E14: Lessons on SEL From an Early Learning Perspective (Ft. Jamal Berry)

Jul 12, 2023 11:09:44 AM

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is making headlines and catching the attention of pollsters. The world of early learning, from birth through kindergarten has long accepted the need to teach children social and emotional skills. What can early learning teach us about how to put SEL to work in schools for older students?

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Maureen:  Welcome to EdPost Conversations. I'm your host, Maureen Kelleher. 

Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, in schools is making headlines and catching the attention of pollsters. However, the world of early learning, from birth through kindergarten, has long recognized the importance of teaching children social and emotional skills. What can early learning teach us about how to implement SEL in schools for older students? Joining me now is Jamal Berry, President and CEO of Educare DC. Welcome, Jamal.

Jamal: Thank you, Maureen.

Maureen: Thanks for being here. I noticed in your bio that you started as an infant toddler mentor teacher at Educare. Can you explain what that role entails and how it influences your perspective on children's SEL development?

Jamal: As an infant toddler mentor teacher, I coached and supervised infant and toddler teachers, typically overseeing about 12 to 15 staff members. In this role, I had to delve into zero to three development to guide these teachers effectively. It changed my outlook on teachers and who could be a teacher. Previously, I believed that three to five years old was the most critical stage for child development, but my experience as a mentor teacher for infants and toddlers showed me the significance of early brain development.

Maureen: I visited Educare in Chicago and was impressed by the calm and loving presence of the infant-toddler teachers. Can you elaborate on how you help educators develop these essential skills?

Jamal: We believe in embedded professional development at Educare. Our mentor teachers, like myself, provide reflective supervision and coaching to teachers. This helps them become more comfortable and skilled in handling various aspects of infant and toddler development. For instance, we train them on subitizing, a skill that allows young children to recognize quantities without counting one by one. By providing ongoing professional development and training, we ensure our staff is equipped to support children's emotional and cognitive growth.

Maureen: That sounds effective. Now, as kids get older, around first grade and beyond, how can we ensure that the sensitivity and support for social and emotional development continue?

Jamal: It's crucial to consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs, ensuring basic needs are met before children can focus on learning. Building strong relationships remains essential, as all learning occurs within the context of these connections. By involving families more and inviting them into the educational process, we can maintain the support children need. Parents are the child's first teachers and continue to play a crucial role in their development even as they grow older. Creating a collaborative environment that involves families can make a significant difference in K-12 education.

Maureen: I see the value in involving families. How does Educare partner with families to support children's development?

Jamal: We establish partnerships with families right from the start. When a family joins our program, we conduct a parent interview to understand their experiences, preferences, and goals for their child. We assign a family engagement specialist who works with the family to set goals and support them throughout their time at Educare. This relationship continues to evolve, addressing various milestones like graduation and beyond, supporting families as they grow alongside their children.

Maureen: That's impressive. I'm curious about how you integrate academic and social development in the classroom.

Jamal: We use the Creative Curriculum, which includes intentional teaching cards. These cards offer guidance on specific lessons, incorporating academic and social-emotional aspects. For instance, we might read a book about emotions and use these intentional cards to determine the appropriate strategies for each child's developmental stage, such as pointing to pictures, asking open-ended questions, or encouraging predictions. Our collaborative lesson planning approach helps teachers address individual needs and plan accordingly.

Maureen: It's essential to prepare children for transitions as well. How do you prepare children for their next steps after graduating from Educare?

Jamal: About ten months before a child graduates, we begin a transition plan. We engage families, read books about kindergarten, and involve kindergarten teachers from nearby schools. This gradual approach helps children and parents feel more comfortable with the transition. We provide families with paperwork detailing their child's development and assessments to share with their next school. We may also visit the new school in the first week to show support and ensure continuity.

Maureen: That's wonderful. Lastly, with the challenges young people have faced over the last few years, are there specific social-emotional learning practices you'd like to see more widely adopted?

Jamal: High-quality early childhood programs are essential. The past few years have been particularly taxing on parents and children alike. Early childhood programs provide a secure environment where children's emotional needs can be met, establishing secure attachments. As children get older, involving families in the education process and supporting educators can help maintain social-emotional development. Providing teachers and parents with tools to address emotional well-being and mental health is crucial during these challenging times.

Maureen: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experiences with us today, Jamal.

Jamal: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Jamal Berry

Jamal Berry, Educare DC’s President and CEO, began his career as an infant and toddler Mentor Teacher, later becoming the school director and vice president of programs. Over the years, he has applied his leadership and early childhood development knowledge to steer Educare DC to earning high-quality program ratings and accreditation with the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Mr. Berry is an advocate for young children and early childhood educators.


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