Social and emotional competencies set the stage for academic and life-long success. But, how do we integrate social and emotional learning into early childhood education?

Last month, Anna Durfee, a guest author on the website “Getting Smart,” wrote an article highlighting the importance of social and emotional competencies and children’s predilection to explore them. “I feel that the tenants of SEL are something children are naturally curious about,” she writes.


In early childhood, that inclination is pronounced. While children are born with a sense of wonder and the propensity to explore and discover, they need the support and guidance of the adult to help promote and foster social and emotional competencies. For optimal development, promoting these constructs can be integrated into each aspect of the child’s day. “From curriculum, to free choice, to transitions, not a moment goes by without providing the opportunity for growth,” says Dr. Donna Housman, founder and CEO of Housman Institute, a research and training organization in early childhood education.

While Durfee notes the importance of conversations, collaboration, and authenticity in this crucial work, Dr. Housman observes that with young children, we should leverage moments of heightened emotions in order to effectively cultivate the ability to appropriately express, experience and regulate the intensity of all emotions, both negative and positive.

In her article, Durfee conjures up imagery of a toddler who hits another child for no apparent reason. She references this emotionally-charged moment as an example of a child’s curiosity for understanding their impact on the world. Elaborating, Dr. Housman shares that this behavior “is a natural way to express and experience a sense of their own power and impact on others. They learn the cause and effect of those actions. It is normal for young children throughout the day to express emotion and seek to satisfy their needs.” Dr. Housman explains that as caregivers, educators, and policymakers, our focus must therefore be on providing ways to help children accurately express their emotions and display appropriate behavior, with a view to helping them learn to effectively manage their emotions and behaviors.

To support this process, Dr. Housman stresses the importance of adults “introducing tools and techniques to help children learn these foundational competencies.” Her program, begin to…ECSEL, scaffolds caregivers and children towards this goal. Employing the model of direction, modeling, guidance toward internalization and self-control, begin to…ECSEL helps children identify, understand, appropriately express, and ultimately regulate those emotions and the behavior that accompanies them.

Integrating the promotion of social and emotional competencies, however, does not have to be limited to emotionally-charged moments; it can be incorporated into every moment of the day. For example, at our lab school, the Beginnings Child Development Center, one teacher read the book ‘The Wheels on the Bus.’ After singing the section where the wheels fall off of the bus, she paused, and asked captivated one-year-olds to consider how they might feel if they were a bus driver and the wheels fell off of their bus. This brief moment helped the children begin to identify and understand emotion, integrating imperative competencies in a way devoid of negative arousal. It also demonstrated the ease of integrating social and emotional terminology in low-stake ways.

Culture is critical when engaging in meaningful and difficult work. Durfee’s perceptive writing highlights the integration of social and emotional competencies as a necessary aspect required for the success of child development. Given what we know about children’s brain development based on advances in neuroscience—namely that a child’s early years offers a critical yet sensitive window to promoting emotional competence—early childhood education presents an unparalleled opportunity to start instilling these competencies from birth.