Fostering socio-emotional learning through early childhood education

Thursday, July 8, 2021 - 11:30am

By: Christina F. Mondi & Allison Giovanelli

In early childhood, socio-emotional skills (e.g., social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making) develop rapidly, laying important foundations for lifelong learning and mental health. To this end, there is great public interest in strategies that will support young children’s social-emotional learning (SEL), particularly in contexts of adversity. HCRC affiliates Christina Mondi-Rago and Alison Giovanelli, along with Co-Director Arthur Reynolds, recently explored this topic in a paper published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy (click here for open access link).

In this article, the HCRC team reviewed the academic literature on SEL in three types of programs: (a) publicly funded PreK; (b) multi-component programs (e.g., Child-Parent Centers, Head Start); and (c) skills-based SEL interventions (e.g., the PATHS curriculum). Overall, they found:

  • All three types of programs can benefit young children’s SEL, with typical effect sizes that are educationally meaningful and represent gains in school-year performance of 2- to 3 months. For example:
    • Participation in the Boston Public Preschool program has been linked to greater gains in emotion recognition (effect size = 0.18 standard deviations (SD), Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013).
    • Meta-analysis has linked center-based early childhood program participation to positive effects on social skills (effect size = 0.16 SD; Camilli et al., 2010).
    • Meta-analysis has linked skills-based SEL intervention participation to greater emotional competence (effect size= 0.33 SD), with significant variation across programs (Luo et al., 2020).
  • There are important differences between the three types of programs regarding impact on other domains of child development, cost-effectiveness, and potential to be implemented at scale. Multi-component programs tend to have broader impacts and higher cost-effectiveness but are more difficult to scale. SEL interventions are practical to scale, but to date have less robust effects compared to public preschool and multi-component programs.
  • There are gaps in both knowledge and practice regarding developmentally, culturally, and clinically appropriate conceptualization and assessment of SEL.

These findings have important implications for future research, practice, and policy. One particularly promising strategy is to increase universal access to high-quality preschool for all children, while additionally providing targeted skills-based interventions to children with SEL challenges.



Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2010). Meta-analysis of the efects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112(3), 579–620.

Luo, L., Reichow, B., Snyder, P., Harrington, J., & Polignano, J. (2020). Systematic review and meta-analysis of classroomwide social-emotional interventions for preschool children. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education. https://doi. org/10.1177/02171121420935579

Weiland, C., & Yoshikawa, H. (2013). Impacts of a prekindergarten program on children’s mathematics, language, literacy, executive function, and emotional skills. Child Development, 84(6), 2112–2130.