As soon as four-year-old Andrew enters the classroom, he walks to the block corner, stands for a moment watching the block play, and then kicks over the other children’s constructions. They react angrily, and the teacher comes over and redirects him to another activity. Moments later he moves to the puzzle area, watches again, then knocks the puzzles off the table. Once more the children are angry. The teacher talks to Andrew about his behaviour and rather than leave him to his own devices she sits and reads him a book about having friends.
When a child engages in challenging behaviour, it often keeps other children from functioning by distracting them, frightening them, destroying their work, even hurting them. At the same time, the child with challenging behaviour monopolises teachers’ time, depletes their resources, and prevents them from teaching. If early childhood educators can meet the child’s needs before challenging behaviour appears, they will have more to give to all the children, and the classroom can become a place that’s pleasant, relaxed, and conducive to learning.
Children often use challenging behaviour when they don’t have more appropriate ways to communicate their needs. This means that we should be teaching children new skills to replace their challenging behaviour rather than merely disciplining or even punishing them.
Being proactive is far more effective than intervening after a child misbehaves. There are many things we can do to prevent challenging behaviours and teach children appropriate behaviours—including social and emotional skills. But first of all, teachers must make the classroom a place that children want to be by including the following three elements:
Developing an inclusive environment where all children feel welcome and important
Increasing the opportunities for social interaction by using cooperative toys and materials that naturally lend themselves to two or more children playing together
Creating a sense of community and an atmosphere of friendship and caring where teachers give time and attention to children when they are engaging in friendly behaviours and children support one another’s efforts and achievements
So how will teaching social emotional skills change Andrew’s behavior? Chances are he wanted to join in play with his peers but didn’t know how. Children with challenging behaviour have great difficulty in the social and emotional realm because they are often rejected by their peers, and without friends they have few opportunities to learn and practice these skills or build self-confidence. Those with the most challenging behaviours especially need responsive, consistent, and nurturing relationships with adults in order to learn and develop, yet their behaviours often prevent them from developing and benefiting from those relationships.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches behaviours, attitudes, and words that allow children to initiate and maintain positive social relationships. Besides helping them to make friends and get along with others, social and emotional skills enable them to behave more appropriately, recognise and manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, understand and appreciate the perspective of others, feel and show empathy, and resolve conflicts more peacefully (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Social-emotional learning is stronger when it begins early, and the preschool years are the optimal time to begin. There is no doubt children learn social and emotional skills simply by being in a group, but they learn much more when we teach these skills proactively. Giving them formal status in the programme makes our teaching intentional and explicit, highlights their value, and amplifies the classroom’s prosocial ambience.
To promote the social and emotional competence of all children in the classroom, social skills should be taught to the whole class. No one is stigmatised, and the children develop a common understanding and language.
Key skills that children can learn are:
Friendship skills. Joining in, cooperation, sharing, turn taking
Emotional literacy. Recognising and expressing one's emotional state, learning that feelings change, and that it’s possible to have more than one feeling about something
Empathy. Recognising and relating to others’ feelings, understanding that not everyone feels the same way and that all feelings are valid. (It is what you do with them that counts.)
Managing feelings. Learning how to calm down, comprehending that anger can interfere with problem solving. (A student who cannot manage emotions properly will find it hard to focus on learning.)
Problem-solving skills. Learning to identify the problem so that there is a solution imbedded in their understanding of the issue. Instead of seeing the problem as ‘He took my ball’ or ‘I had it first’, children are more likely to find a solution if they pose the problem as ‘We both want to play with the ball and there is only one ball’. Then they can come up with and evaluate possible solutions such as, ‘We could take turns, play together, or get another ball!’
When children acquire these skills, they feel more confident and are better able to develop relationships with their peers, which in turn gives them more opportunities to learn and practice social skills.
Classroom teachers can help students develop social and emotional competencies by teaching these skills directly, by using engaging curriculum materials, and by implementing specific instructional and classroom-management practices, such as supportive schedules and routines. Schools around the world now use researchbased social and emotional learning programmes.
The PATHS program is a comprehensive SEL curriculum that is evidencebased and proven effective. It offers a common framework for effective SEL instruction from preschool through kindergarten and the elementary grades. Second Step, developed by the Committee for Children, is researchbased, teacher-informed, and classroom-tested to promote the social-emotional development, safety, and wellbeing of children from Early Learning through Grade 8.
Learning social and emotional skills helps children throughout their lives. They are better prepared to handle their emotions well, relax and focus on learning, perform better academically, make responsible decisions, gain selfconfidence, resolve conflicts cooperatively, avoid negative behaviours, and make positive decisions—all of which lowers their risk for later delinquency and violence.
Barbara Kaiser is the co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing, and Responding Effectively, 4th Edition. Pearson, 2017. https://www.challengingbehavior.com
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