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The Heart of Teaching—Social Emotional Learning in Young Children

Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023

Learn More about LETRS for Early Childhood

One of the most rewarding experiences as an educator is knowing you have made a difference in the lives of your students. These times share an important aspect of connection—the one you created with your students and their sense of connection to you, touching their hearts. These experiences focus on a prevalent topic in education today, social emotional learning, with a recognition that how children feel is as important as their academic growth.

However, this perspective infers there is a dichotomy of skill sets, social emotional skills and academic skills. To this point, some early childhood programs have intentionally focused on young children’s social emotional skills and discouraged including academically related skills with a sense that social emotional skills need to develop before children are able to learn other skills. 

Consider these skill sets as all interconnected and integrated, instead of being a dichotomy, and that social emotional learning is dependent on executive function skills, which are interrelated to cognition, which is connected to oral language. Throw in the physical movement of learning and all of the developmental domains are encompassed. In no way does this perspective diminish the importance of social emotional learning. Recognition of the interconnected nature of learning is a key point and also is supported by scientific research.  

Social emotional learning develops as we effectively learn to use the background knowledge we have gained through experiences and skills acquired to help us with tasks such as:

  • Dealing with our emotions (e.g., feeling disappointed when it is another friend’s turn to talk at a morning meeting and learning not to interrupt or make a fuss).
  • Completing tasks (e.g., starting a puzzle and maintaining attention to finish it).
  • Taking others’ perspectives (e.g., letting another friend play with a desired toy first, recognizing their wants).
  • Developing and maintaining relationships (e.g., playing cooperatively with others).
  • Making thoughtful decisions (e.g., choosing to help pick up the blocks at clean-up time instead of walking away).

    Vital foundations for social emotional learning are reliant on developing executive function (EF) skills. Three key EF skills include: 1) being able to think about something in a variety of ways (cognitive flexibility); 2) keeping information in mind while completing a task or making a decision (working memory); and 3) intentionally controlling actions and reactions to ignore distractions, deal with impulsive behaviors, and/or overcome a highly learned response (inhibitory control).

    Dealing with emotions requires inhibitory control to not interrupt and cognitive flexibility to know you will get a turn another time. Accomplishing a task may need problem-solving skills, keeping the details needed in working memory, and controlling behaviors to attend and persist. Taking another’s perspective and maintaining relationships assuredly involve inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility as well as remembering what you know about the other people.  

    Further, executive function skills are integrally connected to cognitive development and oral language acquisition. Growth in cognition results in improved executive function, which facilitates social emotional development along with enhanced language and literacy, all in a reciprocal manner. It is a misperception to believe children need to develop social emotional skills before they are able to learn academic skills.

    Focusing on the whole child and development across all learning domains is important. When a child has not learned a skill or is having difficulty accomplishing a task, we need to teach them. What are ways to help young children learn social-emotional-cognitive-language-motor skills? Here are a few recommended, best-practice, everyday strategies. How do these routines look in your educational setting?

  • A teacher’s role is paramount. A warm, nurturing, positive relationship with a caring adult is vital to children’s social emotional learning as well as their academic growth.
  • Your classroom routine is crucial. An environment with consistent, predictable routines and expectations facilitates learning.
  • Provide information and modeling for expected behaviors. Describe what children should be doing instead of focusing on unwanted behavior. An example is telling children to use their walking feet instead of telling them to stop running.
  • Teach reflection. Before launching into a task or activity, help children learn to identify the “end” goal, plan the steps and what materials may be needed, and consider possible challenges and options. For example, when beginning a writing task, help young students determine what they want their story to look like when they are done, the steps and materials needed to get there, what might be hard, and what they may need to get past the challenge.
  • One more really important strategy, coined in mottos of serve and return and strive for five, is ensuring you have a meaningful conversation everyday with each of your students with a target of five conversational turns back and forth.

These strategies most likely are not anything new, but they do reinforce how important our interactions are with our students, which is the heart of teaching. Learning happens best within the context of positive relationships with caring adults. Helping students to develop their social-emotional-cognitive-language-motor skills makes an important difference to last a lifetime.


Websites: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/

Shonkoff, J., Levitt, P., Bunge, S., Cameron, J., Duncan, G., Fisher, P., & Fox, N. (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience. pdf. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education. NCER 2017-2000. National Center for Education Research.

About the Author
Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson
Author of Good Talking Words

Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, is an author and literacy specialist with a mission of bringing research to practice. She is also a speech-language pathologist with years of experience working with educators and young children and their families in a range of educational settings. In addition, Hart Paulson was an associate professor teaching and conducting research in the areas of language and literacy development and disorders. She provides professional development using a broad-based perspective blending areas of language and literacy together resulting in effective, appropriate, and engaging language-based literacy instruction and intervention for all children. Additionally, she is the co-author of Good Talking Words, a social-communication skills program for young children; LETRS® for Early Childhood Educators, 2nd Edition; and Building Early Literacy and Language Skills, a resource and activity guide for young children.

Learn more about Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson