Social-emotional school readiness: Nature or nurture?

Teachers today expect children will arrive at their first day of school in control of their feelings and emotions, ready to tackle the demands of school without having a major meltdown when they’re distressed.

School readiness consists of more than knowing the ABC’s or counting to 10. It is more than being up to date with child check-ups and immunizations. Tying your own shoes or being able to handle personal care issues are important for young children but there is something else than can make the difference between children who are physically and academically “ready for school” and those who have social-emotional readiness. 

The Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) defines social-emotional health as “a child’s growing ability to: form close relationships with other people, express and manage emotions and explore new environments.” Social-emotional readiness skills include being able to follow directions, express and manage feelings and emotions, get along with other children and adults and stay on task and concentrate on a topic.  Children are born with some of these competencies but many, if not most, of these skills are learned behaviors.  They are learned through observation, imitation, and guidance of adults and the everyday interactions with the people who care for them. 

Listed are four assumptions from the National Center for Children in Poverty, which should be considered when promoting social-emotional health.

  • The family plays the most important role in a young child’s life.
  • Responsibility for school readiness lies with the adults who care for children and the systems that support families.
  • The first five years of a child’s life are critical in their development.
  • Child development occurs across domains that include physical and motor, social and emotional, language and cognitive.

Social-emotional skills can be taught and modeled easily through everyday interactions in the home or child care environment. The ECIC, in the publication, Social-Emotional Health and School Readiness, discusses several easy examples that parents and caregivers can follow to support good social-emotional health for school readiness. The skills don’t take a lot of time and they don’t cost anything. Some examples include holding and cuddling your children, responding to a child’s attempts at communication, sharing stories, books, and songs, modeling a good example of how to display strong emotion, avoiding violence and taking care of your own social-emotional health.  

We all want the children in our lives to be successful in school and in life. We can assist that goal by recognizing the importance of building early social-emotional skills in children and then intentionally modeling the behavior that we’d like to see. “Young children who are socially and emotionally healthy have a greater chance of achieving success in school and in life.”

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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