Strengthening Young Children's Lives with Social and Emotional Learning

May 24, 2016Minju Choi

What if by developing children’s social and emotional capacities, we can more effectively improve their literacy skills, numeracy skills, and future livelihoods? 

While there has been much attention in the education field on improving children’s literacy and numeracy skills, less attention has been given to children’s social and emotional learning. Policymakers for years have agreed that education should take a “whole child” approach, but curricula and priorities have been slower to adapt. Now, as educators around the world increasingly combine traditional academics with social, emotional, and other ‘soft’ skills, data about the effectiveness of this more comprehensive approach is mounting.

Non-cognitive skills are a set of attitudes, behaviors or personality characteristics, including motivation, persistence, communication, and others that are closely related to a child’s social and emotional development.

Although the importance of social and emotional skills is intuitive to many, not enough action has been taken to emphasize their importance in formal education. As it has been noted in OECD’s report on Skills for Social Progress, there is widespread perception that social and emotional skills are harder to measure and improve than cognitive skills. Although there are few existing tools and research, this gap should provide motivation to find out more about what “soft skills” can do to support a child’s development and success later in life.

Why is social and emotional learning important for young children in particular?

Cognitive skills and social and emotional skills are closely linked. Take, for example, character education, service learning, citizenship education, and emotional intelligence. All of these are components of social emotional learning, and they help to develop children’s abilities to learn from others, communicate effectively, exhibit sensitivity, cooperate with others and more. These skills prepare a child to become not only a a healthy and strong individual, but contribute directly to academic success as well. Being able to develop positive relationships with caregivers, teachers, and peers is essential for children to confidently learn and explore the world around them.

This linkage between social skills and high-quality education can be seen in action around the world.  Ububele, for example, emphasizes non-cognitive skills through a holistic curriculum for young children in South Africa. Ububele provides art, ballet, cooking classes, creative play and active learning opportunities to engage children and families in the development of positive traits. To build emotional resilience, group facilitators hold individual play therapy sessions for children, and psychologists conduct workshops for caregivers to provide parenting support. The result is a program from Johannesburg that is expanding in size to meet the needs of parents and children.

Little Ripples, an early childhood program supporting children living in refugee camps in Eastern Chad, recognizes that social and emotional support may not only be helpful to developing more traditional academics, it may be an absolute pre-requisite. Their curriculum focuses on trauma-healing and peace-building, and support is tailored to the particular experiences of refugee children. Trained women refugees further develop the curriculum with their cultural knowledge. Children are encouraged to learn through play, while their cognitive development as well as physical and mental health are closely monitored. Such comprehensive support is particularly important given the stressful and marginalized conditions these children. Children who live in stressful and vulnerable situations face greater risks to social and emotional development, and models like Little Ripples are combining a focus on healing as well as cognitive development to meet this growing need.

While cognitive skills are essential for children to succeed in school and life, experiences from refugee camps and beyond are demonstrating that non-cognitive skills are integral to children’s development. “Soft” skills should not be overlooked by anyone, but should instead be understood as critical skills in the twenty-first century that will foster our children to grow up with passion, confidence, and health. As Dr. James Heckman says, there are “hard facts behind soft skills”.


Photo Credit (Top to Bottom): Asia Development Bank (Homepage) ; Ububele ; Little Ripples

See more blogs

Who we work with: