Emotions are our first language universally. Children leave the womb expressing needs not through spoken language but through a first cry and through physiological movements that are expressions of emotion. As caregivers, we respond to these emotions. We seek to understand, respond, and meet young children’s expressed emotional needs beginning from birth. We act as important socializers to them through our own understanding of emotion; our ability to read emotions and behavioral cues; and our sensitive, attuned responses. In the process, we help promote children’s knowledge of their own and others’ emotions, as well as their regulation of emotional expressiveness and experience. This ability is what is known as emotional competence, or what in common parlance is labelled emotional intelligence. As caregivers and early childhood educators, we are crucial in promoting the growth of emotional competence.
Our foundational role cannot be overstated. The importance of that role is supported by neuroscientific research showing that zero to five years represents a critical window for emotional, cognitive and social development and that instrumental in that development are empathic social and emotional interactions between a caregiver and young child. Research suggests these early years are pivotal in learning and teaching, which must involve not only the development of emotional competence, but also the growth of self-regulation for long-term academic, personal and social success. Self-regulation—widely defined as the ability to control and manage emotion, cognition and behavior—is closely related to emotional competence, since children use the skills of emotional competence to regulate themselves.
Studies show that children initially communicate through expressions of emotion, followed by rapid development of the ability to experience and express different emotions, as well as managing and coping with a variety of emotions.
Emotional competence and co-regulation skills in early age are crucial to lifelong success
Several studies point to just how these competencies emerge in young children. Studies show that children initially communicate through expressions of emotion, followed by rapid development of the ability to experience and express different emotions, as well as managing and coping with a variety of emotions. Caregivers shape that development through a process known as “co-regulation,” in which the parents or other caregiving adults facilitate a child’s ability to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings through support, coaching, and modeling in sensitive, responsive interactions.
All this knowledge comes at an exciting and pivotal time for education globally. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of knowledge about how children develop skills crucial to academic and lifelong success, with educators increasingly aware globally of the need to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) into their school programs. Fueling this effort has been a push toward better student outcomes and an international awareness that effective SEL can improve them. At the same time, policymakers worldwide are recognizing the need for quality early childhood education based both on a changing employment landscape globally whereby young children are increasingly under non-parental care and a growing awareness that the rapidly growing brain is most malleable within the first three years when children’s social and emotional experiences impact the brain’s architecture. As a 2010 study by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and subsequent work have pointed out, social and emotional experiences—supported and directed through a secure attachment with a caregiver—are central to behavior, learning and mental health.
Integrating emotional, cognitive and social early learning into school programs
Based on my work for several decades as a clinical psychologist, founder of a child development center, teacher trainer, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, and mother, I developed an integrative evidence-based approach, ‘begin to…ECSEL‘, that endeavors to foster emotional, cognitive and social early learning through emotional communication, guidance, tools and techniques. More specifically, this approach promotes the growth of emotional competence, self-regulation, empathy and associated pro-social skills.
We are soon to release the results of a study of our approach that shows students who received our approach demonstrated significant growth on measures of attachment/relationship, initiative, self-regulation, emotion knowledge, emotion regulation, and theoretically related constructs involving empathy, prosocial skills, positive reactions to frustration, as well as managing negative emotions and aggressive behaviors.
Despite growing awareness of evidence-based practices to support social and emotional competencies, few evidence-based approaches that target emotional competence in the early years have emerged, particularly programs that are educator-led.
This is an exciting and unparalleled time for early childhood education worldwide. Despite growing awareness of evidence-based practices to support social and emotional competencies, few evidence-based approaches that target emotional competence in the early years have emerged, particularly programs that are educator-led. Marked is the need to provide quality early childhood intervention and prevention programs that specifically promote emotional competence on the path toward self-regulation for long-term success, mental health and well-being. The opportunity for effective evidence-based early childhood education has never been more pronounced. In a bid to improve early learning outcomes and overall well-being for young children, the OECD has recently introduced a study to provide participating countries with common empirical information about the early learning domains not only of emerging literacy and numeracy skills, but also self-regulation and socio-emotional skills. The time to act on improving early childhood education through evidence-based programs that promote emotional, cognitive and social early learning is now.
If you want to find out more about the importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth, read Dr Housman’s review article published in International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.