" movement games).
  • Help children find ways to stay calm while encountering a strong emotional response (e.g. Taking a deep breath, providing a "quiet area").
  • Demonstrate emotional regulating techniques with puppets, and role-play to practice emotional regulation.
  • Separate emotions from actions. All emotions are ok but not all behaviours (it is perfectly normal to get angry, but not ok to hurt another).

Guide relationship management:

  • Reinforce basic social skills, such as turn-taking, and greeting.
  • Coach children through solving social problems: identify problem, acknowledge emotions, elicit ways to solve the problem, and assess solution.
  • Provide skills for joining a group of children. Listen and observe before entering the game.
  • Open a dialogue with children about important social concepts such as "friendship".

Build a socially responsible community:

  • Include daily discussions about social problems, where emotions are expressed and listened to.
  • Get children to think about moral issues: helping families in storms, or a sick friend.
  • Focus attention on the community as a whole. Send the message that if one of us is unhappy it affects us all.
  • Cultivate positive emotions. Find a local hero as an example to follow.

Examples of programs that promote social emotional development:

Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based program that aims to reduce aggression through the fostering of empathy and emotional literacy. The program reaches children aged 3 to 14 years. The heart of the program is a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom once a month for the full school year. Students are coached to observe and interact with the baby. They learn about the infant's development and needs.

Safe Spaces is a program for 3 to 5 years old that aims to teach young children the skills they will need to resist and prevent bullying. The program focuses on four areas: developing self esteem, promoting empathy, fostering critical thinking, and empowering children to stand up for themselves and others. (Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre, BC)

PATHS Curriculum Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies Curriculum (Kusche & Greenberg, 1994) was designed to promote social and emotional competence and prevent aggression. Using an analogy to a turtle that retreats into its shell children are taught how to calm down, increase awareness of emotional state, discuss their feelings, plan and think ahead, and finally, to consider how behaviour affects others.

References

Denham, S. and Weissberg, R. (2003). In M. Bloom & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), A blueprint for the promotion of prosocial behavior in early childhood. New York: Kluwer/Academic Publishers.

Greenberg, M. T., Kusch, C., & Mihalic, S. F. (1998). Blueprints for violence prevention, book 10: Promoting alternative thinking strategies (PATHS). Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

Raver, C.C. (2002). Emotions matter: Making the case for the role of young children's emotional development for early school readiness.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., & Ziadman-Zait, A. (2002). Effects of the "Roots of Empathy" program on children's emotional and social competence.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P. & Walberg, H. J. (2004). In J. Zins, R. Weissberg, M. Wang, & H. J. Walberg (Eds.) Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? Teachers Press.

Contact Us

For more information on faculty members working with family involvement in the early years please contact The Institute for Early Childhood Education & Research or 604 822 6593