We cannot expect children to succeed in algebra when they are just learning to add and subtract; similarly, we cannot expect children to demonstrate empathy toward peers when they have not yet learned how to identify and articulate different forms of emotion.
Now that social and emotional learning (SEL) is becoming more widespread, more educators are looking for a better understanding of how social and emotional skills emerge in childhood. I am getting most requests about ages 5–13. So let’s take a look, using age periods identified by developmental psychologist Carolyn Saarni: early elementary school (5–7 years), middle childhood (7–10 years), and preadolescence (10–13 years).
Although individual experiences must be taken into account, each developmental period is marked by a set of social and instructional behaviors that we can expect most children to be ready to practice.
SEL in Early Elementary School
During the early elementary school stage of social and emotional development, students start in different places but tend to be self-confident and trusting; they believe that they can succeed and that they can trust adults in school and school-related environments.
Given these norms, adults should be on the alert when young children do not bring these sensibilities into school. This can possibly indicate some disruption in the family environment leading to potential neglect or maltreatment of children (a predictable result of possible consequences of Covid-19, for example) and should be brought to the attention of school mental health professionals.
Young children can be expected to grow in the following areas if adults prompt, encourage, demonstrate, and explain the behaviors when they don’t see them spontaneously. By the end of this period (not at the outset!), most children will be able to show most of these skills, generally with a little prompting.
- Be a member of a group: share, listen, take turns, cooperate, negotiate disputes, be considerate, and be helpful.
- Initiate basic interactions, with encouragement.
- Resolve conflict without fighting and compromise with prompting.
- Understand justifiable self-defense.
- Be empathetic toward peers: with prompting, show awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others (i.e., perspective taking); show concern/upset when others are suffering; develop a sense of helping rather than hurting or neglecting; respect rather than belittle; and support and protect others rather than dominate.
Students in this stage can be expected to pay attention to teachers (or other group facilitators); understand similarities and differences (e.g., skin color, physical limitations); use words effectively (especially words for feelings); cooperate in group tasks; respond positively to approval; express themselves in art, music, games, or simple role-playing; and be able to articulate likes and dislikes as well as what they are good at and what they want to get better at.
All of these behavior areas require ongoing activation if they are to continue to develop. During this period of emotional development, students tend to derive security in repetition and routines. For this reason, consistent instructional procedures, including the use of advanced organizers to explain what will happen next, are useful.
SEL in Middle Childhood and Preadolescence
As students proceed through the middle childhood and preadolescent stages of emotional development, we see that competencies become more under students’ control and more elaborate. Over the course of these stages, students can be expected to demonstrate the following behaviors when interacting with peers to an increasing, more consistent extent and to respond positively to instruction in how to improve these areas when necessary:
- listening carefully;
- conducting a reciprocal conversation;
- using tone of voice, eye contact, posture, and language appropriate to peers (and adults);
- displaying skills for making friends, entering peer groups; can judge peers’ feelings, thoughts, plans, actions;
- learning to include and exclude others with increasing sensitivity;
- expanding peer groups;
- choosing friendships based on mutual trust and assistance;
- showing altruistic behavior among friends;
- becoming assertive, self-calming, cooperative;
- learning to cope with peer pressure to conform (e.g., clothing);
- learning to set boundaries, to deal with secrets; and
- dealing positively with rejection.
Naturally, expectations of socially appropriate behavior during school-related tasks rise as students advance through late elementary and middle school grades. Students in these periods of emotional development benefit from being given opportunities to become involved in increasingly multistep goal setting, following directions, and carrying out commitments to others. They benefit from learning strategies to solve problems and to strategically and cooperatively work in teams.
Students also appreciate feedback that helps them to feel a strengthened resilience when they make mistakes and to feel that it’s acceptable to show appropriate pride in their accomplishments. During these years, students should be helped to articulate with increasing clarity the key interpersonal skills of how to appropriately ask for help, how to calm down after being upset or losing one’s temper, and how to resolve conflict peacefully.
Best Practices for Designing Age-Appropriate SEL Activities
Younger students in the early elementary school stage of emotional development will benefit from clear lesson procedures and rules, in which the authority figure is understanding, fair, and deserving of respect by being respectful of all students. Younger students also will benefit from opportunities for responsibility in the classroom. The environment must offer students consistent, stimulating contact with caring adults in a location free from violence and threat.
Appropriate ways to structure the environment for students in the middle childhood and preadolescent periods include participation in establishing and ongoing monitoring of group norms/rules. The environment must provide students with opportunities to negotiate nonviolently, to comfort peers in distress, and to help new students to feel accepted and included.
Small-group activities and story-based learning are highly effective techniques, when paired with activities that allot time for laughter, movement, expression in varied artistic modalities, and occasional silliness.
Knowing how SEL skills develop and how best to nurture them can assist teachers both in dealing more effectively with their current students and in planning with their colleagues at other grade levels the kinds of experiences that will put more of their students on a positive, lasting social and emotional skills trajectory.