Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Education officials have released the state’s new social-emotional learning (SEL) standards: officially called the “Massachusetts Standards for Preschool and Kindergarten in the Domains of Social and Emotional Learning, and Approaches to Play and Learning.”

It’s a key step toward teaching young children the so-called “soft” skills they need to be successful in school and later in life.

“Children enter early education programs with a vast diversity in experiences, language, culture, development, and ability, creating the widest developmental range of any age group,” the standards say. “Some may have spent extensive time in group settings, others no time at all.” Given these diverse experiences, building social and emotional skills is an essential part of building a cohesive group.

Massachusetts isn’t alone. Educators and advocates across the country have the same goal.

“When you intervene early with kids you can change their life trajectory,” Joan Duffell, the executive director of Seattle’s nonprofit Committee for Children, told the San Jose Mercury News. “The most important skill that 4-year-olds learn is how to calm down because they are emotionally hijacked when they are angry and upset.”

And as this Huffington Post article explains, building young children’s social and emotional skills, beginning with the skills and expertise of their teachers, could help lower the troubling rate of preschool suspensions because of disruptive behavior.

The Massachusetts standards are the result of a collaboration between the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and the University of Massachusetts – Boston. Funding for this work came from the state’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Grant. In addition, three public hearings were held to gather input from the early education and care field, and several subject-area experts were consulted throughout the writing process.

The standards were released with a companion document called “Building Supportive Environments,” that “provides guidance on creating the conditions for effective use of the Standards.”


Social and Emotional Learning

As we’ve said in a research brief, one of the many benefits of high-quality early education and care is its “impact on young children’s social-emotional development, which may be as important or more-so than traditional pre-academic skill development (e.g., number and letter recognition).”

The standards explain: “As Preschool children enter group settings, they engage in a growing circle of deepening relationships with adults and peers outside of the family, and move from self-focused activity to participation in groups. They develop a growing set of skills with guidance and meaningful feedback from caring adults, including skills in developing friendships, following rules and routines, playing in a group, resolving conflicts, sharing, and taking turns, along with essential dispositions for learning.”

Armed with these skills, children are better prepared to meet the social, emotional, and academic demands of school.

The 12 SEL standards are organized by “a framework based on five interrelated sets of competencies for social and emotional learning identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)…” These competencies are: “Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making.”

Accompanying the SEL standards are a set of eight standards for Approaches to Play and Learning. These standards cover developmental skills such as persistence, curiosity, creativity, and cooperative play.

Each standard is followed by a thorough description, as well as examples of evidence for children meeting the standard by the end of preschool and by the end of kindergarten.

An extensive 72-term glossary provides clarity, and should help educators understand, communicate, and apply the standards to their classroom and program settings.

Social and emotional learning shouldn’t be regulated to one particular unit or lesson. Instead, these skills should be woven into children’s days.

EEC notes: “Supporting children’s social and emotional learning and approaches to play and learning should be embedded across all developmental domains and all curriculum areas.”



To spread the word about the importance of these standards and how to implement them, EEC and DESE “are currently working with a vendor to develop high quality trainings for early educators, Kindergarten teachers, administrators, directors and family engagement practitioners. These professional development trainings will be offered in 2016 and will provide opportunities for the field to better understand and implement the Standards,” according to EEC.

Communities across the state, Lowell and New Bedford for example, are seeing the value of social-emotional learning, and have been strengthening early educator capacity in this area through ongoing professional development, resource sharing, and parent engagement. The arrival of state standards should help advance the ongoing work of communities.


Supportive Environments

The accompanying document, “Building Supportive Environments,” explains that research shows “the ideal conditions for social and emotional learning occur when children begin to spend time out of their homes engaged with other children and adults. This usually takes place in early education and care settings, when there are positive classroom relationships between adults and children, children and children, and adults and adults…”

“A supportive environment includes physical space, equipment and materials, daily structure and planning, as well as the relationships between adults and children. The environment needs to be carefully planned based on knowledge of typical development of children, as well as the specific developmental needs of the population.”

Engaging families is also essential.

“A positive social environment is one that partners with families and community members and recognizes the contributions of each. It is welcoming to families, respecting and supporting their role as their child’s primary teacher… Enhancing parents’ and teachers’ social and emotional knowledge, skills, and dispositions empowers them to effectively model and apply the skills children need to learn.”

So watch for the announcement of upcoming training sessions. And don’t miss the list of references and resources at the end of the “Building Supportive Environments” document. The list is a comprehensive collection of websites, book lists, and other information.

The benefits for children could be huge. As PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff reported during the summer: “In a report released today, researchers tracked more than 700 children from kindergarten to age 25. They found students’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, held strong clues for how those children would fare two decades later. In some cases, social skills may even be better predictors of future success than academic ones.”