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Social emotional learning puts kids on winning track



The emergence of anxiety and depression in children far earlier than in previous generations and the number of teens and adults taking medication for mental health has prompted schools to strive to balance academic excellence with equally crucial, social, and emotional learning (SEL).

Some might think that students need to be a little older to grasp these concepts, but in truth, the significance of SEL in pre-primary education cannot be overstated. These skills equip young minds with the tools necessary to understand and navigate the complexity of their emotions and relationships, fostering a foundation for resilience and success in adulthood.

SEL in a pre-school environment isn’t confined to a specific subject, it’s integrated into the very essence of the curriculum. The journey towards becoming emotionally intelligent begins with self-awareness, the cornerstone of SEL. By starting each day with a gentle check-in, children are given the opportunity to articulate their feelings, laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of their emotional landscape.

Mindful breathing and affirmation should be woven into their daily routine, instilling in them the belief that they are special, capable of kindness, and equipped to face the day positively. These affirmations become the mantras that guide them through challenges, promoting a sense of self-worth and resilience that’s invaluable as they grow older.

Where possible, yoga sessions should complement these practices, offering a holistic approach to SEL. Through yoga, children not only engage in physical activities that enhance co-ordination and balance, they also develop concentration, self-discipline, and body and mind awareness. The incorporation of relaxation techniques in these sessions empowers children to carry themselves through the day with reduced stress, leading to improved focus, attention, and ultimately the ability to reach their academic potential as they grow older.

Emotional identification is a crucial aspect of SEL that should be a priority in classrooms. Children need to be taught to recognise and articulate their emotions, breaking down the barriers that often hinder effective communication. By integrating emotions into stories, games, and daily conversations, we create an environment where children feel empowered to express their feelings openly and without judgement.

Another essential component of SEL is emotional agility – the understanding that feelings are transient and don’t define our identity. We need to teach children that they aren’t defined by their emotions. We don’t say, “I’m sad,” rather, “I have sad feelings.” Through discussion and activities, children learn to navigate the ebb and flow of emotions, recognising that even the darkest moments will give way to brighter ones. This sense of empowerment enables them to face challenges with compassion and courage, setting the stage for a lifetime of emotional resilience. Imagine the effect on communities if more adults were taught the skill of becoming self-aware and riding out emotions and challenges.

Self-regulation is a crucial tool for our children. A variety of techniques, from breathing exercises to sensory activities like windmill blowing, provide them with the tools they need to manage their emotions independently. Rebounders (mini trampolines), swings, and other sensory activities offer avenues for self-regulation, promoting a sense of calm and focus.

Conflict resolution and social skills in pre-school classrooms are other integral aspects of SEL. Social workers and teachers work with students through role-playing and discussions, addressing social issues in group settings and one-on-one sessions when needed. This proactive approach ensures that every child receives the support they need to navigate social interactions successfully, fostering emotional well-being and a conducive learning environment.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s social interactions is a challenge that schools need to address proactively. Many of the children who are in pre-schools now were “COVID babies” who were isolated and not exposed to social interaction with peers, or being in an environment with many people, such as in shopping centres, at parties, or functions. Recognising that socialisation is a fundamental aspect of a child’s development, there may be a need for additional support to help children navigate relationships in the post-pandemic world. This kind of commitment reflects an understanding that social skills aren’t just crucial for academic success, but also lay the foundation for overall life success and happiness.

It’s imperative that a holistic education extends beyond the academic realm and embraces the vital role of social and emotional learning. Until children feel safe, connected, and happy, they will be unavailable for learning.

By integrating SEL into a pre-school curriculum, children are empowered to become resilient, empathetic individuals who can navigate life’s challenges with grace. As we nurture the emotional intelligence of our youngest learners, we sow the seeds for a future generation equipped with the skills necessary for success and happiness in all aspects of life.

  • Sheva Messias is the principal of King David Pre-Primary School Linksfield and has been working under the South African Board of Jewish Education since 1997.

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