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“When children are better able to manage intense emotions, including stress and anxiety, their brain’s resources are better able to perform important executive function skills such as listening, concentrating, and problem-solving—all essential for learning.” ~ Dr. Donna Housman
The past two-and-a-half years have impacted every corner of our world. For our littlest learners who have been without the critical social and emotional learning opportunities they need in this pivotal time of their lives, the effects on their learning and behavior are palpable - stopping them in their tracks.
A recent study in the UK showed concerning evidence that the youngest children have been most affected by lockdowns and closures during the Covid pandemic, with the research finding that the educational progress and social development of four- and five-year-olds suffered severely. Teachers interviewed for the research said the disruption had left some young children with “low self-esteem and confidence”, and that more children than before “feel overwhelmed” by learning. In a recent study by FirstBook, 98% of educators said that current mental health challenges experienced by students are a barrier to education and learning.
How do children really learn? Effective learning requires the necessary skills of emotional intelligence. With the overwhelming concerns about learning loss and behavioral developmental delays from this disruptive and stressful time, findings from Dr. Donna Housman’s new research provide a path forward.
Helping children to become aware of, understand, manage and regulate their emotions and those of others, from an early age, can significantly help them to be ready to learn and positively impacts their learning success. This pivotal new research reveals that developing self-regulation and executive function skills in the earliest years benefits not only a child’s emotional and social health and wellbeing, but their very ability to learn. The findings by lead author Dr. Donna Housman and Housman Institute, published in EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE, come at a critical juncture: As children, educators, families, and communities are trying to make their way through the emotional trauma and learning loss associated with the pandemic and social and global unrest. While we may not know the long-term effects of this time we can see what is happening right now and we cannot turn the tide of learning loss without first addressing children’s emotional well-being as well as that of the educators who teach and care for them.
We know well that the brain cannot learn when emotions are not regulated—and that building an infrastructure of emotional well-being is as critical a part of early education as basic academic skills. This is a core tenet of early childhood development, as it demonstrates that emotional intelligence—including self-regulation and empathy—is instrumental for our earliest learners in both academic and emotional recovery.
Recognizing that thinking can be impaired when feelings are not regulated, Housman Institute examined the impact of its begin to ECSEL (Emotional, Cognitive and Social Early Learning) prevention/intervention and relational-health program, based on emotional competence on executive functioning in children 2-6 years old. The group of 94 children were matched to a comparison group of children who had not experienced the begin to ECSEL program. Assessment included “hot” and “cool” tasks of the Preschool Self‐Regulation Assessment, such as the delayed gratification of snacks and peeking at wrapped toys, as well as attentiveness. The children who had participated in the ECSEL approach significantly outperformed the comparison group of children who were, on average, a year older and who had not participated in the program.
The results demonstrate that young children who have the daily experience of programs and guidance promoting emotional competence and regulation from birth, when the brain is most “plastic” and the patterning of the brain’s architecture is being informed and shaped for life, are better able to develop self-regulation and executive functions critical to success in learning. When children do not have the skills to understand, manage and regulate their feelings, they are unable to focus, attend, problem-solve, and persist in the face of frustration, negatively impacting their learning and socioemotional development and interfering with their ability to achieve success both in school and in life.
Long before this uncertain and disruptive time, we were seeing an escalation in dysregulated behavior, bullying, anxiety, and depression. The past two years of uncertainty and disruption have exacerbated the situation exponentially resulting in late last year the AAP, AACAP, and CHA, along with the US Surgeon General all declaring a national state of emergency on children’s mental health The findings of Dr. Housman’s research come at a time when we see poor emotion management and stress management skills brought to the fore resulting in young children who do not yet have the skills to understand and manage their emotions, and those of others, acting aggressively and impulsively, rather than use problem-solving skills to analyze situations, anticipate consequences, and plan a response.
Housman Institute’s earlier peer-reviewed research on the impact of the begin to ECSEL program demonstrated that children who had experienced the program significantly improved and far outperformed their peers on critical skills of self-regulation, empathy, and foundational emotional, cognitive, and social skills. This latest research by Dr. Housman completes the loop showing us that a preventive intervention program, designed to promote young children’s emotional competence, increases their self-regulation and executive function skills - key to their ability to learn and succeed academically.
Providing children from the earliest years with an infrastructure of emotional competence, self-regulation, and empathy, essentially an emotional toolbox for life can flip the switch on learning, closing gaps and opening doors of opportunity for every child to move forward.
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