Opinion
Education Opinion

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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)