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Why Teach Social-Emotional Development in Preschool?

Social-emotional development teaches students how to manage their emotions and rely on themselves and is a key to kindergarten readiness. When you teach social-emotional lessons in the earliest grades, it helps everyone—students and teachers—by fostering greater confidence, communication, and relationships.

Starting Off on the Wrong Foot 

“You have a new student!”

Those words… during my first year of teaching, getting a new student was both exciting and terrifying. I loved getting new students, but on the other hand, the usual class climate can really change when a new student enters the room.

social-emotional development checklist in the preschool classroom

I scanned the gym for my newest class member. And there she was, Annisia, huddled against the wall, tucked inside her puffy coat.

“Hi, Annisia! I love your puffy orange coat!” I said as I welcomed her, but she grimaced at me from below.

“It’s not puffy. I don’t like puffy coats.”

Annisia came to my class in the dead of winter. She had moved from New Orleans with her mother, who had just accepted a job as a bus driver with the district. From underneath her coat, Annisia pronounced her name:

“Ani-SHUH, not Ani-see-UH,” she was mumbling to me. “You’re saying it all wrong.”

As a first-year teacher, I had never encountered this before: this “starting off on the wrong foot” with a student. I was never clear on much during that first year, but one thing was evident: Annisia’s dislike for me.

Asking her to get in line might as well have been asking her to play basketball on the moon. She sneered at my file folder games and rolled her eyes during our friendship song.

By the time winter had turned to spring, I’d tried connecting with her in the best ways I knew how:

  • Choosing her as Star Student more than once.
  • Tailoring books to her interests.
  • Providing extra Line Leader opportunities.
  • Even doling out countless trips to the treasure box.

No luck! As the sun began to warm the playground, Annisia remained cold, tunneling farther into her (not puffy) orange coat. 

A Social-Emotional Breakthrough

As part of our daily routine, we would discuss read-alouds and trade books with strong social-emotional links. One day, we were discussing safety with Bear Feels Sick—in particular, how important it is to tell a trusted adult when you are sick or hurt.

Over the hum of discussion, I heard Annisia say, “My hand is hurt.”

I glanced down at Annisia’s left hand. It looked pretty red. I looked a little more closely, and saw two splinters, then four, then eight. Almost her entire hand was covered in angry, sharp splinters. It was time to go to P.E., so I took Annisia to the nurse’s office on the way back.

I had nowhere else to be. So I sat as Nurse John picked out each splinter one by one. I held the alcohol swab and the bandage while Annisia told me about the wooden fence she had climbed. She had skidded to the ground with her hand grazing the fence the whole way.  

She was planning to hide her hand in her pocket indefinitely, in hopes that no one would notice … and in hopes that the splinters would just fall out.

When it was over, I handed her a sticker. She peeled it from its waxy paper and quietly stuck it to the top of her bandaged hand. 

That afternoon, Annisia dropped a tiny piece of paper on my desk. I looked at it hours later, after everyone had gone home, and the picture I saw made me smile:

It was a little drawing of Annisia and me on the front (I was holding a band-aid), with “I love my techer” scrawled on the back in pencil. 

Blog_SocEmo_astronaut_sm.png  Blog_SocEmo_LoveTecher_sm.png

This sudden change wasn't just a breakthrough for Annisia — it was a breakthrough for me too. Not only was I reminded of the importance of making social-emotional learning a continued priority in my classroom, it also help me understand that every child develops social-emotional skills at their own pace. 

Research Supports Social-Emotional Learning   

With so little time in the day and such limited resources to work with, it can be a struggle to include social-emotional learning into your daily instructional routine. 

However, findings from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) show that SEL lessons are highly significant and have a huge pay-off for students and teachers.

According to CASEL, “nearly eight in ten of all teachers (77%) say SEL will improve academic performance.”

And further studies explained that students who received explicit instruction in social-emotional development “demonstrated improved attitudes and behaviors, including a greater motivation to learn, improved relationships with peers, and a deeper connection to their school.”

CASEL's five social-emotional competencies

Making Time for Social-Emotional Learning

But just because SEL is important doesn’t mean it has to take up a large chunk of your day.

In fact, many teachers make the mistake of trying to teach social-emotional skills in insolation. This can be extremely time consuming and cause them to put less of an emphasis on other important skill development areas, like math and literacy. 

The solution is integration. 

As EdWeek puts it: “Teachers are rightly concerned that anything they should be asked to do needs to be appropriately integrated into their instructional practice…It needs to be deeply woven into the way in which [teachers] teach content and organize and run the classroom. It’s got to be a part of the way teachers are prepared and the way in which they engage in their practice.”

Download our social-emotional skills checklist here!