The Most Important Social and Emotional Learning Tool

By Celestte Dills, M.A.Ed.

early childhood teachers with students


Growth Mindset for Teachers

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) can transform learning environments. Children benefit from learning how to manage their own behavior and how to interact with others. In Early Childhood Education, we instill SEL throughout almost every part of the day. We know that a child who masters SEL skills will also have a greater chance of having long-term academic success. How should we teach these skills? What tools or strategies produce quick and effective results?

Well, I’ll tell you.

The single most effective tool for teaching SEL skills is the teacher. More specifically, the teacher with a growth mindset. No fancy curriculum or flashy product will produce the same level of success as the growth mindset teacher.

Consider the following scenario. You wake up late. You quickly get dressed, grab your coffee, and head out the door. On the way, you run into traffic. Then, while getting out of the car, you spill your coffee on your shirt. Fully stressed, you stomp in and throw your bag onto an empty chair next to your coworker.

There are two ways your coworker could respond:

a) Points a finger at you and says, “No, thank you! That is not how we behave at work. Now go sit down and think about what you have done. Let me know when you are ready to work nicely.”

b) Stands up looking concerned and says, “Oh no! It looks like you are feeling upset about something. What can I do to help? I have some extra clothes; would this shirt work? I’m able to cover your class so you don’t have to rush.”

How does each reaction feel? What do you think your response would be for Option A? How about Option B?


Fostering a Growth Mindset in Early Childhood Classrooms

When a child reacts strongly to stress (grief, fear, anxiety) we can help them learn self-regulation by:

The Do’s:
- Do get down at the child’s eye level.
- Do speak with compassion. The child is joining your calm. You are not joining their chaos.
- Do identify and validate the emotion. “It looks like you are feeling angry. Tell me what happened,” and “That does sound frustrating. I would feel upset too.”
- Do ask if you can help.
- Do work together to come up with a solution. “Let’s see if squeezing this clay will help.”
- Do praise. “It’s not easy to reset when you feel angry. I am proud of your hard work.”

The Don’ts:
- Don’t stand above the child.
- Don’t raise your voice or use a stern tone.
- Don’t make demands.
- Don’t say, “Don’t be angry,” or “Let me know when you are ready to talk.”
- Don’t miss this opportunity to teach a new skill.

A growth mindset can impact trust and safety by demonstrating and mentoring respect, compassion, and understanding for all people (even people under four feet tall). A growth mindset teacher knows that misbehavior is often mistaken behavior and that prosocial behavior can be taught. A growth mindset teacher remembers that we all make mistakes and we can create an environment where those mistakes become learning opportunities.


Celestte has spent a life-long career educating young children. In her over thirty years of working in early childhood education, she has extensive and successful experience as a teacher, administrator, curriculum developer, and education consultant. She has used her talents to develop meaningful Social and Emotional Learning curricula and to provide educators with easy-to-use tools for teaching pro-social behavior.

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