Start Early. Start well.

December 05, 2015

Conference Focuses on Importance of Social and Emotional Development

Omaha, Neb. — The key role that social and emotional development play in children’s learning was the daylong focus of a professional development institute hosted on Dec. 4 by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Speaking to about 200 early childhood professionals at the Salvation Army Kroc Center Omaha, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Michelle L. Rupiper said support for social and emotional development is essential if children are to learn.

“It’s not just about developing academic skills,” said Dr. Rupiper, who is associate professor of practice and assistant department chair for Child, Youth and Family Studies at UNL. Scientific research has pointed to a strong relationship between cognitive development and social-emotional development, she added.


Keynote address: Michelle Rupiper

Breakout session: Traci Penrod-McCormick

Breakout session: Michelle Rupiper

Breakout session: Marisha Humphries

Breakout session: Sharon Ritchie

Self-regulation is important for children to develop—Kindergarten teachers rank it as one of the most important skills needed to promote learning. Self-regulation comes in many forms, Rupiper said: emotional, behavioral and cognitive. These skills begin to develop in infancy, and kids make remarkable strides in self-regulation in the preschool years. These skills aren’t mastered in early childhood, but the foundation is set.

Social development is a powerful predictor of academic and life success. And yet it sometimes gets overlooked because of the emphasis on academics.

So how can teachers and caregivers foster that development?

  • Create a caring community: Teachers need to model this behavior. “Every kid is one involved, caring adult away from being a success story,” she said. Establish a positive, supportive climate where children feel safe to express emotions, take risks, and seek help.
  • Actively teach emotional literacy: Help children learn to read others’ emotions and understand how other people think and feel.
  • Facilitate social understanding: Teachers need to seize teachable moments and help children learn, for example, what behavior is accidental and what’s intentional.
  • Support emotional regulation and self-control: Help children separate emotions and actions.
  • Guide relationship management: Reinforce basic social skills, such as turn-taking, and greeting. Help children learn how to join another group of children. For example, what does it mean to be a friend? And help children think about moral issues.
  • Build a socially responsible community.  Include daily discussions about social problems, where emotions are expressed and listened to.
  • Encourage problem-solving and decision-making, whether for social or academic problems.

Rupiper said one way to integrate social-emotional development in daily learning is to build on children’s natural inquisitiveness. By fostering that curiosity and creativity, teachers are telling children that they can be capable learners. She said the best learning takes place when children are engaged and enjoying themselves. Then children pursue knowledge for its own sake—self-directed learning.

“I love that children feel confident in their early years to learn,” she said. “We don’t want them to lose that.”

She said teachers can guide children’s learning and provide the spark, but children need to drive the car. “Too often we give kids answers to remember instead of problems to solve.”

There also is no development without relationships, she said, adding that children have to feel safe and know teachers care about them if they are to learn.

“We want children to know that they are safe in asking questions and taking risks,” Rupiper said. “Be a role model and show children you value their questions. Help them cope with the problems in their lives and support them. Also, focus on what they CAN do, not on what they can’t.”

Children who receive that support can embrace change, take risks and look forward to pursuing challenging tasks. Rupiper spoke of the Piper Center for Family Studies and Child Development, a laboratory school at Baylor University where educators fostered the attitude in young children that “you can do hard stuff.”

Standing Up for Children

Also speaking at the professional development event was Dr. Sharon Ritchie, director of FirstSchool at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She said children need to learn how to “do school,” not be punished for their inability to do so.

Ritchie said some policies and practices make things tougher for kids:

  • Arbitrary rules: For example, “Walk with your hands behind your back, silent lunches”—Ritchie said that research does not support an “insistence on silence and compliance in classrooms.”  A long list of rules meant to maintain order in the classroom can turn into “setup after setup after setup for getting in trouble,” she said.
  • Behavior systems: She opposes them because they often make teachers’ relationships with their children contingent on behavior, relying on threats, bribes and rewards.
  • Continuing unproductive practices: “You can’t keep doing the same thing when the same kids have problems,” she said. In such cases, professionals have to change, she said. “It’s not on the shoulders of that 6-year-old.”

“If you’re not spending real time every day getting to know who they are, how can you expect to reach kids?” Ritchie asked. “Kids must be attended to as individuals.”

Research shows that public school teachers on average spend less than a half-hour a day listening to children in the classroom. The needed focus is on what children say and helping them develop communication skills. Yet “kids are too often relegated to silent places,” Ritchie said.

Ritchie believes educators need to recognize what research tells us, “that the more kids engage in productive talk, the more they learn.”

Other speakers at the professional development event were Traci Penrod-McCormick, a licensed clinical social worker with Family Enrichment, Inc., of Omaha, and Dr. Marisha L. Humphries, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a licensed clinical psychologist. Penrod-McCormick focused on strategies for those who care for children from birth to age 3, while Humphries taught strategies for integrating social-emotional development into the academic curriculum for Kindergarten through third grade.

Students Have Their Say

The professional development day closed with a panel discussion by six metro-area teens in the Avenue Scholars program, which helps low-income students who show promise but are falling behind academically. Once accepted into the program, students receive individualized support that sees them through their last two years of high school and into post-secondary education and entry into the workforce.

The students shared their struggles and successes, and they talked about teachers who made a difference in their lives.

“You know adults care when they push you to be more successful,” said Omar Mohamed, a student at Omaha South High School.

“You just feel it,” said Samantha Russell, a senior at Millard South High School. “Someone trusting you makes a big difference.”

Emily Schirmbeck from Ralston High School said she knows adults care when they ask how she’s doing and aren’t satisfied with an artificial answer that things are fine.

Nikki Gnofam from Papillion-La Vista said, “A teacher that cares for you doesn’t let you give up.”

Teachers have to work to gain students’ trust, the youths said.

“It’s hard,” Omar said. “You have to be there for me. You have to prove to me that I can trust you. And if you lie to me, I’ll never trust you again.”

Emily said honesty is key. She said she can trust a teacher who pushes back and tells the truth, “not necessarily what I want to hear.”

Steven said emotional support has been key for him. He has lost four family members, two to violence, and it helps that his math teacher from last year still checks on him.

What advice would they give to educators?

Samantha said that if you think something might be wrong, ask. Kids might be reluctant to reach out for help. Also, don’t play favorites. Treat kids like they’re your family.

Emily said teachers need to know that kids are resilient and might not show outward signs of distress, even though they might be going through a lot at home.

Steven said, “A sense of humor will take you far.”

Professional Development for All Institutes

The next event in the Professional Development for All series is scheduled for March 2, also at the Kroc Center.

Offered as a means of supporting educators and advancing the effectiveness of their work with young children, the series is a core element of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan that is underway in the Omaha-area 11 school districts.

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the professional development series promotes collaboration among school districts, child care providers, and community-based organizations.

The series explores leading-edge, research-based practices for meeting the needs of the whole child, birth through Grade 3. In addition to teachers, the institutes are open to all administrators, caregivers and other professionals who serve young children ages 0-8 in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

The March 2 event is entitled “Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness for Whole Child Development and Learning.” Participants will explore strategies for learning about and building upon children’s and families’ home cultures as resources. Sessions will highlight culturally responsive practices and program environments that work for diverse young children.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Tonia Durden, an assistant professor and early childhood extension specialist in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies at UNL. Her talk is titled “Why Diversity Matters: Culturally Responsive Education That Nurtures the Whole Child.”

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