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What is the Engine Behind a Child's Love of Learning?

Understanding the Link Between Social and Emotional Development and School Success

Over the past 15 years, there has been an increased emphasis on children’s social and emotional development in early childhood and elementary education. On the surface, the benefit of nurturing this type of development may seem obvious — children who can get along with others will naturally be happier in and outside the classroom. However, the benefits of social and emotional development go much deeper than a child’s ability to make friends. This part of a child’s development has lasting effects on their learning and academic success.

Nurturing social and emotional development in younger children (from birth to age five), is especially important because of the rapid growth that occurs during those years in all areas of development. When children develop socially and emotionally, they begin to understand who they are, what they are feeling, and how they interact with others. Their development helps children process their own feelings, form and sustain positive relationships, express emotions, and engage with their environment.

Social Emotional Development and Learning

Although social and emotional development influences all the other areas of a child’s development, it plays a significant role in learning. Research has shown that children who have strong inner well-being from feeling loved and lovable tend to be happier, show greater motivation to learn, have a more positive attitude toward school, more eagerly participate in class activities, and demonstrate higher academic performance than peers who struggle emotionally and socially.(1)

So how can a child’s social and emotional development impact their ability to learn and succeed in school?

There are infinite ways and scenarios that emotions come into play throughout our days. Similarly, within a school day there are many peaks and valleys that children need to navigate, from the excitement of playing their favorite game at recess to the anxiety from forgetting their notebook at home. For a child who struggles emotionally or hasn’t yet developed the skills to process their feelings throughout their day, they can tend to have a harder time paying attention to their teacher, concentrating on schoolwork, or having follow-through because their emotions act as a barrier or a distraction. Instead of being able to concentrate on their teacher’s lesson or classwork, they may instead be consumed by their emotions from not being able to sit next to their friend at lunch or from worrying about forgetting their gym shoes at home.

A child who has a stronger inner well-being, however, is better able to pay attention in school, not because they don’t experience the same kinds of losses, but because they are less burdened by the feelings from those losses.

So then, how is a child’s inner well-being developed in school?

Preschool teachers play a key role in a child’s social and emotional development. Because it is often a child’s first time inside a classroom, their experience affects their feelings about school and learning. In other words, if a child’s preschool experience is positive, they will establish a positive connection with school. Generally, teachers nurture young children’s emotional health by focusing on establishing a trusting and caring teacher-child relationship. Teachers can foster such an environment in the following ways:

Acknowledging and helping children with their feelings

When this occurs, children feel safe expressing how they feel and receiving support in identifying and understanding their emotions.

How this affects future learning:

Because of the model provided in early childhood, children will have a template on how to handle emotions throughout the school day. Children come to understand that teachers are there to support them, both socially and academically, and have an easier time asking for help.

Providing a social road map

Preschool teachers help young children put social situations into context while also helping them with their feelings. Since young children aren’t mature enough to think abstractly, teachers can offer perspective and help them to feel better. She may say, “I can see you are feeling sad because you want to paint a picture with Suzie, but she is playing with the Legos right now. Just because she doesn’t want to paint right now, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to paint later or that you are not friends. Would you like to paint with me or play with the blocks instead?”

How this affects future learning:

If a child is rebuffed by a friend, she will identify and understand her feelings and be flexible on the meaning behind the exchange. Her feelings may get bruised, but she does not interpret her friend’s response as an indication of who she is or her likability.

Understanding each child individually

This allows teachers to engage with children in a way that encourages exploration and discovery and strengthens the teacher-child relationship. Teachers model growth-promoting responses that foster feeling heard, valued, and understood. Because children imitate their caregivers, like teachers, a community of joy and caring is fostered, and children’s boundless curiosity is supported.

How this affects future learning:

Because children were encouraged to follow their ideas in early childhood, they will have a better sense of their interests – encouraging a love of learning.

Positive teacher-child relationships in early childhood education creates feelings of confidence, security, camaraderie, flexibility, and creativity that helps children gradually and successfully adjust to school life.

Nurturing social emotional development in preschool can have lasting benefits as children grow and move on to elementary school because it provides a kind, caring environment that helps encourage optimal cognitive development, as well as social connection and collaboration. Because they have learned how to navigate their feelings at a young age, children are less likely to be burdened by them as they get older. So that, by the time they are in elementary school, they are better able to handle the ups and downs of a school day, which can have a direct effect on their ability to focus, learn, and enjoy the learning process.

Of course, the greatest impact on a child’s development is their parents’ and caregivers’ unconditional love and attention. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., explain, “Parents’ availability and loving responsiveness together constitute a yardstick by which very young children measure their self-worth.”


Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.

(1)Promoting Young Children’s Social and Emotional Health, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Jeannie Ho and Suzanne Funk, March 2018.




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