Spotlight on Social-Emotional Learning and its Inextricable Tie with Language and Literacy Development
by Brandi Kenner on October 22, 2020
Social and emotional learning…Recently, this buzz phrase has become a hot topic for education audiences from practitioners to researchers, and even curriculum developers. However, while the social-emotional domain is certainly a critical component of human learning and development, I push the educational and scientific communities to remove the silos and begin to grapple with the inextricable ties between social-emotional learning and other aspects of learning and skill development, particularly in the language and literacy domain.
We know both scientifically and in practice that social-emotional development occurs within an intertwined context of social modeling, a variety of adult and peer supports, as well as overall cognitive development. In fact, language development, in particular, is one of the most critical cognitive functions that supports social and emotional learning. Further, language development is foundational to literacy development.
Once children enter school, educators play a critical role in supporting continued language development by ensuring all children are on a path to reading proficiency and by establishing and sustaining language-rich learning environments with “conversational partnership” as a norm. This research-grounded term, coined by the 1Atlanta Speech School and its Rollins Center for language and literacy, holds at its core an expectation that each person in the learning environment has a voice, and that voice should be heard.
Additionally, in a learning environment of conversational partnership, adults serve as facilitators of learning as opposed to directors. They ask open-ended questions that provoke inquiry and critical thinking, which, in turn, also develops Executive Function skills. When children feel safe to express themselves, question and take calculated risks, their brains literally become more open to new learning. Conversely, when children are in learning environments that enforce continual silence, and provide directives more than they provide opportunities for questioning and discourse, the learning brain literally shuts down.
Further, language development is foundational to literacy development. Language development actually begins during the third trimester in utero, and by about third grade when children are expected to read to learn, we know that the act of reading itself becomes a vehicle for increasing vocabulary development and strengthening of the social-emotional “muscles.” For example, think about the ways in which empathy may be evoked as we dive into a novel and witness the unfolding of a tragic character’s life or journey.
Once again, the 2NAEP reading scores in our country reveal dismal results with only 35 percent of fourth grade children in the United States scoring at or above proficient in reading. Without access to printed language, our children will miss out on an entire world of lessons in empathy, self-efficacy, growth mindset, and equally important...They will not be able to independently function and thrive in society.
Before we leap onto a soapbox about social-emotional learning, I encourage us to step back and think about the many subskills and competencies that are required for a human to learn and develop holistically. Social-emotional learning does not occur in a vacuum or through a 30-minute direct instruction classroom intervention.
Rather, it develops by children being immersed in language and literacy-rich environments that simultaneously provide opportunities for authentic learning through observations of adult models. They must then be provided with opportunities to practice the skills they are observing and learning in real-world contexts in real time, and be given the language to express, demonstrate, and process what they have learned through speaking, listening, written language, and reading.
Brandi B. Kenner, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Choice-filled Lives Network, a social-change capacity building organization. She also serves as a senior consultant for a large national foundation. In this role, she collaborates with cross-functional teams to strategize and develop scalable solutions in the education reform and cognitive & developmental science sectors. Her work is focused on developing research-to-practice pipelines that are anchored in human development and a redefinition of student success.
For more information about social-emotional learning, listen to Dr. Kenner’s podcast: voyagersopris.com/podcast/sel-and-language-and-literacy-development.
1 The Atlanta Speech School and the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy
2 National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card - Reading, 2019