Social and emotional learning must be a priority for transformed early education

Like other skills such as language and cognition, which begin to develop before children enter schools, social and emotional skills must be taught and understood as they can positively impact one another and together promote lifelong learning and peaceful societies.

November 10, 2022 by Brandon Darr, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education
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4 minutes read
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A teacher and her students in class. Credit: GPE/Roun Ry
Teacher Chhay Kim Hak interacts with her grade one students at Chambak Haer primary school, Puok District in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Credit: GPE/Roun Ry

The growing international attention to early childhood care and education (ECCE) is given new urgency following the UN Transforming Education Summit (TES) in September, whose global calls to action have a clear connection to young children’s education.

The teaching profession will be a core driving force in achieving these calls to action. It will need much support and unique skills development to enable such change, especially as young children undergo rapid learning and development at the ECCE level.

As pre-primary teachers are enhancing their expertise with 21st century teaching and learning strategies, social and emotional learning may prove a cross-cutting skill to enrich all pedagogies for young children and build a more resilient ECCE workforce.

Benefits of social and emotional learning for young children’s COVID-19 recovery

Social and emotional skills are part of everyday life and begin developing from birth. Children’s social and emotional development often looks like a child forming close and secure relationships with others and understanding their own, as well as others’ emotions within their homes, cultures and societies.

Like other skills such as language and cognition, which begin to develop before children enter schools, social and emotional skills must be taught and understood as they can positively impact one another and together promote lifelong learning and peaceful societies.

Social and emotional learning emphasizes the developmental process of learning and using knowledge, skills and attitudes for building relationships, making decisions, showing empathy, achieving goals and regulating their emotions.

Well-designed social-emotional learning programs have been found to yield an average return of US$11 for every dollar spent, and to improve a range of student outcomes, including social and emotional skills, academic performance, social behavior and conduct, and attitudes.

Social and emotional learning is essential to ECCE teachers for supporting young children when they come to school for the first time, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic took away critical opportunities to develop young children’s cognitive, social, linguistic and emotional skills, simultaneously exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and negatively impacting all learners, especially those from vulnerable and marginalized backgrounds.

Pandemic lockdowns of schools caused at least 7 million children across Asia and the Pacific to lose access to pre-primary education. Children in the region also lost important opportunities for social interaction and consequently have exhibited increased levels of stress due to a variety of factors, including isolation, uncertainty and fear of the future, thus having a negative impact on their resilience and cognitive skills.

Social and emotional competencies such as managing emotions, building resilience and caring for others will play an important role to help young children recover a sense of overall wellbeing and their learning capacity in the wake of the pandemic.

Asia-Pacific teacher training handbook and modules for teachers’ social and emotional learning

Teachers require new pedagogical skills to support young children’s holistic development for lifelong learning in the 21st century. At the same time, social-emotional competencies may also benefit teachers themselves. Such skills and competencies are particularly important for teachers at the pre-primary level to support young children’s foundations for lifelong learning.

Social-emotional competencies may help reduce and prevent teacher burnout by providing coping skills needed to navigate teaching demands and manage their classrooms.

The UNESCO Asia and Pacific Bureau for Education, with the financial support of the Japanese Funds-in-Trust (JFIT), created the Asia-Pacific ECCE Teacher Handbook and Training Modules for Social and Emotional Learning (APETT-SEL) as part of the Empowering Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Teachers with a Transformative Vision of Education project.

Field tested in Cambodia, Fiji, Vanuatu and Vietnam, the APETT-SEL handbook and its 10 modules consist of key themes on self-care for teachers, social and emotional learning competencies for children and adults strategies and practices to build a pro-social classroom for a safe and supportive environment, understanding cultural diversity and differences, and assessment and measurement.

The regional example of pre-service and in-service teacher training strengthens social and emotional skills for teachers and their students, which can be extended to benefit others in the ECCE workforce, as well as education leaders and education policymakers.

Social-emotional learning to transform education systems

As ECCE provision returns, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that social and emotional learning is just as important as other foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy and should appear throughout children’s education, starting in the early years. It is not, however, a short-term solution in the learning recovery process as children around the world face challenges to continue their education amid increased conflicts, displacements, disasters and emergencies.

Now more than ever, discussions on transforming education systems must include the pressing needs of young children and the ECCE workforce, such as social-emotional competencies in long-term change.

Social and emotional learning will be playing a larger role in transforming education systems. The APETT-SEL handbook and modules will be featured in a side event for the upcoming World Conference on ECCE, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Member States will soon convene with multilateral stakeholders from around the world for achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.2, to ensure all children have access to ECCE so they are ready for primary education.

It is hoped that the outcomes of the World Conference, together with the ongoing efforts by Member States, will make social and emotional learning a priority in its commitments to, and investments in, transformed, resilient and sustainable ECCE.

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