Early Childhood Social and Emotional Development and the Impact of High-Quality Early Childhood Education

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Photo by Georgia Health Policy Center

Social and emotional development and mental health are key issues related to all aspects of healthy development. While these areas are always critical, challenges and trauma exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have shed an even brighter light on the gravity of integrating strong social and emotional development supports throughout early education.

These components have significant impacts on children’s healthy development across all areas, including academic success. There are more than 900,000 children from birth through age 6 in Georgia, and according to the Georgia Health Policy Center, 126,000 (14%) of those children may require mental health services. Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) is leading an Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) Task Force to address this challenge.

Success in School and Life Begins in Preschool

According to “Social and Emotional Learning in Preschool Education—A Qualitative Study with Preschool Teachers,” published in International Journal of Emotional Education in 2021, preschool is a critical time for a child’s long-term school and life success, and a critical part of that success is social and emotional development.

Dara Feldman, M.Ed., NBCT, points out in her article, “How Can SEL Nurture Young Children to Thrive?”, that social and emotional learning (SEL) is the way children and adults acquire and effectively apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills to understand and manage emotions, set positive goals, demonstrate empathy for others, maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Healthy social and emotional development during infancy and toddlerhood, according to the Georgia Health Policy Center, includes these core milestones:

  • developing a sense of self;
  • experiencing, regulating, and expressing emotions;
  • building trusting relationships with adults and peers;
  • exploring their environment and learning;
  • understanding others’ emotions and showing empathy;
  • ability to clearly communicate wishes and needs;
  • ability to enter ongoing play and group activities;
  • showing an interest and caring about others; and
  • ability to play, negotiate, and compromise with others.

Jeannie Ho, Ed.D., professor and early childhood education program coordinator at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and Suzanne Funk, M.S.Ed., director of Geneva Day School in Potomac, Md., said many of these are developmental in nature and can be facilitated by skilled teachers.

“High-quality early education has been shown to have an impact on both academic gains and social and emotional development,” said Arianne Weldon, Get Georgia Reading Campaign for Grade-Level Reading director at Georgia Family Connection Partnership. “The emphasis on social interaction and literacy development are critical components of high-quality early childhood education and are directly related to literacy, language development, communication, and social engagement. Children who demonstrate lower literacy levels are often stigmatized which complicates social interaction and development.”

Early intervention is critical in identifying young children who may be experiencing challenges with social and emotional development. Children who have multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), childhood trauma, and toxic chronic stress are more likely to have physical and mental health concerns. According to the Georgia Health Policy Center, 8.4% of infants and toddlers in this state have already had two or more ACEs compared to the national average of 7.7%. Meanwhile, Weldon points out that 1 in 5 children under 18 have a diagnosed mental health disorder and 15% of children 2 – 8 years old have at least one diagnosis.

Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other symptoms can begin as early as infancy and toddlerhood. Feldman says the importance of SEL and character development is critical in helping children navigate periods of trauma and supporting overall healthy development.

Why This Matters

Research has found that social and emotional competence is linked to academic and social outcomes, including graduating from high school, attending college, reduced juvenile justice engagement, and reduced homelessness. “A caring school climate and a positive environment for social and emotional health and development is directly linked to social competency and long-term academic and social achievement,” said Weldon.

Social and emotional health impacts overall development and learning in many ways including long-term academic and life success, according to Marco Ferreira, Ph.D., José Reis‐Jorge, Ph.D., and Sara Batalha of the Instituto Superior de Educação e Ciências, in Lisbon, Portugal. Young children who are experiencing healthy social and emotional development are:

  • more motivated to learn in school,
  • more positive about school,
  • have greater class participation, and
  • experience higher academic performance and achievement over time.

In contrast, Ho and Funk said those who struggle with social and emotional development have difficulty following directions and participating in learning activities. They are often rejected by peers and have lower self-esteem. This can contribute to challenges in academic achievement and positive educational and social outcomes. According to Feldman, teaching these skills early and identifying when individual children are not meeting key milestones can help ensure appropriate supports and improve long-term outcomes.

Research suggests that the longer we wait to address social and emotional health, the more difficult it becomes to achieve positive health outcomes. Disparities become greater over time, and addressing social and emotional challenges can become more difficult as youth age. Early interventions are the best investment for improved child health and family well-being.

Recommendations for Early Childhood Care, Educators, and Communities

There are system and policy changes as well as specific actions that communities and teachers can take to help young children have healthy social and emotional development. Early intervention is critical in preventing long-term negative impacts and potentially expensive treatments.

According to the Georgia Health Policy Center, it’s possible to begin to identify signs of mental health concerns in children as young as infancy, potentially including challenges that are persistent and severe enough to be diagnosed.

“Improved vocabulary and language impacts communication skills and increasing reading scores in kindergarten and first grade can help decrease conduct problems later and reduce the risk for social, emotional, and behavioral problems,” said Weldon. “Delays in communication and social development can lead to chronic behaviors that disrupt learning.”

Early identification and connections to specialized mental health clinicians can help ensure that children receive supports and have significantly better outcomes. According to the Georgia Health Policy Center, clinicians focus on identifying behaviors that are persistent, pervasive, and out of sync with developmental expectations.

Weldon pointed out that children with significant language delays also may have a diagnosable mental disorder. “When students are in high-quality early learning programs and more SEL-supportive environments, they have fewer referrals for special education,” she said.

Like physical challenges, the longer mental health concerns are not addressed, the more difficult it is to attain long-term positive health outcomes, according to the Georgia Health Policy Center. Teachers play a critical role as mediator and socializer for emotions and for healthy social and emotional development, particularly for high-risk children, according to Ferreira, Reis‐Jorge, and Batalha. They also can be a key partner for parents in monitoring and identifying when individual children are struggling and not meeting milestones.

Georgia formed the IECMH Task Force in 2021 to implement recommendations from the Georgia Legislative House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health. These recommendations focused on early child mental health policy, finance, workforce development, and prevention/promotion efforts. The Task Force is working to build a system of care around early childhood, which includes coordinated policy and collaborative service delivery supporting young children at risk for social, emotional, and behavioral health. Some challenges communities and early childhood educators face include:

  • retaining and maintaining a workforce,
  • existing policies creating barriers within schools and agencies,
  • limited services available in communities, and
  • lack of access to services.

Feldman pointed out that teaching and modeling social and emotional skills and supporting SEL development should be integrated into daily practice and intentional throughout classroom engagements. Ferreira, Reis‐Jorge, and Batalha said that teachers are critical to supporting SEL development and incorporating SEL into daily practices is key.

Proactively teaching SEL includes facilitating and teaching:

  • self-awareness: promoting self-awareness of emotions and behaviors;
  • self-management: helping young children learn to process and manage emotions and behavioral responses;
  • social awareness: increasing young children’s empathy, awareness of others, and others’ emotions and experiences;
  • relationships skills: being able to join play, connect with peers and adults, and maintain relationships; and
  • responsible decision-making: support children’s learning to make healthy and positive decisions to facilitate other relationships and social engagements.

Teachers can establish trusting relationships with each child and intentionally teach social and emotional skills. Each of these, said Ho and Funk, can be integrated into all aspects of teaching and daily activities.

Specific activities include:

  • consistently expressing warmth and affection;
  • showing respect and initiating caring engagement;
  • listening with full attention and restating what children say (to help language development and understanding emotions);
  • accepting and reflecting children’s feelings;
  • engaging in one-on-one activities by providing individualized quality time;
  • using children’s books that specifically discuss emotional development and behavior intended to benefit others;
  • providing coaching on the spot and how to engage with peers and adults;
  • modeling appropriate behavior with peers and between adults and children;
  • providing coaching and effective, specific praise on the spot directly related to behaviors; and
  • involving families in transferring the classroom tools and activities into the home.

Community members also have a role in helping to ensure that children receive the best supports early in their lives to build strong social and emotional health and well-being.

Community members can advocate for system and policy changes that include:

  • greater support for early intervention programs;
  • increasing the number of mental health providers in communities;
  • increasing early intervention programs;
  • educating the community about social and emotional development and mental health concerns; and
  • connecting with others to build a system of care for infants and toddlers.

Teachers and other professionals who provide support to infants, children, and their families also need support. According to the Georgia Health Policy Center, due to the workforce shortage, existing programs like Babies Can’t Wait are experiencing challenges in finding providers and clinicians to support families. Ferreira, Reis‐Jorge, and Batalha said there needs to be more intentional SEL training in initial teacher training and continuing professional development initiatives. This can help provide the skills and supports early childhood educators and elementary teachers need to help integrate key SEL components.

It’s also critical, according to Fatima Malik, M.D., and Raman Marwaha, M.D., that teachers be aware of milestone competencies in all areas including social and emotional. To help address some of these challenges and provide easily accessible resources and ongoing professional development, DECAL offers a series of webinars for educators, including:

  • Nurturing Positive Relationships,
  • Supportive Environments That Promote Engagement,
  • Taking a Deep Breath: Promoting Self-Regulation, and
  • You’ve Got a Friend: Strategies for Promoting Friendship Skills.

Communities can help to engage and support healthy SEL and development for young children by increasing recognition of the importance of SEL, providing resources for teachers, supporting needed system and policy changes, and offering workforce development support. These key components can help ensure a healthier generation of Georgians.

Bill Valladares
GaFCP Communications Director

Reg Griffin
DECAL Communications Director

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