As a teacher, and further, a special education teacher, social skills and social emotional learning have been something I've cared about deeply for years. Most of my time teaching in special education was in the early childhood, ages 3-5. The natural expectations of those early years are still (hopefully) mostly based in play, so I was witness to the growth and development of social and emotional skills for so many children. It allowed me to expand my knowledge base, as well as see all the variations.
Those younger years are full of learning how to share, how to respect others' space, how to take turns. We take it in stride that these are skills young children need to learn at that time, and we are willing and able to teach them. It doesn't feel strange or out of place, but fully accepted.
As a special education teacher, I was expected to support children in their learning of social and emotional skills, especially in that age range. I would write goals for sharing, for making eye contact, for asking appropriate conversational questions, and even waiting for answers. I would sit with children as they worked out their frustrations, and help make plans with their caregivers and other teachers to support children through challenging behaviors. I would write social stories, put on puppet shows, sing songs, and get down on the floor to help create awareness and growth of these skills.
And then would come time for a child to move into kindergarten. The social skills goals would start to get slimmed down, and the academic goals increased. Social skills and other "soft skills" would drop off the radar, and get replaced with more academic, "hard" skills. "Hard" skills are characterized as those that are measurable and teachable, like writing, reading, or math. (I don't know that I necessarily agree with soft skills not being measurable or teachable, or hard skills always being teachable for that matter, but I'll leave that for another time.) Students would be expected to know how to write their name upon entering kindergarten, be able to sit and attend in a 20-30 minute large group setting, stand in line, share. Receiving teachers would be open and accepting of differences and of varying developmental abilities, but were also being held to local and state standards and expectations, often making their willingness irrelevant.
I had the luxury of not teaching to those standards since they hadn't, at the time, yet crept into the early childhood realm. Additionally, it being special education, so much instruction was individualized to accommodate and focus on what each child needed. However, knowing those standards were looming out there in the near future for the children in my classroom did put the pressure on. It made me highly aware of what they were going to be stepping into, and what was expected of them when they arrived. I knew that the teachers in these children's future had state standards to meet, tests to pass, and boxes to check, and not a lot of time to focus on helping a child manage their emotions or how to make a new friend.
Thinking back on my own education, and now as a parent, homeschooling my own children, I am fascinated by this abandonment of social and emotional skill development in traditional education. My childhood and young adulthood were full of ups and downs in relationships and experiences, happiness and grief, and I had to learn as I went along. I think about how, even now as an adult, I continue to learn how to navigate social situations, my own emotions, and my own reactions. At this point, I can choose to further my knowledge in understanding human interaction and development to help me be a better person to myself and with others. Additionally, as a homeschooling family, we have the luxury of intertwining social and emotional learning into our days as we choose.
But how do we expect children in the traditional education system to do this if we don't provide the experiences? How can they grow if it isn't common practice to learn about emotions and social skills? Why is it that learning times tables or writing a perfect paragraph has become more of a priority than knowing how to identify feelings within ourselves, or learning how to take a deep breath before reacting?
While the focus within social and emotional skills changes throughout development and may no longer be about sharing skills, taking turns, or knowing the word for that feeling that makes you want to throw a block across the room, the need for skill building around emotions and social skills hardly goes away after preschool. I think about the ups and downs of the preteen and teen years, and how beneficial a regular practice of self-reflection or daily meditation could be in soothing the discomfort and awkwardness that comes with those years. I think about the overwhelm of the wide open world of choices in the college years, and how easily depression and anxiety can swoop in, and how understanding brain development or just pausing for a minute could help navigate big decisions. And adulthood! How we assume when we get there, we'll have everything figured out, and that couldn't be further from the truth. We're faced with parenting decisions, how to navigate media, and the need to create a nourishing and supportive home life, all while staying emotionally stable, level-headed, and a master of difficult conversations. I'm having to adjust unhealthy habits and ways of thinking I developed in earlier years. To do that, I now choose to participate in classes where I can learn nonviolence and peace-building skills, or find a practice group to work on how to effectively self-reflect and learn from my choices, or research growth mindset and its benefits for myself and my family.
What if all those years in school (and life!) were filled with social and emotional learning education? What if we didn't have to rewire our brains to adjust for unlearned information? While children are learning how to read books, they can also be learning how to read their own emotions. While they're learning about chemical reactions, they can be learning about their emotional reactions. Not because they have been graced with an amazing teacher, but because it is part of the education and because social and emotional development is valued as much as academic development. And not because it can be tested and measured, but because it can help make our world a better place, and our children better prepared with the adult life they face.
I love to think of an education where emotional intelligence is as highly valued as intellectual intelligence. Where children, teenagers, and young adults develop vocabulary around their emotions and relationship skills are practiced and improved upon. Where those skills are not thought of as something managed only in early childhood, but cultivated and nurtured all through our lives.