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Self-Regulation and Social-Emotional Learning: Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

By Sara Mead — September 11, 2013 4 min read

Reading Elizabeth Weil’s recent New Republic piece on social-emotional learning was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for me: On the one hand, it’s kind of exciting when a wonky elite policy magazine decides to devote cover space to a fairly complex child development and instructional topic like how educators support children’s social-emotional development. On the other hand, Weil’s piece is a good example of why it’s probably a good thing this doesn’t happen more often--a lot of stuff ends up wrong.

There is a part of me that really wants to embrace Weil’s article. Spending time in early childhood education circles, it’s hard to miss a very strong focus on social-emotional development among early childhood educators and experts. There’s a good reason for this: Social-emotional development is crucial for young children, and effective early childhood and elementary programs must support children’s social-emotional development as a critical outcome for success in later schooling and life. The problem comes when social-emotional development is treated as the only important domain or prioritized above other domains. The focus on social-emotional development is not as new as Weil seems to think it is: For much of the history of preschool and kindergarten, many preschool and kindergarten educators and experts saw socialization and development of social-emotional skills as the primary goal for preschool programs. Recently, many proponents of this view have been emboldened by both the much-cited marshmallow experiment and the conclusions of James Heckman‘s research on early learning and soft skills. This research underscores the importance of young children’s social-emotional development. But it’s also possible to take this too far. Social-emotional development is not the only important outcome for young children. Developing language, early literacy, and math skills is equally important for school readiness--and there is some evidence that measures children’s skills in these domains at school entry are in fact more predictive of their later school success than measures of social-emotional skills. But the focus on social-emotional development has led some preschools to neglect focus on these domains. Beyond that, research suggests that most preschool programs are actually relatively good at supporting children’s social-emotional development, but quite lousy in the support they provide for children’s development of language, literacy, and math skills. If anything, the total body of research suggests that the greatest need for improvement in preschool programs is not their support for social-emotional development, but their support for language, early literacy, and especially early math.

Which, again, is not the same as saying these skills are not important for children.

Which gets me back to my biggest problem with Weil’s article. I wish she’d taken time to know and be clear about what she was talking about before she wrote it. Dan Willingham has done a masterful job of unpacking the ways in which Weil’s analysis unhelpfully conflates three very distinct issues--self-regulation, social-emotional learning, and “grit”. I won’t rehash what Dan wrote here--everyone reading this should go read his piece themselves. But that fundamental underlying confusion both makes it hard to understand what Weil is actually arguing at some points and calls many of her contentions into question. I was particularly irritated of her suggestion (amplified in the article’s title) that teaching social-emotional or self-regulatory skills is some kind of effort to stifle “non-conforming” kids. This is, frankly, bulshytt. Obviously, in the hands of the wrong teacher, any behavior management strategy can be used to stifle non-conforming children. But there’s nothing in building self-regulatory skills that inherently promotes conformism. If anything, many children, youth, or adults who resist conforming to authority are in fact demonstrating a high level of self-regulation in doing so. A four-year-old who decides that today she is Princess Celestia, adopts an accent and behaviors reflective of her Princess Celestia personality, and demands that adults and other children refer to and treat her as Princess Celestia, is in fact demonstrating self-regulatory skills even while driving the adults around her completely nuts.

Weil’s article also reflects one other feature that drives me up the wall in elite media pieces on education--a heavy focus on the experience of elite, largely white, professionals and their concertedly cultivated children whose experiences are highly unrepresentative of the nation’s families and children--particularly those who are most vulnerable. Maybe Weil knows too many children who are being diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder,” but what about kids in less privileged neighborhoods? Things like the peace tables Weil describes can seem ridiculous, but children from communities where adults don’t usually display strong self regulation or settle problems by “using their words,” may need instruction to help them do so. And so forth.

As a grown up, I have excellent self-regulatory skills (I read Weil’s article during my daily 6 AM workout), but as a kid with a late birthday I totally lacked self-regulatory skills through most of preschool and early elementary--and it did leave a real mark on my childhood. So I really get--at a personal level, as well as research and policy one--both the importance of those skills and the concerns Weil has about the experiences of kids who are slower to develop.

The problem here is not with social-emotional skills or self regulation themselves, but with the extremes: Both the extremes of promoting social-emotional skills above all other early learning outcomes and the extreme of rejection in Weil’s article. A sensible middle ground isn’t sexy and doesn’t make for a good magazine pitch. But it’s the right way to go here.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.