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Make a social-emotional connection

New York Teacher

At our 12th annual Early Childhood Conference on March 16, our keynote speaker Shawn Brown — a self-described “class clown and troublemaker” — had our audience of educators laughing knowingly as he recounted how his favorite teacher had made a world of difference in his life.

“The challenging kids are the ones who need more emotional support than everyone else. They are waiting for our words of encouragement,” said Brown, an “edu-tainer” from The Super Fun Show. “Every child deserves to be understood, valued and loved.”

Brown’s speech resonated with all of us — and it’s no coincidence that his impassioned words addressed a type of learning that falls outside the realm of academics.

As early childhood educators, we know that social-emotional learning is just as crucial for our young students as number sense or early literacy skills.

At the conference, Felicia Coombs, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 38 in East Harlem, noted, “If we don’t first meet our students socially, academics become secondary. If you want to learn, but someone hurt your feelings — our students don’t have the maturity yet to make it beyond that. The social-emotional piece is our first way of teaching them.”

We know many of our students experience turbulence in their lives outside school. One in 10 New York City public school students live in a homeless shelter or in transitional housing. Some of our students have survived trauma.

As educators, it’s our job to ensure that our students have the tools to make sense not only of the curriculum, but of themselves and their lives.

Most of us are doing this important work in our classrooms every day. That’s why nearly every workshop at the Early Childhood Conference addressed the ways we incorporate social-emotional learning into our lessons — from giving students voice and ownership during class meetings to explicit teaching of social skills for the 1 in 59 children on the autism spectrum.

In one workshop on how to meet the needs of a wide spectrum of learners, for instance, the participants watched a video of a 4-year-old student who was spitting at and smacking another student. Every single educator in the room said they had encountered students with similar behavior.

Instead of recommending disciplinary measures or strict consequences, they discussed the child’s social-emotional needs. What skill does this child need to learn? How can we teach him?

In another workshop on social skills, the participants learned that challenging behaviors are generally motivated by four needs: sensory, escape, attention or tangible rewards. When we understand what young children are telling us with their behavior, we can learn how to best support them.

Zenzile DaBreo, a kindergarten teacher at PS/IS 109 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, understands this terrain. We honored “Ms. Zen,” as she’s known, at the conference with the Abe Levine Award. Ms. Zen uses the Sanford Harmony curriculum in her classroom to help students build their social-emotional competence. In her remarks, Ms. Zen reminded us that our words and actions make a difference in the lives of our students. “What you say will shape a child’s life, so speak words of love, positivity and encouragement,” she said.

As Noemi Aponte, a 1st-grade teacher at PS 196 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, put it, “When we speak words of empowerment to our students, we help kids see themselves for who they are.”