How Is Social and Emotional Development Supported in Early Learning Settings?
Early learning settings are rich with opportunities to build and practice social and emotional skills; however, the quality of these settings affects the degree to which a child’s social and emotional development is supported. In high-quality settings, children benefit from “frequent, warm and stimulating” interactions with caregivers who are attentive and able to individualize instruction based on children’s needs and strengths. Early educators in high-quality settings are trained in early childhood education and tend to be less controlling and restrictive in their approach to classroom management.
Licensure and accreditation, well-trained caregivers, low staff-child ratios and parent involvement are generally considered to be fundamental to high-quality care and education. Such elements not only promote strong, secure relationships and positive interactions between caregiver and child, but also improve attention to children’s interest, problem-solving, language development, social skills and physical development.
High-quality early learning opportunities can also reduce the risk of children experiencing poor mental health. Research shows it can mitigate the effects of poverty, maternal depression and other risk factors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high-quality child care helps build resilience among at-risk children, partly due to the relationships they form with caregivers. When children perceive at least one supportive adult in their life, they are less likely to experience toxic stress and suffer the detrimental effects of adverse experiences.
Well-trained early care and education professionals are critical to supporting social and emotional competence in young children. First and foremost, they build nurturing and responsive relationships with the children in their care and model respectful and appropriate behavior. They weave social and emotional skill-building into day-to-day activities and implement targeted curriculum and lessons with books, music, games and group discussions.
Effective early care and education professionals consider and support the individual needs of each child within the context of their family and culture. Head Start, the federally funded, locally implemented birth-to-5 program for low-income children, emphasizes that “children’s learning is enhanced when their culture is respected and reflected in all aspects” of an early learning program. Early childhood programs implementing culturally reflective policies and practices may look different depending on the setting, but at their core, they are learner-focused, promote a positive cultural and individual identity, and engage all children from unique cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds. Cultural awareness is key for early care and education professionals in forming strong relationships with children and families.
Early care and education professionals are also critical to identifying children who face barriers to healthy social and emotional development and helping families obtain the support they need. They sometimes partner with an early childhood mental health consultant to address challenging behaviors and develop behavior support plans.
An increasing number of early learning settings are implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) frameworks. The frameworks are designed to equip early care and education professionals with the skills and tools they need to support positive social and emotional development and address challenging behavior. A program-wide PBIS does not prescribe a specific curriculum. Instead, it includes a series of practices, interventions and implementation supports that are available across the system. One such framework, the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children (Pyramid Model), is specifically designed for programs serving infants and toddlers. Twenty-five states have established statewide coalitions and leadership teams to implement the Pyramid Model (often housed within a state’s human services or education department). The Pyramid Model organizes evidence-based practices into three progressively intensive tiers: universal supports for the wellness of all children, targeted services for those who need more support, and intensive services for those most in need. The model emphasizes how essential early care and education professionals are to the social and emotional well-being of young children by positioning “effective workforce” as the foundation.
Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
Infant and early childhood mental health consultation (IECMHC) is an evidence-based strategy to support healthy social and emotional development and “prevent, identify, and reduce the impact of mental health problems among young children and their families,” according to the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. IECMH consultants help build the capacity of the adults in young children’s lives to support healthy social and emotional development at home and in early learning settings. IECMH consultants have master’s degrees and are licensed mental health professionals who provide indirect, prevention-based services. They partner with families to assess concerns, assist with implementing positive behavioral supports, and connect families to other services and supports. Within early learning settings, IECMH consultants provide classroom-focused interventions that target all children, home-based interventions for more high-risk children, and referrals for those children who need more specialized services. Additionally, IECMH consultants support early care and education professionals by providing reflective supervision, coaching, training and case consultation.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Center of Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation emphasizes the field’s role in promoting equity and reducing disparities in access to resources and outcomes for young children. Equity, according to SAMHSA’s IECMHC Toolbox, is “the quality of being fair, unbiased, and just.” Equity is essential to reducing disproportionalities among young children of color in suspensions and expulsions in early learning settings. IECMH consultants partner with early care and education professionals to “reflect on their own experiences, biases, and fears—and then move beyond them to see each young child as an individual within a unique family and community context.” There is growing evidence that access to IECMHC reduces the occurrence of suspensions and expulsions for young children.
How Prepared Are Early Care and Education Professionals to Care for Children With Challenging Behaviors?
Despite the importance of their role, many early care and education professionals report not feeling adequately trained to respond to challenging behaviors or to support children at risk of mental health issues. A national survey of the early care and education workforce revealed just 20% of respondents received training on supporting social and emotional growth in the past year. When asked what types of support would help them better address the needs of children with challenging behavior, professionals in Maine most frequently selected additional training (61%) and greater access to early childhood behavioral specialists (57%). In a similar survey in Virginia, respondents identified access to specialists (63%), additional supports for families (54%) and increased training for staff (52%) as necessary to improving outcomes for children.
Survey participants in both Maine and Virginia were also asked about the effects of challenging behaviors in the classroom. Concerns included the ability to attend to other children and ensuring the safety and ability of other children to learn. Respondents also noted the negative effect challenging behaviors have on their own well-being.
Without adequate training and supports to handle these stressful situations, early care and education professionals—among whom depression is not uncommon—burn out and leave the profession. Extremely low wages further contribute to their stress. At an average annual salary of just over $22,000, nearly half of the early care and education workforce is enrolled in at least one public support program. These include the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Researchers have found that stress negatively affects early care and education professionals’ ability to provide positive, high-quality environments and is the primary reason they leave the field. Bringing the problem full circle, high turnover among early care and education professionals disrupts the relationships and attachments formed with the children they care for and is linked to poorer developmental outcomes for early learners.
Furthermore, early care and education professionals who lack training may be unprepared to distinguish concerning behaviors from those that are developmentally appropriate. Misinterpreting or mischaracterizing behaviors may lead to more punitive discipline and failure to provide appropriate supports. Underprepared professionals are more likely to over-identify children, especially children of color, for special education, disciplinary action and expulsions. Suspensions and expulsions are more likely to occur in early learning settings that have high student-adult ratios, private ownership, extended hours, limited access to early childhood behavioral specialists, and teachers who report high levels of stress.
Implicit Bias in Early Learning Settings
In a study by researchers at Yale University, early care and education professionals were instructed to look for challenging behaviors in a video of an early learning classroom where none was present. Researchers used technology to track eye movements and found that when challenging behaviors were expected, teachers tended to observe the black children more closely, especially the black boys.
Another component of the study found that when teachers were provided additional information on a child’s family and background, and when the teacher’s race matched that of the child, teachers tended to lower the severity rating of the child’s behavior. Researchers concluded by calling for greater connections between early care and education professionals and parents, as well as increased training to address biases and increase empathy.
Suspension and expulsion in early learning settings
Data collected in recent years by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has shined a spotlight on how common suspensions and expulsions are in early learning settings. In fact, expulsion rates among preschoolers are three times higher than those of K-12 students. Stark disparities in suspension and expulsion rates among young children based on race and gender led researchers to question the effect of implicit bias, or the “automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways. Black children, who comprise just 19% of preschool enrollment, make up 47% of preschoolers who are suspended. Research shows students of color are more harshly disciplined for the same behaviors exhibited by their white peers. Furthermore, 75% of expelled preschoolers are boys, with black boys being suspended or expelled the most often. The consequences for young children who are suspended or expelled can be significant and long-lasting. The same children are more likely to be suspended or expelled again in later years and to drop out of high school, fail a grade or be incarcerated.
In 2016, U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Education issued a policy statement and recommendations aimed at preventing and severely limiting suspensions and expulsions of young children. The departments recommended that early learning programs take the following steps:
- Improve the workforce’s skill set and capacity to support social and emotional development, address challenging behaviors appropriately, and form supportive and nurturing relationships with children and their families.
- Provide training to deepen the workforce’s understanding of cultures and diversity, practice self-reflective strategies and correct biases.
- Increase access to behavioral specialists (including IEMCH consultants).
- Promote the health and well-being of the workforce with reasonable work hours, breaks and access to supports, such as social or mental health services.
The policy statement also made recommendations directly to states, including enacting state policies severely limiting the use of suspensions and expulsions across all early learning settings, collecting data on the use of exclusionary discipline and setting goals for its reduction. It also recommended investing in workforce training and implementing policies to increase quality in early learning settings.