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As this tumultuous school year winds down we are all owed a deep breath! And yet we also need to reflect on what this unprecedented time has taught us and think forward to what lies ahead in our “new normal.” As we slowly emerge from one pandemic, we are in fact facing another — one of mental health.
This year has shown that we have neglected too much for far too long within our educational structure, most especially in the ways we support children and educators with their mental health. There is, however, a silver lining. We now have the opportunity to take a serious and transformative look at how we educate our children from the start, and help educators and caregivers in their social and emotional growth and well-being as well.
Frightening inequities have been exposed as this year pulled our children and educators away from routine and critical social and emotional learning. All the events of this year have created a sense of disconnectedness, lack of control, and uncertainty —all resulting in skyrocketing levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear. A recent report from the OECD suggests that anxiety and depression have doubled in many countries. So pervasive is the concern around mental health and well-being for young children that the CDC has recommended strategies for caregivers to engage them in discussions around their emotions to support their mental health. It also advises that caregivers seek out their own emotional support to ensure their wellness. Early learners have experienced a sense of trauma through the disruption of routines and habits they were just beginning to develop. There is an urgency to restore a balance of routine and learning for them. But before we can do this, we need to help them on a path to resilience and strong emotional understanding and competence.
The repercussions of these last months—all the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty —has given rise to an increased awareness that now more than ever, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is critical for children and the adults who care for, educate, and love them. If we are to stem the tide of the mental health crises we are facing, we must be prepared to promote emotional well-being for all young people and the key adults in their world. When we create supportive and caring learning environments that include consistent and focused opportunities for guiding and educating children and training educators in social and emotional competency, we build a foundation of prevention and support. Before we can address the mountain of learning loss our children have experienced, we must first attend to their emotional well-being. In order for children to learn, they must have the tools of emotional intelligence to identify, understand, express, and regulate their feelings, and those of others. When children are introduced to these skills at the earliest age—right from birth—they are able to focus, problem-solve, understand complex concepts, and develop empathy and resilience. This sets them on the best course to thrive and succeed.
This does not involve our students alone. Children develop within the context of relationships with the key socializers in their world. Before their educators and caregivers can guide and support them in their emotional knowledge and growth, they must first be able to understand and manage their own stress and anxiety. Children are emotional detectives and will pick up on adults’ feelings and reactions. As key models for kids, it is essential that educators and caregivers have the strategies to strengthen their own emotionality, which will also help them with their own well-being as well as their professional and personal growth and satisfaction.
The implementation and practice of a comprehensive SEL program in every early learning classroom is critical to giving every child their best opportunity to succeed. Research shows us again and again that emotional intelligence is infrastructure for children’s futures. Laying the foundation from the earliest years leads to increased learning, graduation rates, college attendance and degree attainment. Students are also less likely to drop out, be arrested, or suffer with a mental health disorder. This is such an important initiative that the US government outlined mental health support and wellness as an allowable expenditure under states’ ESSER funding. Please click here to see all ESSER allowable expenditures.
At Housman Institute, it is our goal to support every child’s mental health and well-being, from the start. Through our research-informed and evidence-based begin to ECSEL program our training participants learn the needed skills to promote Emotional, Cognitive, and Social Early Learning for children from birth to age 8. We know it is far easier to prevent than to repair, and by focusing on children’s emotional intelligence from the earliest years, we provide the skills they need for lifelong learning, mental health, well-being, and success. Our training stresses the importance of educators' and caregivers’ own emotionality, which supports their own mental health and provides educators with deep mentoring and coaching support to guide them in their learning and practice. Begin to ECSEL seamlessly integrates into the existing curriculum with heat-of-the-moment strategies to be incorporated at any point throughout the school day and in every corner of a school community and at home. The critical competencies gained through our program of self-regulation, empathy, self-esteem, critical thinking, and problem-solving help to build an emotional toolkit for life, giving every child the skills they need to not only flip the switch on any moment but to also reach their potential. In fact, our research has shown that children who experienced the begin to ECSEL program outperformed their peers nationally on emotional competencies such as self-regulation, empathy, and other key foundational emotional, cognitive, and social skills.
In addition, our program extends beyond the classroom, providing resources and support to families and caregivers. These resources ensure that learning is reinforced at home, for a common language around emotion to be built, and enabling parents and caregivers the opportunity to enhance their knowledge and skills as well.
As an evidence-based program, begin to ECSEL is eligible for ESSER funding, and is a pioneering way to support mental health and emotional regulation among our youngest learners and their caregivers.
On this #MentalHealthActionDay let's commit to taking the steps to lay the foundation of emotional intelligence. We need to take this moment and begin the changes necessary to help all our kids, their educators, and all who care for our youngest learners, to move toward a better path for learning, one that provides space for everyone and helps build resilience, emotional understanding, cooperation, empathy, and understanding so we can ensure a stronger future for us all.