Early Childhood Education

Social and Emotional Skill Progression in Preschool

Like cognitive development, kids’ social and emotional skill development has a typical trajectory that teachers can track and guide.

November 2, 2022
FatCamera / iStock

Providing preschool students with lessons in social and emotional learning (SEL) is just as important as introducing them to the alphabet and basic numeracy skills. 

In SEL from the Start, Sara Rimm-Kaufman is clear that “social-emotional skills can have valuable payoffs in academics and life beyond the classroom” and that the time to start building SEL is when kids are very young. This was the mantra of Myrna Shure and George Spivack half a century ago when their I Can Problem Solve (ICPS) program was introduced to preschoolers.

Despite the long history of work in this area, I still hear some uncertainty among teachers about what kinds of SEL skills we might reasonably expect from preschoolers and how to set up classrooms to activate these skills. 

Recognizing that children will enter preschool at various levels of SEL skills, we can expect them to move toward mastery by the time they enter kindergarten. For this to happen, they will benefit from frequent reminders to use their skills and some help with breaking them down into a series of steps for learning purposes.

Drawing from ICPS and other SEL efforts directed at preschool students, here is a brief, practical guide to SEL and young children.

4 Key SEL Skills for Preschool Students 

1. They should know how to operate in a classroom. That means they are eager to participate and help out in class. They pay attention to the overt nonverbal cues of peers and adults, listen carefully to what classmates and adults say, cooperate in groups (taking turns, asking for and giving help), and follow directions. They should adhere to norms about safety, health, and appearance (including being willing to be cleaned up; avoiding electrical outlets, fan blades, and similar dangers; and avoiding putting inappropriate things in their mouths).

2. They should master basic emotions. Preschoolers should show at least some concern for the distress of others even though they may be reluctant to help out without adult prompting or guidance. They should share in the joy of others. They should recognize and label the following emotions in themselves, in others, and in pictures: sadness, anger, happiness, fear, surprise, upset, worry, and pride. 

When children entering kindergarten have a hard time identifying aspects of themselves or their actions about which they are proud, that is a warning sign that should lead to a conversation with caregivers and perhaps school mental health professionals.

3. They should have a conversational vocabulary around key social situations. Young children need to be helped to find the words for common situations they will find themselves in. These include using words when they want something or are frustrated, asking for help, helping others, thanking or in other ways showing gratitude, showing concern, and talking about accomplishments.

4. They should start practicing key concepts for social and emotional literacy. When Grover, on Sesame Street, talks to kids about near and far, he is taking a page out of Myrna Shure’s ICPS playbook. She and George Spivack identified key word “pairs” that are the foundations of human relationships and problem-solving. These create brain architecture and executive functioning so that children can understand the world around them. In addition to talking about near and far, help preschoolers understand these concepts by using these words often:

  • Is/is not
  • Same/different
  • Can/cannot, may/may not (indicating permission)
  • And/or/else
  • Some/all
  • Before/after/next
  • If/then

Setting up preschool Classrooms To Support a Positive Social and Emotional Climate

Preschoolers in particular feel great comfort and support from explicit classroom routines. These routines help with if/then, may/may not, before/after/next, and many other SEL-related competencies. Routines for entering the classroom, getting into circle time, preparing for meals and snacks, cleaning up, and getting ready for outdoor activities and dismissal are essential; having songs as part of these routines facilitates memory (for teachers and parents as well!). Other ways to help students feel comfortable and provide opportunities to exercise their young SEL muscles in their classroom environments include the following:

  • Having clear, visibly posted classroom and school rules that include expectations for positive behavior, respecting classmates and adults
  • Providing opportunities for all children to regularly make contributions to the routines and maintenance of the classroom 
  • Providing frequent teacher redirection as an alternative to verbal reprimands
  • Creating vehicles for positive recognition and acknowledgment of the strengths of all children
  • Experiencing laughter, joy, fun, and a sense of wonder, and showing curiosity about how and why things happen around them in school, the community, the world
  • Celebrating holidays and family customs and respecting those of others 
  • Participating in community events so that children learn a sense that they matter and can make a difference in the world (e.g., recycling, sharing, helping others)

In addition, it’s valuable to regularly include brief activities that explicitly stimulate the social-emotional-cognitive architecture noted earlier. For example, teachers can use picture naming and rhyming in formats like the Simon Says game to teach students the concepts of same, all, some, and is/is not. Or you can use alliteration to teach careful listening (e.g., differentiating cat from cot or rat; knowing the similarity of book, bag, and ball). The skills these activities emphasize are the building blocks of good problem-solving and decision-making.  

Here is one of my favorites, from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) SELect Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program: “I am going to say some words. I want you to clap when you hear the word cat (or, clap when you hear a word that rhymes with—sounds the same as—cat, or that is not cat): Cat-Bat-Car-Flat-Cat-Cat-Cup-Mat-Car-Cat.”

Kids love these games, and it’s rewarding to watch them get better over time with your guidance.

As you can see, preschoolers already have SEL skills. It’s our job to provide reminders, guidance, and supportive conditions that will allow their skills to grow.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Pre-K

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.