Social and emotional learning in the early years

By Monique Lanthier and Catherine Millar

Talk, sing, write, read and play with your child to set the foundations for early learning and attachment

The first six years of life set the foundation for children’s mental health and social emotional development. During infancy and toddlerhood, children are establishing key patterns of behaviour (e.g. empathy, relationship building, emotional responses, and social skills) that can last a lifetime I.

Nurturing social and emotional skills early in life helps children develop self-regulation, cognitive skills, and, ultimately, facilitates learning II. Children who are able to manage their emotions are more likely to be financially secure, physically and mentally healthy, and law-abiding as adults III. In fact, a mounting body of research indicates that social and emotional skills are as important as cognitive skills to succeed in school and beyond IV.

Unfortunately, many children experience emotional and behavioural challenges that can interfere with learning and development. In 2012, 25.6 per cent of children in Ottawa were not developmentally ready to enter Grade 1. Specifically, 24 per cent of children were developmentally behind in emotional maturity and 21 per cent in social competence V. In some Ottawa neighbourhoods, these numbers were much higher.

Families are the first and most powerful influence on children’s early learning and development. Infants need to develop secure attachment with at least one primary caregiver to support healthy social and emotional development. Secure attachment is the core foundation for healthy social and emotional development.

As a parent, what can I do?

Talking, singing, writing, reading and playing with your child sets the early foundations for attachment and early learning and are great benefactors to social/emotional development.

These are the five key messages from the American Library Association’s program, Every Child Ready to Read, a program used by the Ottawa Public Library and Ottawa Public Health to promote early literacy and healthy development. Developing these early literacy skills helps to enhance social/emotional core competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

• Talk with your child. Not only are children learning new vocabulary words and establishing a foundation for reading, but your voice can be very soothing when your child is upset.

• Encourage your child and acknowledge their trials and successes.

• Ask questions during playtime and everyday routines. This promotes inquiry, exploration and most of all, it shows your interest in your child’s life.

• Express your own emotions in a positive and constructive manner. You are your child’s best model. Not only are they learning the necessary vocabulary, but they’ll also develop self-regulation skills. A daily dose of “I love you,” along with hugs and kisses, enhances the bond and attachment you have with your child. Never go to bed upset with your child. They not only need a good night’s sleep, but also closure on any difficult moments they may have had throughout the day, such as not wanting to share a favourite toy.

• Smile to your child. Non-verbal communication has just as great an impact on your child’s social/emotional learning than any words you share. Other non-verbal communication cues such as winking, a hug, a tap on the shoulder, a high-five, etc., also help your child’s social/emotional learning but more importantly, they raise your child’s self-esteem.

• Sing with your child to soothe them, to put them to sleep or simply to have fun. Singing is a great way to transfer your cultural heritage, which helps your child’s identity development.

• Read with your child. Make reading time a daily activity. Reading is not only about books, it’s about creating that special bonding moment between you and your child. Books are wonderful, but you can also invent stories, retell family tales with family photos, etc. Why not make your own story book? This can be a fun and creative moment to share with your little one.

• Write with your child. Have the necessary materials available to your child, such as pencils, markers, crayons, paint brushes, etc. so they can scribble and draw. Show interest in their pictures, post them on the fridge or frame a few to decorate your home. Do a letter scavenger hunt when you go for a ride or a walk. Those “I love you” notes and little jokes in the lunch box are a nice gesture to say that you’re with your child even when they’re not physically there with you!

• Play with your child. Play is a means to early learning that capitalizes on children’s natural ways of learning and sense of exploration. While playing, your child is developing their communication, creativity, negotiation and problem solving skills and many more.  These skills are necessary to set the pathways for academic success. You don’t need to buy fancy, expensive toys; open-ended materials such as cardboard boxes can develop that creativity and imagination within you and your child. Make play time family time. Explore and learn together!

Monique Lanthier is Early Literacy Specialist and Catherine Millar is Data Analysis Coordinator with the Ottawa Parent Resource Centre.


I Retrieved from: Greenspan, S. & Shanker, S. (2004). The First Idea: How Symbols, Language and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

II Blair, C. & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and Psychopathology, 20(3): 899-911.

III Moffitt, T. E. et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of National Academy of Science, 108(7): 2693-98.

IV Carthy Foundation (2013). Issue Brief: Social and Emotional Learning in Canada.

V Jubenville, K. et al. (2013). Developmental Health at School Entry in Ottawa – Results from the 2010-12 implementation of the Early Development Instrument and Kindergarten Parent Survey in Ottawa. Program Effectiveness Data Analysis Coordinators, Parent Resource Centre, Ottawa, ON. 74pp + 95pp (Appendices).

More information on social/emotional learning and activities





Photo: © serrnovik