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.