How Early Can Youth Begin Learning SEL? (It May Be Earlier Than You Think!)

By Aperture Education’s Senior Research Associate, Jennifer Robitaille. Before joining Aperture Education, Robitaille worked with the Devereux Center for Resilient Children. She has worked extensively on both the DECA and DESSA.

There are many benefits to teaching students social and emotional skills, including higher grades, better attendance, and fewer behavior incidents. But did you know that you can start assessing and promoting children’s healthy social and emotional development much earlier than grade school? In fact, research shows social and emotional learning (SEL) can start as early as infanthood. Building social and emotional competence at all ages — from infants and toddlers to pre-school and grade schoolers — sets a strong foundation and strengthens student success. These social and emotional skills serve as important within-child protective factors for children of all ages, helping them to better cope with adversity and leading to more positive outcomes into adulthood. SEL for Infants and Toddlers When thinking of SEL for older children (grades K-12), schools tend to focus on helping students build strong relationships with others, manage their feelings and emotions, set goals, and build self-efficacy. While some of these constructs are too complex for younger children, there are a number of ways to begin building social and emotional skills with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Social and emotional development for this age group involves:

  • Learning how to form healthy and trusting relationships
  • Responding and providing cues to caregivers about what they need and want
  • Expressing strong feelings
  • Learning how to regulate emotions
  • Showing interest in other children
  • Beginning to relate to others in social situations

SEL as a Continuum

The table below describes a continuum of assessments and strategies for promoting children’s key within-child protective factors related to resilience (i.e., social and emotional skills).The building blocks of a solid SEL foundation start with strong and healthy attachments to caregivers and the ability to get his/her needs met (initiative). As children enter their toddler years, they are able to learn self-regulation while continuing to build their ability to form relationships and initiative. Older children continue to develop these skills while also learning social and emotional skills such as the ability to make decisions and set goals.

Aperture assessments for different age groups

Actionable SEL Data

The DECA-I/T/P2 and the DESSA have shown to be effective measures of the social and emotional skills in children from 1 month of age through the 8th grade. The suite of assessments are widely-utilized in early childhood and school/out-of-school time settings. These nationally standardized, strength-based assessments can be completed by parents, caregivers, or educators and help inform planning efforts that strengthen children’s protective factors and social and emotional skills. Each assessment includes strategies and resources for promoting these important skills in both home and program/school settings. For younger children, the SEL data can be used within an early childhood or Head Start program. Caregivers and parents can prioritize areas of focus based on the assessment results. For example, if a preschooler is struggling in her interactions with other children, caregivers may start by providing plenty of opportunities to play and share with others. Students in grades K-8 can benefit from school-wide SEL programs, small group instruction, and individualized strategies based on social and emotional skill areas identified as needing improvement. Parents, schools, and students can all benefit by starting SEL early. Teaching youth these skills on a continuum — rather than introducing SEL after a student demonstrates risk factors in grade or middle school — establishes a foundation of strong social and emotional competence that will help students thrive in school and life.

Interested in learning more about how to teach and measure SEL? Contact our SEL advisors at Aperture Education today!