Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children


This is the year that the federal education law ESSA – the Every Student Succeed Act — could have a big, positive impact on early education.

ESSA calls on states and school districts to boost children’s learning by expanding high-quality early education.

“On its face, this is very promising,” Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie M. Jones write in a recent article on WBUR’s Edify website.

But first schools have to resolve the tension between two goals: one, providing rigorous academics and two, promoting social-emotional skills.

“Often, in the field, these two goals are viewed as in opposition to each other, and frequently one is chosen over the other.” To move beyond “this false dichotomy” educators and policymakers can “refine — even redefine — what is meant by high-quality early education.”

Too often, lessons or activities are only linked “to a single developmental domain, such as language, literacy, or social-emotional competencies.”

But “research demonstrates” that “children learn best” when academic and social-emotional content are intertwined.

“In a high-quality early learning environment, children are building their social-emotional and academic competencies simultaneously. Educators are supporting them with instructional practices that are deliberately integrated to do so. Imagine a preschool classroom where there is direct instruction and intensive support to build both language and literacy skills and social-emotional competencies, such as self-control and sharing.”

For example, “a curriculum with units that are organized around a big idea (e.g., ‘the world around us’)” could include materials and lessons that “become a platform for promoting language development, self-reflection, and empathy.”

In other words, children would get the rigorous academic experience of books and language — as well as learning social-emotional skills like reflection and empathy.

“By intentionally weaving together learning opportunities that will build both academic and social-emotional competencies,” Lesaux and Jones note, “we have the opportunity to design engaging and stimulating learning environments that meet children where they’re at — while supporting them along the path of healthy development.”