As an advocate for high-quality early childhood education, I am well aware of the importance of preschool. I have also had to personally debunk the myth of preschool closely resembling your average daycare which includes play, snack, a coloring learning sheet or craft and then more play. In my quest for finding a high-quality preschool that was affordable, safe, and convenient for my morning commute, I was looking for more than the average and fortunately, I had options.
After visiting a few preschools and asking questions that I deemed necessary, I chose a school that I felt was best for my daughter. I was hoping that my child would learn how to read, write, and maybe even count to 100 by December. Was I expecting too much? Were my expectations too high? Possibly, but after all, during the summer I had worked so hard to teach her the alphabet, numbers, and how to write her name. We were even learning letter sounds and 3D shapes, so it was a total shock when I received a letter from the teacher that stated, “During the first few months we will not focus on literacy, math, science or socials studies. We will focus on learning and understanding our emotions.”
The audacity! Emotions? My initial thought was, ”What type of new age philosophy theories did this teacher have?” and “Did I want my child to be a part of that?” Like many other parents, I questioned her tactics, went to the school administrator, and was told to trust the teacher, trust her 17 years as an educator, and trust her SEL focus. I was also given several resources and a Parent Toolkit that would allow me to teach, coach, support and encourage what was being taught in her classroom.
As I did my research, I deepened my knowledge of the ideas behind social and emotional learning (SEL). I did have some understanding of SEL through the lens of character education and using those lessons in my own elementary classroom. I discovered even more and understood that SEL is the process through which children acquire and apply the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, by building confidence, self-awareness, teaching communication skills, cooperation, self-control, empathy, and independence. I began to accept the truth and research that proves that there are many other skills that my daughter needs to master before an academic focus is appropriate.
The SEL focused lessons taught my child how to put a name to what she was feeling. She was better able to navigate through her emotions and have empathy for others. She learned how to have confidence and became even more independent. She learned how to push through challenging assignments that asked her to write both capital and lowercase Fs without a great deal of tears. I noticed she asked more questions, was better able to talk through her problems, wanted to learn, wanted to try to read the “big words.” There was indeed a very obvious relationship between her social, emotional and academic development.
When SEL is taught in the early grades, it helps parents, teachers, and most importantly the child. A report provided by CASEL, stated “Eight in ten teachers think SEL will have a major benefit on students’ ability to stay on track and graduate and will increase standardized test scores and overall academic performance (77 percent). Three-quarters (75 percent) believe SEL will improve student academic achievement.” Academic success and SEL rely on one another.
SEL is not the cure-all or the magic wand that will help improve our schools and student learning, but it is definitely something that parents should consider when scouting out preschools and schools in general. After all, education is more than academics; it is multi-dimensional. It would be great if more schools adopted an educational perspective that valued and taught not only the academic basics but also social, emotional and interpersonal skills.
This post was written by Paula Matshazi and originally ran on the Indy.Education Blog.