1. Social and emotional skills in early years are crucial for successful engagement in school and in life
Recent studies into children’s brain development have found that the first five years of a child’s life are critical to their later functioning in many areas. Research by Linda Bakken and her colleagues found that between birth and age five, children develop linguistic, cognitive, social, emotional, and regulatory skills that provide the basis for their future behaviour and emotional wellbeing.
Brakken, Brown, Downing 2017
A wealth of research has shown that children who effectively acquire and master social and emotional competencies perform better at school and achieve a greater sense of life satisfaction and general well-being. Conversely, the failure to acquire these skills can lead to a number of personal, psychological, and academic problems.
Children who participate in SEL programmes perform significantly better in academic exams. Research by John Payton and his colleagues found that children who work on developing their social and emotional skills achieve test scores that are on average 11-17% higher than those who do not.
Payton et al. 2008
UNESCO defines early childhood care and education as the “holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing”. It calls this kind of early years education “one of the best investments a country can make to promote human resource development, gender equality and social cohesion”.
UNESCO Education 2030 agenda; Sustainable Development Goal 4
2. Vocabulary is a powerful tool for social learning
Vocabulary is key to a child’s social and emotional development (Russell 1990). That’s because, as Maurice Elias notes, “vocabulary does not simply represent the definitions of words”. An increased knowledge of vocabulary also encompasses an increased awareness of concepts and constructs that affects how a child perceives reality, and this has profound implications for their social and emotional growth.
When a child’s emotional vocabulary is limited, their ability to identify how they and others feel is much less precise. They might, for instance, say they are “angry” when in fact they are “frustrated”, “annoyed”, or “insulted”, and thus fail to express the important nuances of how they feel. Acquiring a more sophisticated feelings vocabulary allows children to identify their own and others’ emotions, and therefore manage them more effectively.
Lieberman et al. 2007
In fact, Lisa Feldman Barrett and others have suggested that knowledge of emotional vocabulary actually shapes the sensory processing involved in seeing emotion in other people’s faces. The more specific and precise the language that a person has at their disposal to label emotion, the more accurately they can identify these emotions in others.
Feldman Barrett et al. 2007
Research also shows that students who can accurately label feelings experience fewer misunderstandings, have more successful social interactions, and achieve better results in school.
A huge amount of research over the years has pointed to the importance of shared book reading during a child’s early years (Hoffman, Teale, and Yokota 2015). Among a multitude of benefits, reading aloud with a parent or teacher accelerates children’s oral language skills, which are a precursor to later reading success. What’s more, enjoying and discussing stories helps foster positive attitudes toward literacy that children carry forward into their school years.
Van Kleeck, Stahl, Bauer 2003; Trelease 2013
Quality picture books that build meaning via the relationship between text and illustration are particularly effective for fostering these literacy skills (Hoffman, Teale, and Yokota, 2015). When a child is presented with images and words that convey the same or similar information, they are essentially receiving this information in two languages simultaneously - visually and linguistically. The child acts almost as a translator between the two languages, and must thus engage with them more deeply. This process is what experts call “transmediation” and it’s this that provides profound learning benefits - especially when supported by a parent or a teacher.
4. It’s never too early for a child to learn a word, and learning complex vocabulary early makes it easier for them to retain it for life
It’s almost never too early for a child to learn a word, no matter how long or complex it may seem. Research by Rachel King found that children as young as four were able to learn words such as ‘camouflage’ and ‘arachnid’ when they were introduced visually and with humour.
In fact, research shows that it’s actually advantageous for children to learn complex vocabulary as early in life as possible. A 2000 study by Catriona Morrison found that words learned during the early stages of a child’s development are more easily accessed and used in later childhood and adulthood.
Direct vocabulary instruction in early years is proven to be much more effective in improving children’s literacy than methods that teach words more implicitly. Research has shown that vocabulary teaching resources are much more effective when they clarify the meaning of new words either through straightforward explanation or by offering examples of the word in context, and then provide opportunities for practice and review.
Neuman, Marulis 2010
Studies also show that such methods are most usefully introduced during early childhood, when children acquire vocabulary at the fastest rate.
5. Early Years are a crucial time to start preparing children for the world of tomorrow
With the world changing at an ever-increasing rate, many experts have pointed to the need for a more holistic educational model that emphasises creativity and critical thinking over knowledge, and one that produces well-rounded children who have the flexibility to adapt to the world of tomorrow.
It’s also widely acknowledged that the successful development of these 21st century skills are closely linked to a child’s early learning experiences. Research shows that in order to make the most of their school experience, children must be sufficiently prepared for their reception/kindergarten year. The “6 Cs” of future success as identified by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff - collaboration, communication, content, creativity, critical thinking, and confidence - all begin to take shape very early in a child’s life since this is when neural connections in the brain are formed most rapidly.