My 3-year-old granddaughter has passionate feelings about many things. Like many 3-year-olds, she sometimes struggles to manage her big feelings. During one of my visits, she couldn’t wait to show me a picture she had brought home from preschool. It was a handprint with numbers on each finger. She showed me how she could use it to breathe deep and count down to calm down. It was wonderful to see her receive this kind of social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction in preschool and to watch her embrace the skills.
Most preschool teachers rate social and emotional development as a top priority. But they also often voice concerns about pressures to work on early literacy and math skills. I’ve seen debates online that suggest parents need to choose whether they will opt for a play-focused preschool that supports social and emotional development, or a skill-focused preschool that supports early academic learning. Similarly, preschools must choose a focus for their instruction.
I find these debates very frustrating because the dichotomy is a false one. In reality, preschool programs that systematically integrate formal SEL and pre-academic instruction offer the best foundation for children’s later well-being and school success.
Back in 2003, we started a study to test out the long-term impact of this kind of preschool SEL-academic integration. Head Start classrooms were assigned by a random lottery to use enhancements. The enhancements included a strong preschool SEL curriculum—Preschool PATHS (which stands for Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies)—and Research-Based and Developmentally Informed (REDI) curriculum components to promote language and literacy skills. Following a set of well-specified lesson plans, teachers used PATHS puppets, stories, and games to introduce the skills children needed to make friends at school, get along in the classroom, and understand and manage feelings. REDI also included a daily reading program with interactive stories about social and emotional themes to support PATHS skills and build vocabulary and comprehension skills, along with sound games and alphabet activities to strengthen reading readiness. strengthen reading readiness.
Children who received the integrated SEL plus academic learning enhancements in Head Start (compared to their peers who attended Head Start without these enhancements) showed better emotional understanding and problem-solving skills, along with better behavioral adjustment. They also had larger vocabularies and more letter and letter-sound knowledge. By the time they reached adolescence, middle school and high school teachers rated them more positively in areas of emotional well-being, peer relations, and aggression control.
In other words, integrating systematic, formal SEL instruction and academic learning in preschool had long-term benefits for children that were still evident when those children were in high school. Now the challenge is to spread the word about the power of high-quality integrated instruction in preschool for both social and emotional well-being and long-term school success!
Dr. Karen Bierman is the Evan Pugh Professor and Director of the Child Study Center at Penn State University. She also received a 2022 Social and Emotional Learning Leaders of the Year (SELLY) Award from CASEL.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.