- Open Access
The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: a case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach
© The Author(s) 2017
- Received: 4 October 2016
- Accepted: 16 November 2017
- Published: 28 November 2017
Neuroscientific advances demonstrate that the age range from zero to 5 years old represents a critical window for both learning and teaching, which must involve the development of emotional competence and the growth of self-regulation as a foundation for long-term academic, personal, and social success, promoting mental health and well-being. Recent findings suggest that these capacities emerge from the co-regulation of empathic social and emotional interactions between a caregiver and young child. Based on this research, the present review will (a) describe the theoretical underpinnings of a childcare and development center-based social and emotional learning approach to support the growth of these foundational capacities in children from birth; (b) examine the role of co-regulation with a professional caregiver/teacher in promoting these capacities; and (c) detail how emotional cognitive social early learning, an integrative evidence-based approach, endeavors to foster these competencies through emotional communication, guidance, tools and techniques, most notably causal talk in the context of emotional experience.
- Emotional competence
- Emotion regulation
- Emotion knowledge
- Early childhood
- Teacher–child relationships
- Socioemotional interventions
There has been a proliferation of knowledge about how children develop skills that are crucial to academic and lifelong success, with educators increasingly aware of the need to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) into their school programs. Both in the United States through state-led and federal initiatives such as Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and a growing number of initiatives outside the US such as the iYes Project of ERASMUS+ in Europe (iYes Project 2016) and KidsMatter in Australia (KidsMatter 2017), SEL programs are being widely introduced, supported by recommended standards and funding for implementation. Fueling this effort has been a push toward better student outcomes and a belief that SEL can improve them. A 2013 US-based study entitled “The Missing Piece” asked educators what they thought could fix the problem of static educational achievements (Bridgeland et al. 2013). Results indicated that teachers overwhelmingly agreed that social and emotional learning is the missing piece to boost outcomes and transform our schools.
The belief that SEL can improve student outcomes has substantial evidence to support it. A meta-analysis of 213 programs found that social and emotional learning interventions increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, compared with students who did not participate in SEL programs (Durlak et al. 2011). These social and emotional learning programs also reduced aggression and emotional distress among students, increased helping behaviors in school, and improved positive attitudes toward self and others.
Until recently, what has been missing in this growing body of research has been the importance of social and emotional learning—and accordingly social and emotional teaching—in early childhood. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that such learning may be most optimal prior to age six, when school typically commences. Ninety percent of the brain develops in the first 3 years during a period of plasticity (Perry 2000), in which the flexibility of neural cells and pathways alter their structure and function in response to stimulus from the environment (Nelson et al. 2013). Given that brain development is a function of the interaction between biology and experience, children’s social and emotional experiences play a critical role in the growth of the brain’s architecture. Supported and directed through a secure attachment with a caregiver, these social and emotional experiences inform and shape brain development and are central to behavior, learning, and health (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2010; Nelson et al. 2013).
This advancement in neuroscientific research comes at a time when young children are increasingly being placed in childcare. In the United States, more than half of married parents with children under five are both employed (with higher employment rates for single parents), and a significant portion of even nonemployed mothers utilize regular childcare in the US (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016; Laughlin 2013). The Overseas Development Institute estimates that in developing countries, up to 50% of children between the ages of three and five are enrolled in childhood education programs (Samman et al. 2016). This growing need for effective early childhood education is being increasingly recognized globally. The number of countries with national multisectoral early childhood development policies increased from seven in 2000 to 68 in 2014. A report focused on how to advance early childhood development (Anderson et al. 2016) noted that since 2000, the Inter-American Development Bank has approved more than 150 projects for early childhood development, costing over $1.7 billion (Berlinski and Schady 2015, as cited in Anderson et al. 2016). Given this landscape, an unprecedented opportunity exists to train early childhood caregivers in an SEL approach derived from our increased understanding of brain development.
Researchers generally agree upon five key competencies of SEL for school-aged children, i.e., self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Durlak et al. 2011), and that these competencies are foundational for lifelong physical and mental health (Francis and Susman 2009), as well as necessary for success in learning (Blair and Raver 2012). What we also now understand based on the findings of neuroscience is that nurturing relationships in early childhood are essential for the development of brain pathways and neuroendocrine systems that are prerequisites for learning, effective brain development, social–emotional functioning, and overall health (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2007a, b; Nelson et al. 2013; Winter and Ministerial Council for Education [MCE] 2010). More specifically, the quality, repetition, and consistency of the young child’s daily learning experiences in the context of emotional and social security are essential for the development of the brain’s architecture (Winter and MCE 2010), underscoring the importance of the child’s relationship with early caregivers.
Several studies point to just how skills associated with emotional and self-regulation competencies emerge in children (e.g., Denham 1986; Murray et al. 2015). A child initially communicates through expressions of emotion, followed by rapid development of the ability to experience and express different emotions, as well as managing and coping with a variety of emotions (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004, 2007a, b). This development is influenced by a primary caregiver through a process known as “co-regulation,” in which parents or other caregiving adults facilitate a child’s ability to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings through support, coaching, and modeling in warm, responsive interactions (Schore 2003; for information regarding a short-term, attachment-based model of play therapy that draws on some related literature, the reader is referred to Munns 2015).
Promoting the growth of self-regulation development and co-regulation from birth through age 2: ECSEL approach.
Adapted from Murray et al. (2016b)
Characteristics of self-regulation
How caregivers can provide co-regulation
ECSEL techniques and tools
Infancy (birth to age 1)
Orient attention away from stressors
Engage caregivers as resources for comfort
Begin to self-soothe
Interact in warm responsive ways
Anticipate and respond quickly to child’s needs
Provide physical and emotional comfort when child is stressed
Modify environment to decrease demands/stress
Toddlerhood (ages 1–2, approximately)
Begin to select and shift attention (attentional control)
Adjust behavior to achieve simple goals
Delay gratification and inhibit responses for short periods when there is structure and support
Emotions are stronger than cognitive regulation
Feelings of attachment support prosocial goals
Reassure/calm child when upset by removing child from situations or speaking calmly and giving affection
Model self-calming strategies
Teach rules and re-directing to regulate behavior
Promoting the growth of self-regulation development and co-regulation for ages 3–5: ECSEL approach.
Adapted from Murray et al. (2016b)
Characteristics of self-regulation
How caregivers can provide co-regulation
ECSEL techniques and tools
Focused attention increases but it still brief
Begin to use rules, strategies, and planning to guide behavior appropriate to situation
Delay gratification and inhibit responses for longer periods
Perspective-taking and empathy support prosocial goals
Language begins to control emotional responses and actions
Tolerate some frustration and distress apart from caregiver (self-calming skills emerge)
Model, prompt, and reinforce (or “coach”) self-calming strategies when child is upset
Instruct and coach use of words to express emotion and identify solutions to simple problems
Coach rule-following and task completion
Provide external consequences to support emerging self-regulation skills
Research has yielded specific guidelines for early childhood interventions that enhance self-regulation. These include (a) a more intentional and targeted focus on self-regulation, in which cognitive and emotion-regulation skills and their integration are systematically taught; (b) support for caregiver’s own self-regulation; and (c) instruction of caregivers to model, coach, reinforce, and support self-regulation skill support within the context of a warm and responsive relationship, i.e., “co-regulation” skills (Murray et al. 2016b).
ECSEL was developed and implemented in a particular cultural context, i.e., in working with middle-to-upper class families in Western society.2 Within this context, the emphasis, for example, on verbal expression, independent selfhood, and dyadic relational constellations are consistent with the cultural assumptions of many of the teachers, parents, and children who have thus far used the approach. In a different locale, it remains to be seen whether these assumptions might require adaptation to fit the particular assumptions of the prevailing culture. Within all cultures, however, the self is expressed to varying degrees through action, such as crying, movement, and gestures (e.g., Elfenbein and Ambady 2002; Sauter et al. 2010). The goal of ECSEL is to transfer that action into expressive forms (i.e., gestures, sign language, and emotion talk) so that children are better able to label, understand, and manage their emotion in a more organized and meaningful way, while respecting different cultural norms and values. Although we have not yet applied ECSEL outside the United States, it has been used with Beginnings’ multicultural population that includes native English, Mandarin, Korean, Italian, Greek, Farsi, Spanish, and Hindi speakers who originate from diverse cultures. As an illustration, we observed improvement in self-regulation skills at the end of the school year in our program by a 4-year-old boy who had moved from Brazil, was the son of a house cleaner, spoke no English, and arrived each morning at Beginnings with a cup of coffee. The boy had joined our program exhibiting highly dysregulated behavior, such as hitting, yelling, throwing objects, and withdrawing when he did not achieve his goals. After 6 months of working with the child and his mother, the boy’s teacher observed the child exhibiting significant positive change in constructively identifying, expressing, and understanding factors contributing to his intense emotion and its effect, rechanneling his action into more effective peer communication, heightened initiative in problem solving, and motivation for learning.
As noted above, given the fact that the parents who participated in ECSEL were primarily middle/upper middle class, the degree to which our program can be applied to families of lower income levels cannot be definitively determined. Nevertheless, there is evidence in the literature that quality early childhood education can positively affect outcomes for disadvantaged students (Elango et al. 2015), suggesting that such programs can effectively address potential deleterious effects of lower socioeconomic status on effective program implementation and support. Taken together with the fact that ECSEL proactively counsels and guides parents as socializers in the promotion of critical emotional, cognitive, and social skills, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this program has the potential to positively influence outcomes with children from families of lower socioeconomic status. Further research, however, on the potential role of socioeconomic class in this context is clearly needed.
Children with poor social–emotional competence and self-regulation not only appear to have more difficulty transitioning to school, but they also are at increased risk for low academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, peer rejection, and school dropout (Denham 2006; McClelland et al. 2006). Moreover, children who learn social–emotional skills early in life tend to be more self-confident, trusting, empathic, intellectually inquisitive, competent in using language to communicate, and better capable of relating well with others (Cohen et al. 2005).
ECSEL, based on emotional foundations of learning and cognition, aims to help young children from birth develop emotional competence on the path toward effective self-regulation. ECSEL can begin to teach emotional competence to children as young as infants, in an effort to enhance emotion regulation and self-regulation and to promote a positive sense of self, mental health, and well-being.
Given the paucity of research conducted in classroom settings with infants and toddlers and, in particular, about how early childhood educators promote emotional competence among children, it is crucial to develop, explore, and implement programs beginning from birth that employ a variety of techniques focused on emotional and self-regulatory skills in young children. ECSEL is one such program.
As the present paper illustrates, evidence exists that an approach such as ECSEL may have long-term implications for children’s mental health, well-being, and success and—pending the results of ongoing and future research—could therefore be recommended for integration into early childhood education globally. At the same time, of course, ECSEL is not a panacea and cannot guarantee far-reaching societal changes. Further research and field application, however, will clarify the nature of its proximal benefits (i.e., post-intervention outcomes), point to the potential for distal benefits (i.e., long-term outcomes), and ideally provide the foundation for future application of this approach at a broader, societal level.
I am grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers who raised the issues discussed in this paragraph and directed me to Tobin et al. (1989).
I am grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers who raised the issues discussed in this paragraph.
The author would like to thank Dr. Marc Diener for his comments on a draft of this manuscript.
I am the Founder and CEO of the Beginnings School, whose ECSEL program is the focus of this manuscript. This ECSEL approach is being trademarked as begin to... ECSEL™, as is the small designed figure Sheheme™ and other program tools that I developed, all of which are only used at the Beginnings School. As such, I do receive a nominal salary in my role at Beginnings School. I have no nonfinancial competing interests to declare in relation to this manuscript.
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