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A Case for Strong Social Emotional Learning

I have made a career out of watching children. Technically, I was a teacher, curriculum writer, specialist, instructional coach, and administrator. Those were my titles, but in reality, I watched children and I wondered about their thinking. I questioned why they reacted in certain ways, wondered how they decided who they liked (and didn’t like), observed how they chose materials, and explored how they learned.  I tried to piece together why they ultimately became who they became. In many ways, these observations were my most informative pieces of data. My favorite question to ask kids was, “Why do you think that?” and then I sat back to listen and learn.

What I realized from all of that observing has made me a very strong supporter of the importance of social emotional learning (SEL) in early childhood and beyond. Academic skills are very important and I will come back around to that.  However, much more of what we do in life and on a daily basis, is built on our abilities to understand and utilize our emotions, manage our behaviors and actions, communicate effectively, and relate to others. Essential life moments depend on these skills. These moments can include forming healthy relationships, getting and keeping a job, solving problems in life, negotiating purchases, finding our own happiness, having a family, asking for help, and offering care to others.

For young children, social emotional skills develop through every interaction, every attempt at something new, every success, and every failure. Children watch the significant adults in their lives to learn about emotions, decision making, how to accept mistakes/failures, and how to graciously handle victory. Who we become in life will depend on both our knowledge and our ability to relate that knowledge in the world.

CASEL’s research on the impact of SEL is persuasive. According to their studies and many others, quality SEL:

  • leads to academic outcomes and improved behaviors (after all, these two things do not just happen on their own)
  • produces a long-term impact (we use SEL for our entire lives)
  • can help reduce poverty and improve economic mobility (better social skills allow us to advance and improve our quality of life)
  • improves achievement of lifetime goals (kindergarteners who set goals and worked with others to achieve these goals were more prepared to do the same in their young adult years)

Imagine a child in your class named Matthew. Now, as a young child, Matthew is impulsive, loud, active, and has a hard time sharing his things, time, attention, and ideas. Occasionally, when Matthew doesn’t get his way, he feels frustrated and lashes out physically or emotionally. He has been known to cry, yell, hit, and shutdown.  At the same time, Matthew has a great spatial intelligence, higher than average physical coordination, and when working one-on-one with a teacher can relate his ideas with strong vocabulary. If we do not enhance Matthew’s social and emotional skills at the same time that we increase his academic knowledge (early childhood through secondary education), what will Matthew’s future be like? Maybe he wants to be a dad, an engineer, IT guru, doctor, or mechanic⁠—all of which are going to require forming relationships, talking to customers, meeting with colleagues, the ability to accept others’ viewpoints, effective self-expression, etc.

According to PBS Learning Media, for children to be able to set goals and motivate themselves to achieve those goals, they must be able to see themselves in the future. They must understand that they have opportunities and abilities to develop lives that are not limited by their birth circumstances. Their social and emotional skills will carry them forward to plan and achieve the idea of a future self. Learning to set goals and meet those goals begins at an early age when children begin to think about what kind of teenager, adult, and person they desire to become. Young children watch the adults around them to develop this concept of future self. A successful future self has both academic and social skills.

Growing and learning are essential in early childhood, adolescence, teenage years, and all stages of the future. Traditionally, education focused on academic skills and knowledge. Today’s world and beyond require more holistic learning, so that knowledge and the ability to utilize that knowledge are integrated. After all, if Matthew is your doctor someday, you don’t want him to kick you if you seek a second opinion to his diagnosis or ask one too many questions.

Linda Hamilton

Linda earned a BA from the University of Texas and has worked in the field of education for over 30 years as a teacher, educational specialist, presenter, program director and instructional coach. She holds teaching certificates in Special Education (grades PK-12), Early Childhood Education and Elementary ESL. She has been honored as a district and state Regional Teacher of the Year in Texas. As a resource for teachers and schools, she has served on numerous committees to develop and strengthen early childhood education nationally.

After developing early childhood programs for a large school district, Linda was selected to lead an early childhood professional development initiative for the City of San Antonio. Ultimately, her heart has always been in the classroom working with both teachers and students in the areas of literacy development, classroom management, differentiated instruction and social emotional learning. Those who have visited her classroom know that music, movement, laughter and independence are always being promoted.

One teacher who has worked with Linda in the past wrote, “Linda Hamilton is an excellent educator and a true advocate for better teaching. She believes in teaching the whole child and loves her calling.”
Read more by Linda Hamilton–>

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