Social & Emotional Landscape: Early Childhood Education Series (Pt. 2)

As stated in Part 1 of this series on Early Childhood Education there are several core elements of development during these crucial years of a child’s life. One of those core elements is learning social skills, or in more modern academic verbiage, Social and Emotional Learning. This refers to the development of the ability to a) engage in relationships that are meaningful with both peers and adults, b) to identify, articulate, and monitor one’s own range of emotions as well as the emotions of others, c) learn and cultivate social skills as well as an understanding of their environment. 

It is crucial that during this period of rapid growth and development, the child have access to a space that offers safe and enriching opportunities of exposure to this type of learning, as this will form the foundation of their social and emotional lives on which their future relationships and emotional well-being will be built. So then the question is how is that foundation built? It is built by the interactions that they have with their environment, which includes but is not limited to, parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, childcare providers, and peers. It is because of how quickly the brain develops during this phase of their life that each interaction the child has is so impactful upon the way that child will perceive and interact with their social environment as well as their own emotional landscape for the rest of their lives. 

Indications of positive social and emotional early childhood development include learning to develop close relationships with parents or guardians, to calm themselves during times of heightened emotion, to play with and share with peers, and to follow and listen to directions. Children who are exposed to risk factors in either their environment or in their relationships, have their social and emotional development disrupted. The more prolonged or severe the disruption to their development the greater the risk of permanent damage to the psychological as well as physiological development of the child. It is important to highlight here that this invaluable time in a child’s life is not the sole responsibility of the parent. The phrase ‘it takes a village’ is common because it is true. The construction of relationship norms, social norms, language, expectations, values, beliefs and attitudes are all influenced by the family, the community and the culture. All of these important factors are required in order to encourage the healthy maturation of social and emotional development.

Infographic for Social and Emotional Learning in Elementary Schools

There are specific long term benefits to emphasizing healthy development in social and emotional learning. Along with physical and mental health, the ability to forge relationships with others, to learn, to memorize and to focus attention, all stem from our emotions and our ability to employ them in the manner in which we act and in the way that we think. All of this is even more important in the mind of the developing child. Studies show that children with stronger emotional intelligence foundations tend to perform better in school, govern their own behavior better, are better at displaying empathy, more easily create positive relationships, engage in school more meaningfully, and are more able to focus their attention.  There are five essential skills that can be taught in order to foster emotional intelligence, some of which have been talked about above, but I want to name them explicitly. 1) Identifying the emotions of oneself as well as others. 2) Connecting the source of an emotion with the consequence of that emotion. 3) Correctly naming emotions. 4) The expression of emotions in the proper time, place, and culture. 5) Governing emotions. Using these five skills to model emotional intelligence and teach children the skill of emotional intelligence will be the topic of Part 3 of this ongoing series next week.

Remembering My First Encounter with Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Some of you may have already been introduced to the great Buddhist master and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh because Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize in 1967 for of his non-violent work with the Vietnamese people during the Communist Revolution that led to years of war in Vietnam and Hanh’s eventual exile from his homeland. Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and activist, has only ever stood for peace, a human beacon during the most difficult times for his people. Fortunately, he continues to work for peace all over the world. Unfortunately, peace is not easy to obtain because it is not simply the absence of war and military turmoil. It can also manifest as an ongoing unsettled self. Too often there is war in our hearts and souls, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relinquish the holds and perceptions that can prevent us from experiencing inner peace.

It was on just such a journey, while I searched for peace and quiet in myself, that I first encountered his message and his teachings touched my life. Twenty years ago, I was sitting in the lounge of a retreat center with the intention of eating a snack before going to bed. The front of the shop had chairs arranged for viewing films on a TV set. When the VHS tape was put into the player at the front of the row of chairs, a man with the softest voice you’ve ever heard began to speak. He was wrapped almost completely in a chocolate robe, a disembodied head floating on a cloud. Because of the softness of his voice, I had to sit very still and lean forward, abandoning my snack for his soul food. As he spoke, his words penetrated my heart, causing tears to roll down my cheeks, issuing from the wellspring of untouched emotion and pain in me. I understood that to change my life, to heal myself, I had to learn to love myself. I began the journey to know and love myself as my own precious mother, father, sister, brother and daughter right then and there. I didn’t have time to waste. I had to be present for myself so that I could love and forgive, especially myself. He was an answer to my prayers, the reason I had left my home for the ashram. Until this day, he continues to be a source of guidance and inspiration in my life.

Over the years, I have heard Thay, “Teacher” as many know him, speak and teach, and I’ve stopped being surprised by his soft-spoken stillness, knowing that it will be nearly impossible to hear him even when he uses a microphone. It’s a lesson in quietness. Maybe a few words will drift down over the air and into my heart, perhaps piercing my consciousness, and I can leave satisfied. I have walked with him in silent meditation during the predawn hours without a destination, looking at myself, following my breath, inching forward into the recesses of my psyche. It is in such moments of quiet, if we allow ourselves, that we can begin to hear our true selves. I have had to fight past the thick mesh of voices, riddled with doubts and judgments, to sit with my authentic self and accept her, unconditionally. I can say from experience that it is a hard and scary process to turn off the external noises that keep us insolated from ourselves, which is what draws me to Thay, again and again. The Edissa I don’t know and don’t understand yearns for a deep spiritual connection. When I touch that peace, I feel a profound connection to everything around me. So those many years ago, I wanted to find meaning in my life and to let go of the dangerous anger that I only had the courage to turn on myself. So it was his message, “to be my own mother” that touched me. He invited me to hold my mother and myself in compassion and explained exactly how to do both. In that way, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a constant and influential presence in my life as my spiritual leader and mentor, pushing me to start again when I fall short of my goals.

If you are hungry for peace, give Buddhist monk, learned man, doctor of comparative religions, author of over a hundred books, community organizer, leader and healer, Thich Nhat Hanh some consideration. You don’t have to abandon your faith or become a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, because he teaches practical ways to get quiet, repair relationships and look deeply at our interior and exterior environments and do something to repair what needs our attention—gently. As a teacher I have introduced various books and essays of his to my students; they always love his work. In particular, True Love: A Practice of Awakening the Heart is a constant favorite. It’s the kind of book that sons pass to fathers and mothers share with sisters. It’s a treasure for its simplicity and clarity of language as well as the clear, concise explanations of love. My guess is that you might also find some value in his life’s work.

If you don’t know his work, I urge you to read one of his books today. Attend a retreat with him if possible. He has several communities where he practices regularly: Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. All, with the exception of Green Mountain, have activities throughout the year that are open to the public. Reverend Hanh is aging, but you can still see his luminous spirit for yourself.