The Ties Between Social Emotional Learning and Language and Literacy Development

Brandi Kenner

Dr. Brandi Kenner
Founder and CEO of Choice-filled Lives Network

Release Date: May 7, 2020


Brandi B. Kenner, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of Choice-filled Lives Network, a social-change organization that consults with and supports other organizations committed to ensuring children lead choice-filled lives. Dr. Kenner also serves as senior consultant with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI’s) Education Initiative, where she has also served as director of research and implementation. Dr. Kenner has expertise in cognitive development broadly, language and literacy acquisition, symbolic development, the relationship between social-emotional learning and literacy, organizational development, program evaluation, and experimental research and methodology. Dr. Kenner has a Ph.D. in Psychology: Cognition & Development from Emory University; a Master of Education degree in Behavior and Learning Disabilities (with a focus in reading disabilities) from Georgia State University; and a Bachelor’s degree with emphases in Elementary Education and Sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


Did you know language development is one of the most critical cognitive functions that supports social and emotional learning? During this podcast, educator and Reading League presenter Dr. Brandi Kenner takes an in-depth look at the ties between language and literacy development and SEL, including the role an educator plays in keeping learning brains activated and empowering student voices.

During this podcast, you will learn:

  • When language development truly begins—it may be earlier than you think
  • How social emotional learning continues to develop through interaction with text
  • Why building authentic relationships helps support executive function development
  • The single largest predictor of literacy outcomes across all languages, regardless of learning disability


Brandi Kenner is not affiliated with Voyager Sopris Learning, nor does she endorse or make any representations or warranties regarding products associated with Voyager Sopris Learning.

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Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Brandi Kenner: We see a lot of programs, and, like, we'll spend 30 minutes or an hour just focusing on social and emotional learning. But that's not really how social and emotional learning is acquired. If we think about the fact that language is a social construct, and then the fact that social emotional learning occurs in a socially constructed context, then we can easily see the connections between language development and how social emotional learning is acquired. Learning to read is such a critical piece of overall human development, including social and emotional learning. If students can't access the texts, there are tons of missed opportunities for continued social and emotional learning and growth.

Narrator: You have just heard Dr. Brandi Kenner, founder and CEO of Choice-filled Lives Network, and cognitive developmental psychologist. Dr. Kenner is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.

Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We're so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcasts from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. Today, we are honored to have with us, Dr. Brandi Kenner, who is the founder and CEO of Choice-filled Lives Network; a senior consultant for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Reading League member; and invited journal reviewer. Dr. Kenner is also a cognitive development psychologist with expertise in social emotional learning and language and literacy development. Welcome, Dr. Kenner. Thank you for joining us today. We are so pleased to have you with us.

BK: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here as well.

PA: Alrighty. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in education?

BK: Sure. So, I tell everyone I actually very first began in education when I was a teenager in high school and all my friends were working at the mall. I worked as an assistant teacher at a neighborhood childcare center, in an infant and toddler room. And then I went on to undergrad at the University of Michigan where I majored in elementary education and sociology, and spent that first year teaching after I graduated at an African-centered charter school in Detroit called the Aisha Shule. And, from there, I moved to Atlanta, pretty much to get away from the cold and get close to my maternal grandmother, who I'm very close with, and continued teaching, but also simultaneously pursued a master's degree in special education with an emphasis in reading disabilities, and continued teaching for a total of about five years before I was recruited into a role in higher education to help roll out a dual-certification program that was opening at Georgia State University, and received that full-time faculty role that was also a doctoral fellowship, and so I started pursuing studies and educational psychology and special education.

And, at that time, I was doing a lot of research and adolescent literacy interventions with a woman named Mary Beth Calhoun, who's now at the University of Miami. But I had a lot of questions about how children were really landing in such dire straits at such an old age in the first place, and wanted to learn more about early learning and early development. And, so, she recommended that I take a psychology course called Cognitive and Linguistic Development with a woman named Rihana Williams-Mason. And, so, I took this course, and it totally shifted the trajectory of my academic career.

I ended up leaving that doctoral program after three years of study and transferring to Emory University's psychology department where I entered the cognition and development program there, and studied under a women named Dr. Laura Nami, in her language and learning lab. And, then, along the way of all of that happening, I also founded several schools and preschools, most of them centering around language immersion and language acquisition. And I've done a lot of consulting for educational programs and served in senior executive roles in nonprofit and philanthropic educational spaces.

And, so. I really truly have kind of from the very onset known that I wanted to dedicate my life to serving children and families. And it's just taken on a variety of iterations throughout my career, but always that same common thread.

PA: Well, how inspiring. I just love your journey. So, we definitely have to hear more. Thinking about that journey you had, how did your focus become SEL, S-E-L, or social emotional learning? Also, I want you to share with our listeners the definition of SEL, for those who may not know.

BK: OK, great. Yeah, so maybe I'll start with defining the term. And so social emotional learning refers to the process by which we kind of acquire and apply the knowledge, the skills, the competencies, the dispositions that are necessary to effectively navigate the world around us, and also to interact with both ourselves and others in healthy ways. So, this includes things like learning to manage our emotions in appropriate ways or feeling empathy towards others. All of the skills and mindsets that we used for setting and meeting goals, or building and sustaining our relationships are examples of social and emotional learning. And I honestly became fascinated with social emotional learning via my fascination with early language and literacy development, and, particularly, language development because of all of the key language interactions that have to happen between adults and children for children to acquire those social and emotional learning experiences. And, so, the intersection of language as a vehicle for how the ways in which we learn to function, operate in our society in healthy ways. The ways that those things interplay was just fascinating to me.

PA: Can you share with our listeners the connection between that language and literacy development and SEL? You began that conversation. Can you expound on that a little bit more?

BK: Sure. So, language, in and of itself, is such a complex construct. And, so, it includes not only what we would think of is written and spoken language and listening, but also unspoken language like body language and gestures. And even silence at time can play a communicative act depending on the surrounding context and can communicate more than the spoken word sometimes if we're choosing to be silent about something.

So, if we think about the fact that language is a social construct, meaning that it develops in the context of social interaction, and then the fact that social emotional learning occurs in a socially constructed context then we can easily see the connections between language development and how social emotional learning is acquired, and so the language interactions between adults and children, and the ways in which adults present and function in the world while serving as models for children have a heavy hand in the ways in which children learn.

And one of those ways is through their language interactions with children. They're either, for example, gaining empathy or not by the things they're observing, or learning how to problem solve or not by the ways that we as adults engage with our environment and speak and listen or not within and act. And, so, we think of the fact that language development then, to take it the next step, is in of itself, so foundational to literacy development, then we kind of start to see how all of these pieces of development are just inextricably tied to one another.

PA: This leads us right into my next question for you. In the past, you've stated that language development, it begins really early on, in the third trimester of pregnancy. In utero, that just blew my mind. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?


BK: Yeah. So, during the third trimester in utero, the auditory channels of the brain begin to develop. And, at that point, the baby's able to hear the sounds of the environment around them. And, so, that's why we see plenty of research in the infant speech perception literature that's found, for example, that newborns are able to hear and discriminate between the sounds of their native language or another language where they can discriminate their mother's voice from the voices of others.

And, so, this is such an important developmental fact because it means that those phonemic maps or the ability to hear those individuals sounds of our language and store some organizational system around them, those maps are being formed in the brain prior to birth. And, so, that means we have plenty of opportunity, at least from birth onward, if not before, to be engaging in language interactions with our infants, that will ultimately support them with having the language abilities and skills that are necessary to become skilled readers down the road.

And it doesn't mean that if you have strong phonemic awareness that you'll just automatically become a skilled reader, because language is an ability, whereas reading is a skill that has to be taught explicitly, and there is a scientific process and method through which that happens. But without those foundational skills of phonemic awareness, learning to read almost becomes impossible.

PA: Well, you talk about the phonemic maps, right? In your work, you've also said that phonemic awareness develops through children. And it develops by constantly being inundated with language.

BK: That's right.

PA: And you use this phrase, “Serve and Return Interactions.” Tell me a little bit more, tell us a little bit more about those Serve and Return Interactions, and how this phonemic awareness ties to cell development.

BK: Sure. So, that's a term that was coined out of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child by Jack Shonkoff, who leads that center. And it refers to really the interactions between adults and children. And it's almost like if you think of a tennis match, of like serving the ball over the net and then the child returns it back, that's what we're trying to do with language. And, so, one of the primary ways that Serve and Return Interactions relate to social and emotional learning development is through the developing of those relationships. It's all about the relationship between an adult and that child, and making good use of that time to push in rich vocabulary and tons of language, which as we mentioned, in turn means they're auditorially processing more and more sounds of the language or that phonemic awareness. That's also another modeling activity as we talked about social and emotional learning happening within that socially constructed context, so that children are learning the rules that govern language interactions and interacting with others in their culture or community, whatever those norms are.

PA: So, SEL, or social emotional learning is tied in with this learning process. Do you see that as a natural thing?

BK: I think it is more natural than people believe and/or recognize, and that's maybe one of the challenges of why it's so hard for it to become embedded in schools in authentic ways, because we see a lot of, like, programs and we'll spend 30 minutes or an hour just focusing on social and emotional learning, but that's not really how social and emotional learning is acquired. It's really through being immersed in an environment and in a context in which you're constantly inundated with these norms and habits and beliefs and mindsets, and being given the opportunities to practice delivering upon them. And, so, teachers who do a good job of facilitating peace corners and helping children use the language to work through their problems with one another, and don't just send them to the office, for example. Those are all really authentic practices that are teaching social and emotional learning and ways of navigating our world in a real live meaningful context.

PA: Oh, thank you so much for sharing that. It just makes perfect sense. And I think many educators, they automatically pull in those ties, and don't realize that they're practicing emotional learning.

BK: They do. That's exactly right. It's very true.

PA: Now, in your work, you talk a lot about learning mode versus survival mode. Define each mode for me and tell us how teachers can support a healthy learning mode within their students.

BK: That's a great question. So, we know that stress causes the amygdala, or the fear center of our brains, to go into what many have probably heard of this fight or flight mode, where we're either acting out or retreating and, like, internalizing. And, so, regardless of whether we spin into fight or flight, neither response allows the brain to be open to learning and reasoning. And what happens actually is that learning shuts down and we go into this state of survival brain, which was coined by Jacob Ham, who's over the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Mount Sinai. And, so, teachers can support a healthy learning brain by fostering learning environments that eliminate fear and anxiety associated with learning, and allowing them to have time and space necessary to de-escalate when they get upset. Not getting in those power struggles of, "I've got to be right” and “Let me up the situation another ante,” until everyone's just frustrated and upset.

And so simple acts like just allowing children to have think time before calling on them to answer a question can alleviate a lot of anxiety. It's a good norm that builds trust and creates a feeling of safety. Other normative things to consider are avoiding “gotcha” moments that would make students feel ashamed or not capable or stupid. Allowing the space for planning of question asking, and then also posing lots of open-ended questions to students that provoke critical thinking, and they're going to promote answers beyond simple “yes” or “no” responses, and then you get lots of good dialogue going on and you're creating a norm and a culture around there not really being a right or wrong answer. It's just, "Let me hear your thoughts.” “What do you think and why?"

So, those are all really good ways to prompt a learning brain mode. And just being an authentic relationship with kids and caring about them as who they are as a person is really important.

PA: Yes, and students can tell. Right?

BK: They really can. They know the difference.

PA: You've also emphasized what researchers have said about phonemic awareness or the ability to hear each of the individual sounds. Phonemes, as we call them, right?

BK: Right.

PA: These are those individual sounds with the spoken word and how it is the single-largest predictor of literacy outcomes across all languages. Not just all English language, but all languages. And, regardless, of learning disabilities or other disability status, go ahead and elaborate on this concept a little bit more please.

BK: Sure. Absolutely. So, this is one of my primary research interests because of exactly what you just stated, which is that phonemic awareness, which is part of this larger umbrella of phonological awareness is one of the strongest levers we can put into action in terms of providing children with a solid foundation for literacy development. And, so, what we've learned from decades of research is that regardless of the language, and regardless of whether the student has, like, a learning disability, for example or not, a child's phonemic awareness ability or their ability to hear and manipulate those individual sound units is the largest predictor of the type of reader they will become. And this is the primary language ability that's foundational to reading decoding, and it's universal in all languages.

So, in other words, children who have very strong phonemic maps are able to fluidly hear and manipulate individual units of sound will become stronger and more proficient readers than those who lack a strong phonemic map, or struggle to identify and be able to manipulate those sounds. And I think it's also important to note that we see a lot of this, especially in the U.S. in kindergarten and first grade classes with skills such as rhyming. Those skills are fun to introduce and they do give children practice with word and language play, but rhyming, for example, is not predictive of reading ability globally. And I think it makes sense if we think about the fact that rhyming words don't exist in every language. That's something very specific to many of the alphabetic languages. And, so, when we look at factors that influence one's ability to read, phonemic awareness is going to be central to any language. All languages have sounds that make them up, and we find from the research that it's required to become a proficient, reader regardless of the language. And it even holds for non-alphabetic languages like Mandarin, which is really interesting.

PA: Oh, wow. Mandarin as well. That is an idea that I had not realized. You've mentioned that once children learn to read and, ultimately, they transition to reading to learn, along which portion of that social emotional learning continues to develop. It doesn't stop there, right?

BK: Right.

PA: And they develop now through children's interactions with texts. Well, how does that work?

BK: Great. So, when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn, there's a shift in all the cognitive capacity that they were using to try to decode or figure out new words. Now, they can use that capacity to process the information that's in front of them and gain new understandings of the world. And, so, learning to read is such a critical piece of overall human development in industrialized societies for this reason, including social and emotional learning. Because as we said, we know that social and emotional learning occurs in these social authentic contexts, and through interactions with adults and peer modeling and all of this, and access to different ways of thinking and seeing the world. And, so, as we get older, some of those interactions and ways of seeing the world actually occur through interactions with texts. Both fictional and informational texts.

So, for example, if we think about the many times we engage with a good novel and completely sink into the plot and the outcomes of some tragic character, or maybe read a biography of a Holocaust survivor, then feelings of empathy may rise to the surface and be a subject for discussion and getting the views of others. But if students can't access the print and the text with enough fluency to even comprehend what's been written and are instead struggling to merely read the words, there are tons of missed opportunities for continued social and emotional learning and growth. And, so, literacy is really foundational to so much continued growth and development throughout our lifespan.

PA: Wow. So, we can say that fluent automatic reading opens the door to that cognitive capacity.

BK: That's right. Yeah. That's a really good way to say it. That's right.

PA: Oh, thank you so much, Brandi. For educational leaders who are out there listening, I know you are there. What are the best ways that they can support their teachers in using SEL in literacy development?

BK: That's such a good question. I think my first bit of advice there would be that, as a field, we need to acknowledge that social and emotional learning is a set of mindsets, competencies and beliefs that we weave throughout every subject, each school day, and, like, as our lives as a whole. And, so, I think one of the most important ways that leaders support teachers in ensuring social emotional learning is integral to literacy development is by ensuring that they're establishing, like, those everyday norms and practices and procedures in school that are grounded in the science of learning and human development, and that each day and each moment is viewed as both an SEL opportunity and a language and literacy development opportunity.

And I think another part of that is it that teachers must be supported in taking the time needed to build those authentic relationships with students, particularly at the onset of the school year or when we're returning from long breaks. They have to be given the space and time to get to know each child and create the norms and procedures that are going to allow kids to feel safe and supported. And then I think teachers also need to be supported by being given access to the pedagogical and curricular resources, and the necessary structures and even logistics like the school-wide schedules that would allow our research-grounded literacy practice to take place throughout the building.

So, for example, if the day is divided in a way that doesn't allow for at least the two-hour language and literacy block in the K–5 setting, it'll be nearly impossible to provide the small- group differentiated learning opportunities that are necessary to get quality literacy instruction going. And, so, I think it's also, to that point, important that leaders support teachers in their own continued learning and development in these spaces, and that they take these learning journeys alongside them.

I know a lot of the really robust professional learning systems out there around language and literacy and social emotional supports will not even engage with a school or district if the leadership isn't involved, because they've just learned, and science and research has shown them that the impact is so much less if leaders aren't involved in learning the same practices and able to kind of hold that accountability and set the culture and tone and direction of the school.

PA: Oh, that's great. So, if leaders are involved, right? And, they understand and promote the idea that the best application of practice of SEL is not necessarily a program, right, but authentic opportunities to practice SEL throughout the course of a school day. Well, Brandi we're near the end of our conversation today. So, I have got one more question for you.

BK: OK, great.

PA: If you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change, and why?

BK: Oh, this is a good one. OK, there are a few, or several, aspects I would change. First, I think the ways in which assessment is utilized in our country is counterproductive. There's an expensive research-to-practice gap in terms of the types of assessments that are employed and the ways in which assessment is used and really systematic and ongoing authentic formative assessments that would allow us to get down to the nitty gritty, so to speak, of what a child knows and doesn't know is not only way to really move the needle forward in a differentiated fashion and meet the needs of each learner. And, so, I think that our accountability systems and assessment systems made a complete overhaul in terms of really focusing on what's necessary and using assessments in appropriate ways.

I think that we also need a strong focus on what it means to foster a socially and emotionally healthy learning ecosystem, that centers around relationship building and embeds language and literacy development, particularly in birth–5 and K–fifth grade spaces. Because, as we mentioned, SEL and language and literacy are pretty much foundational to everything else in school in life.

And then I would say, finally, that I would love to see an intense focus on the professional learning and capacity building and supports that are needed to prioritize each of these areas that I just mentioned, effectively. Because it's not enough to just say, “one, two, go do it,” without providing teachers and leaders with the training and support and capacity and resources necessary to do it. So, I think if we could pull all of that off, we would certainly be setting all children on a completely different trajectory to leading choice-filled lives.

PA: Oh, that is wonderful. And that would be one powerful magic wand if we could make that happen.

BK: Wouldn't it? It would indeed.

PA: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Kenner. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about you and how they can follow you on social media.

BK: Sure. My website for my organization is, and I can be found on Twitter at the handle @BrandiKenner, B-R-A-N-D-I-K-E-N-N-E-R, all together.

PA: Thank you very much. This is Pam Austin, bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.

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Narrator: Today's guest is not affiliated with Voyager Sopris Learning, nor does she endorse or make any representations or warranties regarding products associated with Voyager Sopris Learning.