Social-Emotional and Behavioral Health and Development are the Foundations of Learning

By Shantel Meek, PhD, Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development and Linda K. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development

Learning is a social process. From the first days of life, young children learn through socially interacting with the adults in their lives. Throughout infancy and early childhood, young children are sensitive to and read social cues from trusted caregivers. They use those cues to guide what they should learn and what they should do; what they should attend to and what they should ignore; what is safe and what they should be afraid of. This early social awareness enables the earliest learning.

Learning requires a set of social and emotional competencies that build on each other and are developed over time. These competencies can only be fostered in the context of warm, trusting, and secure relationships. In the safe havens of these relationships, adults guide children’s learning and development, expose them to new experiences, and provide the emotional security that enables them to explore new concepts in the world around them.

Given the strong link between relationships, social-emotional development, and learning, it is not surprising that there is a large and growing research base showing a robust connection between social-emotional development and academic success. Studies indicate that children who have securely attached relationships with trusting adults are more advanced in their cognitive and language development and show greater achievement in school.[1] Preschoolers with strong social-emotional skills and behavior regulation tend to have higher attention skills and develop better early literacy, vocabulary and math skills.[2] In the school years, these children demonstrate greater academic achievement and wellness.[3] A recent meta-analysis examining data from over 270,000 children, found that those engaged in social-emotional learning programs at school, demonstrated an 11 to 17 percentile gain in achievement.[5]

But social-emotional skills are not only influential across childhood and adolescence; early social-emotional skills have been linked to outcomes decades later in adulthood. A 20-year study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the American Journal of Public Health this summer, found that kindergartners who demonstrated greater social competence, as reported by teachers, were more likely to reach higher levels of education and higher-paying jobs and less likely to drop out of school and need government assistance.[4],[5]

In fact, for every point increase in kindergartners’ social competence, children were:

  • 54% more likely to earn a high school diploma;
  • Twice as likely to attain a college degree in early adulthood; and
  • 46% more likely to have a full time job at the age of 25.

For every point decrease, they had:

  • 67% higher likelihood of having been arrested by age 25;
  • 82% higher rate of recent marijuana usage; and
  • 82% higher likelihood of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

It is clear that social-emotional and behavioral development is a central and consequential component of development that is fostered within securely attached relationships. Importantly, these relationships include relationships with child care providers and other early educators. Nearly 11 million children under the age of 5, approximately 63% of the nation’s children in this age group, are in some type of child care arrangement each week, for an average of 36 hours.[6] About a million children are served in Head Start programs each year and more than 1.3 million children attend state preschool programs. Children can and do develop emotional attachment to their early educators and providers, and the quality of those relationships predicts children’s success in the classroom and beyond. [7], [8]

It is critical that the early childhood workforce has a deep understanding and strong competencies to foster children’s social-emotional and behavioral health, especially infant/toddler teachers who play such a prominent role in children’s earliest experiences. This spring, the National Academies of Science released the much anticipated report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth to Eight, that confirms that social-emotional and behavioral health are central aspects of development and should be promoted in early childhood programs.

Unfortunately, many child care providers and early educators do not have the necessary professional development opportunities to provide this level of support. Only 20% of early childhood teachers and providers serving children under age five reported receiving specific training on facilitating children’s social and emotional growth in the past year.[9] What’s more, early childhood teachers repeatedly report that coping with challenging behavior is their most pressing training need.[10] States have an important responsibility to ensure that the workforce has the supports it needs to provide children with the positive and enriching experiences that prepare them for school and success beyond.

That is why this week we released an informational memorandum (IM) highlighting policies that States can implement to support children’s social-emotional and behavioral development, referencing the reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Policies such as enhancing the quality of workforce preparation and development, attending to continuity of care and appropriate ratio policies, establishing appropriate expulsion and suspension policies, implementing universal developmental and behavioral screenings, and implementing statewide coaching and consultation systems, like early childhood mental health consultation, among others, were included.

The IM is a continuation of our work promoting the importance of social-emotional and behavioral development. Last fall, we released a joint policy statement on expulsion and suspension practices and launched a new website with several free resources for multiple audiences to aid in efforts to prevent, limit and ultimately eliminate expulsion and suspension practices in early learning settings. Last spring, we launched Birth to Five: Watch Me Thrive!, an initiative to promote universal developmental and behavioral screening. We also launched a valid and reliable assessment of family-teacher relationships, called the Family and Provider/Teacher Relationship Quality measure, because the family-provider/teacher connection is critical to healthy social-emotional and behavioral development. Later this year we will be releasing another joint policy statement on Family Engagement.

1. De ruiter and van ijzendoorn 93; van ijzendoorn 1995; West 2013
2. McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental psychology, 43(4), 947.
3. Payton, J., Weissberg, R., Durlak, J., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., Schellinger, K., & Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
4. Damon E. Jones, Greenberg, M., and Crowley, M. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health.
5. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, (2015). How Children’s Social Competence Impacts their Well-Being in Adulthood.
6. Laughlin, Lynda. (2013). Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011. Current Population Reports, P70-135. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.
7. Howes, C., & Ritchie, S. (1999). Attachment organizations in children with difficult life circumstances. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 251-268.
8. Bergin, C., & Bergin, D. (2009). Attachment in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 21(2), 141-170.
9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning Research and Evaluation (2010-2015). National Survey of Early Care and Education.
10. Yoshikawa, H. & Zigler, E. (2000) Mental health in Head Start: New directions for the twenty-first century.  I, 11, 247-264. See also Fox, L. & Smith (2207) Issue Brief. Promoting social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of young children served under IDEA. Challenging Behavior, Retrieved from

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.