Early Childhood

Preschool Social-Emotional Learning is Focus of New Practice Guide

By Marva Hinton — June 16, 2017 3 min read
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How do preschools best ensure that children are learning to get along with others, handle their emotions, focus on a specific task, and persist despite facing challenges?

That’s the question researchers set out to answer in a new policy brief entitled, “Promoting Social and Emotional Learning in Preschool: Programs and Practices that Work.”

In the past, it was a given that children would pick up these skills in preschool. But the researchers note that as preschool became more focused on academics, concerns arose that social and emotional learning, or SEL, was taking a backseat.

The writers stress that this is not an either/or proposition.

Karen Bierman is a professor of psychology, human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University and the lead author of the brief.

“The research is actually very clear that those skill sets are intertwined,” said Bierman. “It’s not really the case that children develop in one area and then not the other. The programs that look most successful for children are those that are tracking both social-emotional and cognitive, academic learning and using programming in the preschool that’s facilitating both areas at the same time.”

While the brief notes that too much emphasis on academics can actually hamper SEL by causing stress or causing children to think negatively about school, Bierman cautions that too much free play can also have negative effects.

She said in the future what’s known as guided play or playful learning may be the key to providing SEL and academics.

“It’s still a very play-based preschool program, but it’s not just a free-for-all unstructured play but really organizing the classroom and organizing opportunities for children to get involved in play that is structured so it facilitates development,” said Bierman.

She recommends that teachers be very strategic in how they use class time and choose activities that support learning in both domains.

The brief lists several characteristics of an effective SEL preschool program, including a focus on the concepts being taught and students building their skills. So, for example, students aren’t just taught to use their words. They’re taught the proper words to use to convey their feelings. They’re also taught how to calm themselves down when they’re upset, so they can describe the problem and discuss it.

Bierman said these lessons are often taught through stories or puppet shows, and the same methods are used to teach how to make friends, how to share and how to keep going when things get tough.

Other key characteristics of an effective SEL preschool program are focus on the quality of child-teacher interactions and parental involvement.

The brief mentions several successful evidence-based programs, including the Preschool PATHS curriculum and Al’s Pals, a comprehensive curriculum and teacher training program.

Benefits of Strong SEL Foundation

The researchers note that SEL is important for all preschool students, but is particularly important for those growing up in poverty who may be “likely to show delays in the social-emotional and self-regulation skills needed for school success, due in part to their heightened levels of stress...”

The brief also ties SEL to students’ short and long-term success, noting that students with these skills are more likely to graduate from high school and find productive employment.

Kindergarten teachers also rank SEL skills as necessary for early school success. The brief cites a survey that found 91 percent of kindergarten teachers reported that being able to follow directions was a critical kindergarten readiness skill.

“These skills really facilitate their capacity to manage themselves in that classroom environment, and feel comfortable there and feel successful there, so they’re open to the learning of content,” said Bierman.

This brief was developed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Graphic: The issue brief lists the components of a successful SEL preschool program. (Credit Pennsylvania State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.