Social Emotional Learning: Early Intervention is Prevention


Foundations of SEL

If you have not yet gotten on the SEL train, it’s time to get on board. The importance of SEL is finally being realized as educators come to understand the impact social-emotional competence has on academic achievement as well as overall personal growth and development. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and learn to manage emotions by leveraging five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. When schools implement a systematic approach to SEL, the benefits impact multiple areas including family engagement and school culture.  Additionally, the effectiveness of SEL implementation in the early years is evident into adulthood primarily in the areas of self-awareness and self-management.  Adults who are self-aware tend to have a growth mindset and understand how their emotions, thoughts and behaviors interact.  Aspects of self-management include possessing resilience and perseverance in the face of obstacles and being able to set and monitor personal goals.  In a recent study at Penn State regarding their preschool enrichment program, it was revealed that the skills acquired during preschool were still producing positive effects in middle school and high school.  According to Professor Karen Bierman, “The program had an effect on internal benefits, including better emotion management and emotional well-being, as well as external benefits, such as reduced conduct problems.”

Attention should be given to SEL at every stage of life; however, it has the greatest impact in early childhood. Within the early childhood education environment, there is a need for explicit social skills instruction.  Ashdown and Bernard (2012) completed a review of, “…the efficacy of eight social-emotional curricula and found that the most successful social-emotional approaches focus on social skills and emotional development on a daily basis, use a systemic, intentional approach for teaching critical skills, and acknowledge the skills in context.” It is important to note that explicit social skills instruction must be consistent and children should receive this instruction along with modeling and opportunities to practice these skills on a daily basis.  A few strategies to consider are:

  • Think-pair-share

  • Classroom jobs to support responsibility

  • Journaling opportunities

  • Maintaining routines

  • Games that support sustained attention

  • Strengthening home-school connections

  • Mindfulness/self-regulation instruction

  • Incorporating a calming space or reflection zone

  • Clear processes for conflict resolution

Case Study: How SEL Might Have Served My Students Better

For five years I taught at a private school for students with language and communication challenges in kindergarten through eighth grade. Most of my students had a high-functioning form of autism, and were generally categorized as socially awkward; for this reason, they benefited greatly from explicit instruction on social skills. A great deal of my work focused on identifying and regulating emotions. We often did this through the use of videos or movie clips. For emotions management, the focus was on identifying individualized tools to support self-regulation including deep breathing, drawing, and going to a calming space. Prior to working with those students, for over ten years I worked with low-income, middle school students who were labeled emotionally disturbed. I realized that because my students lacked the ability to self-regulate emotions, they displayed inappropriate behaviors to express being upset, angry, sad, or disappointed.  I began to wonder how different their lives would have been had they received instruction on regulating emotions to effectively and appropriately express how they feel. For both of those educational experiences, I believe early SEL intervention would have been beneficial to my students.  This includes creating a classroom environment that integrates personal, behavioral, and environmental strategies. Personal strategies help students organize and interpret information using tools including graphic organizers and mnemonic devices; behavioral strategies, which are student actions, support attentiveness and delayed gratification. The learning environment must be structured to provide students a space that minimizes distractions but also supports social interactions.

I currently work at a charter school serving children ages three to five within a community that is underserved. The majority of our preschool students come from low-income families who need a tremendous amount of support in multiple areas of their lives.  Regardless of the different challenges my staff and I face each day, our mission remains the same: to close the achievement gap and to provide students with the foundational skills needed for academic and social-emotional success. One way we do this is through SEL. Children who are taught how to navigate social situations and self-regulate emotions will be in a much better position to handle life’s challenges academically and otherwise. They will become problem-solvers who have a greater awareness of how they learn best. This awareness will enable them to self-advocate for what they need to be successful in and out of the classroom environment.  

Academics alone do not make for a successful school experience, but instead must be coupled with SEL to include prosocial behaviors, decision-making skills, and the ability to understand and regulate emotion. Through observational learning, young children pattern their thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, and strategies after models. Therefore, social skills must be explicitly taught, modeled, and reinforced in order to effectively improve the social and emotional competence of early learners. 

Niesha Keemer, Ed.D.

Additional Reading