Five Keys to Successful Social and Emotional Learning

Five Keys to Successful Social and Emotional Learning

The above link takes readers to a video released by Edutopia, George Lucas’ (of Star Wars fame) educational foundation.  Through Edutopia, Lucas shares with the world his hope for education in the United States not only for students’ minds but also for their hearts.  The George Lucas Educational Foundation is dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by documenting, disseminating, and advocating innovative, replicable, and evidence-based strategies that prepare students to thrive in their future education, careers, and adult lives.

The video is a 6-minute video about Social-Emotional Skills in K-12 education, but we can easily apply what is shared in the video to infants and toddlers.  The 5 keys to Social-Emotional Learning revealed in the video include:

1)  Self-Awareness:  the ability to identify your emotions and to tie thoughts and feelings to behaviors.  Natalie Walchuk, a principal in Oakland, CA tells us this skill includes being aware of your own body space and how one’s behavior affects other people.  Clearly, this is a skill infants and toddlers learn in the first 3 years of life as they learn not to hit, kick, bite, throw objects, tantrum in public (or private!), grab toys, and much more.  It’s crucial from birth to 3 to point out how behavior has an impact on the world around them, how to shift behavior, and how to make a different choice next time.  If self-awareness is taught well and consistently during the infant-toddler years, a child can have enough self-awareness to behave quite appropriately by the age of 3 in multiple settings with multiple people.  Of course there will be bumps in the road after the age of 3, but the foundation, if laid carefully, will pay off for a lifetime.  

2) Self-Management:  the ability to regulate one’s emotions.  In the video, tips for teaching school-aged children to regulate their feelings, such as counting to 5, taking a breath, or taking a break, can all certainly apply to toddlers as well.  Not only does counting, taking deep breaths or sitting in time-out help toddlers learn to regulate their emotions, but it also can teach other crucial school readiness skills such as counting and sitting in one place for an extended period!

3)  Social Awareness:  the ability to embrace diversity and to show empathy for others.  Role-playing, as suggested in the video as a way to teach social awareness with school-aged children, works well with figures and puppets with infants and toddlers.  Children 6 months to 3 years old are very aware of when a figure or puppet is “nice versus not nice,” so it’s easy to incorporate actions during play that teach embracing diversity and practicing empathy.  Family activities that include helping neighbors and volunteering in the community, with even the youngest of children, can teach these important skills.  Even in one’s home, a family culture with plenty of examples of helping each other and doing for others (e.g., helping make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a parent or sibling) can give a child social awareness skills long before he arrives at school.

4)  Relationship Skills:  the ability to work cooperatively with someone and to resolve conflict. Walchuk tells us it’s the “one skill you need your whole life” and that you “may not need calculus, but you need to know how to get along with others.”  Teaching infants and toddlers to get along with others by sharing toys, offering snacks to others, building a block tower with others, and many other activities is of utmost importance for success in school, work and life.

5)  Responsible Decision-making:  the ability to consider the well-being for of self and others and to evaluate the consequences for behaviors or actions.  In the video, the point is made regarding the importance of allowing students to debate an issue, and I encourage all parents and caregivers to begin working on a child’s “debate” skills from the start.  Although it can be quite unpleasant when a toddler disagrees, debates or has a different idea than a parent or caregiver, it allows the child to practice the skill for making decisions responsibly.  When we allow a toddler to use his language and critical thinking skills to make decisions that are appropriate for a toddler to make, he is able to hone the skill for evaluating consequences of his behaviors and actions long before his first circle time in school.

Carlos Garcia, retired superintendent for the San Francisco Unified School District, tells us he thinks about “all the billions of dollars spent on Title I and intervention programs,” and that when all is said and done, he wonders “What do we have to show for it?”  He says we’re trying to “teach technical things instead of devoting some of the resources to teach who you are as a person.”  He asks if it’s good enough for 21st-century learning to keep getting the same results with students that we keep getting by doing the same things over and over, but encourages us to “be the outliers that try things that have never been tried and see if they work.”  He asks “What are we waiting for?”

I agree fully with Garcia in terms of educating K-12 students as well as infants and toddlers.  We need a full-scale change in perspective of what infants and toddlers need to be successful in school and life, and begin teaching it right from the start.  We need to look at long-available research that tells us how 0-3 year old children are ripe for the picking for social-emotional learning and that, indeed, it is the time for it to be learned.  An entire “Baby Einstein” video generation of children has gone by, during which time the focus was on making babies and toddlers smarter by learning their alphabets, shapes, colors and names of objects, but to what end?  Are these babies-grown-into-students successful in school, academically or socially?  Infants and toddlers do not need to be sitting in front of a “Baby Know-It-All Smartypants,” a “Baby Mozart” video or a teach-your-6-month-old-to-read video to be ready for school and life.  What they need is what Garcia tells us when he says “once you know who you are, then learning becomes exciting because you’ve already established a discipline.”

I challenge every parent and caregiver with a 0-3 year old child today to make social-emotional learning a part of daily fun and activities.  Not a day should go by without presenting at least one opportunity to learn about the 5 social-emotional skills stated above!  


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