Social-emotional learning and the missing link in ed reform

First three years of life are crucial

UNDER THE UMBRELLA of “social-emotional learning” (SEL), there has been an explosion in knowledge about how children develop the kinds of skills that are crucial to academic and lifelong success. As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning includes five interrelated competencies: self-awareness, self-management (or self-regulation), social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. We know that SEL strengthens executive function, and that it lays the foundation for these “soft skills” that we now recognize are essential for success across academic and professional disciplines. Self-regulation, in particular—the ability to control and manage our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and keep one’s attention focused—is fundamental to all SEL competencies. The missing link is in being able to provide the building blocks for developing self-regulation within the first three years of life.

New research into the brain clearly suggests that age four is too late in children’s developmental process to introduce SEL. Learning begins at birth, and research confirms that 90 percent of the brain is already developed within the first three years of life. The brain develops the fastest and is at its most malleable during these first three years—and early life experiences have an oversized impact on its development.

In Social and Emotional Learning: Opportunities for Massachusetts, Lessons for the Nation, a new report published by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy with ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), we see a call for state-level SEL standards and additional supports and mechanisms for implementation. These are important steps, but they are also limited. Starting in primary school misses a critical window—the most critical window—to maximize the benefits of an emotion-driven curriculum.


Meet The Author

Donna Housman

clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president, Beginnings School

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