Review Article: The Role of Social and Emotional Skills in Developing Mental Health of Children - Papers & Essays



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Review Article: The Role of Social and Emotional Skills in Developing Mental Health of Children


The article discusses the role of social and emotional skills involved in strengthening mental health among children and the factors that influence the development of such social emotional skills and mental health. The article concludes with some examples of social and emotional programs which are implemented in the U.S.
Social-emotional skills, mental health, children

Social and emotional skills (also called non-cognitive skills) include skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, persistence, and self-control. Social and emotional skills are important drivers of cognitive skills and of broader school and life outcomes. They are "linked to academic achievement, productivity and collegiality at work and associated with positive life outcomes." (Garcia & Weiss, 2016, p.1). Social and emotional skills are malleable rather than fixed and are responsive to differences in school quality, children's environment and parental investment. The skills promote perseverance, a sense of belonging to school, engagement with teachers and the attitude toward school. Thus, it is important to incorporate nurturing social and emotional skills into policy, programs, and practice in schools.

The definition below is according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a national organization aimed at taking a systematic wide approach to social and emotional learning (SEL), which cultivates a caring, participatory, and equitable learning environment, and also aims to integrate into education evidence-based practices that actively involve all students in their social, emotional, and academic growth (CASEL, 2019).

SEL "is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and display empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions" (CASEL, 2019, p.1). CASEL developed a systematic program for social emotional learning skills through the collaborative work of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers. The program was supported by districts, schools, and states nationwide to carry out research, guide practice, and inform policy. The social and emotional skills framework consists of five core competencies: (a) self-awareness, (b) self-management, (c) social awareness, (d) relationship skills, and (e) responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2019).

Children who are emotionally healthy are more likely to enter school ready to learn, be physically healthy, succeed in school, and lead productive lives. In contrast, children with mental health problems tend to have lower educational achievement, greater involvement with the criminal justice system, and poor health and social outcomes overall (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). Between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children between birth and five years old experience social and emotional problems that have a negative impact on their functioning, development, and scholastic-readiness (Cooper, Masi, & Vick, 2009). Approximately 9 percent of these children who receive specialty mental health services in the U.S. are younger than 6 years old.

There is a strong correlation between social and emotional skills and mental health (Bermejo-Matins, López-Dicastillo, & Mujika, 2018; Payton et al., 2011). These skills begin their process of development at an early age. Social and emotional learning involves managing feelings, building healthy peer relationships, responsible decision-making self-management, self-awareness, and social-awareness both inside and outside the classroom. Children with social and emotional skills have improved attitudes regarding themselves and others, increased prosocial behavior, lower levels of problematic behavior and emotional distress, and better academic performance.  These skills are also essential to promote children's ability to cope with difficulties and help to prevent mental health problems. On the other hand, there is strong evidence to suggest that good character education, such as resilience and responsibility, improves grades and test scores, improves school climate and lowers the frequency of disciplinary referrals (Gail & Hibbard, 2019; Jacobson et al., 2018).

"Mental health is a critical component of children's learning and general health. Fostering social and emotional health in children as a part of healthy child development must therefore be a national priority" (U.S. Department of Public Health Service, 2000, p. 3). Mental health provides an essential foundation of stability that supports all other aspects of human development, from the formation of friendships and the ability to cope with adversity to the achievement of success in school, work, and community life. Some examples of mental disorders in young children are anxiety disorders, simple phobias, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are the most common mental health diagnoses among children and adolescents, although the most prevalent parent-reported disorder is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many students also suffer from fears, phobias, and performance anxiety.  However, a greater concern is suicide, which can result from the interaction of mood disorders and other factors and is the second leading cause of death among children aged 12-17 years (Stokes & Jackson, 2014).

A key focus of social-emotional skill building is on promoting positive development through the fostering of social and emotional skills that form the foundation of mental wellbeing and success in life. These are skills such as understanding and managing emotions and behavior, solving personal and interpersonal problems, building healthy coping strategies, and developing self-esteem and confidence. They help children cope with difficulties and to build positive relationships and increase their resilience so that they are better able to deal with life's challenges.

A comprehensive review in the U.S including 317 studies (324,303 participants) reports SEL programs had significant effects on targeted social and emotional competencies and attitudes about self, others, and school (Payton et al., 2008). SEL was also found to enhance students' behavioral adjustment in the form of increased prosocial behavior. It also reduced conduct and internalizing problems, and improved academic performance on achievement tests and grades.  Furthermore, the study indicated that social and emotional competencies predict other mediators of school success such as self‐concept, school adjustment, school engagement, motivation for learning, and relationships with peers and teachers (Payton et al., 2008).

Let's look at the factors that influence the development of social emotional skills and mental health.

Social-emotional Learning and Mental Health

Social-emotional learning is "the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." (CASEL, 2019, p.1). In order for children to develop the basic skills they need, such as cooperation, following directions, demonstrating self-control and paying attention, they should have social-emotional skills.

Mental health is "a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community" (The World Health Organization, 2015, p.1). Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how individuals think, feel, and act and thus helps determine how they handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Childhood stress can damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and lead to health problems later in life including mental health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015).

Reasons Why Children Have Mental Health Problems

Three major factors contributed to children's mental health problems: (a) genetics and family risk, (b) the environmental risk, and (c) the ethnicity (National Institute of Mental Health, 2000).

Genetics and family risk factors: Specific family factors can make a child more vulnerable to social, emotional and behavioral problems, including maternal depression or mental illness in the family, parental substance abuse, family violence, and poverty. Within-child risk factors that can contribute to child's mental and emotional issues include fussy temperament, developmental delay, and serious health issues. Young children from households with lower levels of family income are more likely to experience mental health issues that negatively impact their development.  Young children with these risk factors have been found to be two to three times more likely than children without them to experience problems with aggression (19% vs. 7%) anxiety and depression (27% vs. 9%), and hyperactivity (19% vs. 7%) [Greenberg, Domitrovich, Weissberg, & Durlak, 2017].

Attachment is an important marker for the social and emotional development of young children. Poor attachment, in particular maternal attachment, can have a negative impact on children's social-emotional health and development. Almost two-fifths of two-year-olds in early care and learning settings had insecure attachment relationships with their mothers (O'Connor & Blewitt, Nolan, & Skouteris, 2018).  In particular, research shows that African American and Latino children experience lower levels of secure attachment than Asian American and White children (O'Connor & Blewitt, Nolan, & Skouteris, 2018). 

In the U.S., children of parents with mental illness are at a greater risk for psychosocial problems. More than two-thirds of adults with mental illness are parents (Nicholson, J., Biebel, K., Katz-Levy, K., Williams, V. F., 2004).  "Between 30 percent and 50 percent of children with parents who are mentally ill have a psychiatric diagnosis, compared to 20 percent of children in the general population" (Hammen, C., 2003). Children of parents suffering from a mental illness may also show higher rates of difficulty in regulating their emotions, relationship problems, and developmental delays.

Environmental risk factors: Environmental risk factors include living in an unsafe community, receiving care within a low-quality childcare setting, and lack of resources available in the community, and lack of policies supporting children and families. Young children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to experience behavioral problems than children living in moderate-income or affluent neighborhoods.

Impairment of mental health occurs as a result of the interaction between a child's genetic predispositions and his or her exposure to significant adversity in the environment.  Thus, the interaction between genetic predispositions and sustained, stress-inducing experiences early in life can lay an unstable foundation for mental health that endures well into the adult years. Children who have experienced toxic stress are more likely to have mental health issues.

Another environmental risk factor is early trauma which can have lasting effects on children. Persistent maltreatment and emotional harm are some examples of early trauma experienced by young children. Even when children have been removed from traumatizing circumstances and placed in exceptionally nurturing homes, developmental improvements are often accompanied by continuing problems in self-regulation, emotional adaptability, relating to others, and self-understanding. The emotional wellbeing of young children is directly tied to the functioning of their caregivers and the families in which they live. When these relationships are abusive, threatening, chronically neglectful, or otherwise psychologically harmful, they are a potent risk factor for the development of early mental health problems. It is essential to treat young children's mental health problems within the context of their families, homes, and communities.

Race and ethnicity: Young children of color are more likely to experience factors that put them at risk for poor social, emotional, and behavioral development (Payton et al., 2011). Stressful events and their consequences on the quality of life and academic success are particularly significant among low-income and ethnic minority students in mental health issues in the U.S. (Huynh, Tran-Chi, & Ngyun, 2018). These children are also over-represented in child welfare and make up the largest proportion of children expelled from preschool and who are in special mental health care.

In the U.S., among young children victimized in 2007, 49% were children of color. African Americans are overrepresented in the population of maltreated children age 0 to 5 (Cooper, Masi, & Vick, 2009).  Furthermore, in early care and learning settings, young African American children are between three and five times more likely to be expelled than their peers and 8.5 times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than White children.

Two typical types of general behavior that result from mental health issues are externalizing behavior and internalizing behavior. Externalizing behavior includes aggressive behavior, opposition, defiance, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and temper tantrums/anger, whereas internalizing behavior includes depression, isolation, anxiety, perfectionism, obsession, and emotionality.

Why Are Social and Emotional Skills Important in the Development of Children's Mental Health?

The development of social-emotional competencies in school settings has been shown to be effective in decreasing violence and mental illness as well as improving the quality of interpersonal relationships and academic achievements (Bayat, 2019).  While most social-emotional learning programs and activities focus on developing skills in individuals, they also help to create safe and caring school climates, and classrooms. A study reported that teachers' social-emotional competencies are associated with the quality of classroom climate (Justo, Andretta, & Abs, 2018). Furthermore, the study indicated how effective teachers can be when applying social-emotional learning programs to students so that they can develop this type of competency (Justo, Andretta, & Abs, 2018).

The CASEL indicated that the promotion of competence, self‐esteem, mastery, and social inclusion can serve as a foundation for both the prevention and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders (2019). The Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health also expressed similar sentiments about the importance of mental health promotion and social-emotional skills for optimal child development and school performance (Center of Mental Health Services, 2000).

Being compassionate, respectful and supportive is valued and expected in the safe and caring environments that promote the mental wellbeing of all students. Thus, integrating social emotional skills into teaching practices will not only enhance social and emotional skills in each individual child, but will also help to create safe and supportive environments in which all children feel they belong, reduce the stigma of mental health difficulties, and encourage help-seeking when children need it. It will thus be effective in promoting mental wellbeing in all children.

The Role of Social and Emotional Skills in the Development of Mental Health

There are active efforts in certain U.S. states (e.g., Illinois, New York) and internationally (e.g., Singapore, South Korea) to establish and implement social-emotional standards for what students should know and be able to do. For example, the Illinois State Board of Education recently incorporated social-emotional skills as part of their student learning standards by identifying three broad learning goals: (a) develop self‐awareness and self‐management skills to achieve scholastic and life success, (b) use social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships, and (c) demonstrate decision‐making skills and responsible behavior in personal, scholastic, and community contexts (CASEL, 2019). Increasingly, policymakers at the federal, state, and local level are seeking to embrace a vision of schooling in which social-emotional competencies are important. Various programs have been developed to help schools enhance students' health and reduce the prevalence of drug use, violence, and high-risk sexual behavior (Payton et al., 2011).

How to Develop Healthy Social and Emotional Skills and Mental Health

Bermejo-Martins, Lopez-Dicastillo, and Mujika (2018) revealed that using different game-based dynamic and emotional diaries to develop daily health habits such as eating, hygiene, sleep and physical exercise resulted in a significant improvement in social-emotional skills and mental health. It offers an innovative intervention aimed at improving  healthy lifestyles for children from a holistic perspective. It aims to achieve this by addressing social and emotional competence as one of the most influential aspects of children's development. A different study investigated the use of mental simulations in supporting the development of emotional skills of preschool children (Jarczewska-Gerc & Gorgolewska, 2015). The content of the mental simulation contained clues about how to recognize and understand emotions. The results confirmed the expectation that mental simulations enhance children's ability to recognize, understand, and control emotions.

Baurain and Nader-Grosbois (2013) studied the link between social information processing and socio-emotional regulation in 45 children with intellectual disability and 45 typically developing children. They found that bi-directional links between some abilities in social information processing and socio-emotional regulation vary depending on developmental age. Children learn social and emotional skills most effectively when they are also reinforced at home. Various social and emotional learning programs include components for involving the family and community in promoting the skills. In this way, school-based social and emotional learning offers gains for students, schools, and families. This gives parents and caregivers the chance to learn about the particular approach schools take and what they can do to support children's social and emotional learning.

Findings from a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal SEL programs involving 270,034 students, from kindergarten-level through high school, reported that SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). School teaching staff successfully conducted SEL programs by use of recommended practices for developing skills. It was found that the presence of implementation problems moderated program outcomes. The findings add weight to the growing empirical evidence regarding the positive impact of SEL programs. Policy makers, educators, and the public can contribute to healthy development of children by supporting the incorporation of evidence-based SEL programming into standard educational practice (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Depending on the age level and children's characteristics, parents should teach children to use assertive communication skills by showing them how to confidently and respectfully communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs to others in an assertive way. Parents should encourage and support children's confidence by helping them identify and develop their strengths. They should be  encouraged to try things and find activities they enjoy. Furthermore, parents can praise children's efforts, celebrate their successes and encourage them to keep trying and learning. All these can be done through positive relationships, taking time, turning in, being there, and sharing experiences.

In the classroom, teachers should model social emotional skills, and encourage them to apply their skills in all sorts of situations. They should also encourage students to think about the kinds of situations they can use the skills for. Figure 1 illustrates some of the important aspects of building basic social emotional skills through communication.

health_2019_01_01.jpg Figure 1. Framework of Building Basic Communication Skills in Social Emotional Skills

There are four major components of building social emotional skills by adults: building relationships, effective communication, fostering emotional awareness, and appreciating individual and group differences. Each component consists of ways children learn social emotional skills to foster mental health development based on their language and cultural backgrounds through externalized, internalized, deregulated, and competent behavior.

Building a positive relationship requires cooperative skills to work in groups to build a range of social skills. It fosters inclusiveness by creating an accepting environment through positive respectful and caring behavior. Effective communication can be achieved through effective verbal and non-verbal communication skills to manage feelings, handle conflicts, and manage friendships. To foster emotional awareness, adults need to support children's self-confidence by valuing their contributions, and appreciating their efforts and persistence. By doing so, adults can motivate and encourage positive feelings, provide a safe environment, and consider others' thoughts and feelings or teach them empathy. To appreciate individual and group differences, adults need to recognize the needs and different experiences children have based on their language and cultural backgrounds, then encourage mutual respect and positive valuation for one another so they can get along in life with others.

One of the models for developing social-emotional skills to support mental health is the Resilience-based Interaction Model [RIM] (Bayat, 2019). RIM is a teacher preparation approach for promoting children's mental and behavioral health that guides the teacher's behavior and language in daily interaction with children. It is based on three aspects: wellbeing and well doing, positive relationships, and character strengths. See Figure 2 below:

health_2019_01_02.jpg Figure 2. Resilience-based Interaction Model

A positive relationship includes some aspects of socializing structure such as love, kindness, friendship, gratitude, teamwork, optimism, and growth mindset. In the character strengths, children are involved in play and conversational in-group learning activities, using posture and language to develop positive behavior. In the wellbeing and well doing aspect, children develop body-mind activities that involved movement such as breathing bubble, breathing butterfly, and belly breathing (Bayat, 2019). Breathing bubble, breathing butterfly, and belly breathing are relaxation techniques using breathing as a method to calm the heart beat by breathing in and out in a playful way (Bayat, 2019). In the breathing bubble, children use their mouth to breathe in to keep a bubble in their mouth and breathe out by releasing the air. The same technique is used for belly breathing, where the children will inhale and exhale by controlling the belly or stomach. In breathing butterfly, children close their hands to breathe in and open their hands to breathe out by counting 1, 2, and 3, moving their hands to imitate a butterfly opening and closing its wings.

Developed by the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the social-emotional framework can be used to guide a selection of research-based prevention programs that address health, substance abuse, violence prevention, sexuality, character, and social skills. Developing these SEL skills should be an explicit goal for public education which can be achieved through public policies and programs including the teacher preparation programs. Some suggestions on how to better understand and how to incorporate social and emotional skills into policy and practice include:

  • Establish clear concepts of social-emotional skills and how to measure those skills using appropriate metrics that are reliable and valid.
  • Design a broader curriculum; ascertain how to measure the outcomes of the skills in students and how to train and equip teachers with the relevant training and support.
  • Revisit school disciplinary policies to support and promote better behavior and prevent misbehavior;
  • Broaden assessment and accountability- to make explicit the expectation that schools and teachers contribute to the development of non-cognitive skills and to make the development of the whole child central to the mission of educational policy.
  • Broadening the curriculum, cultivate the proper climate within the school, promote teachers' investment in strong relationships with their students, and ensure teaching time for strategies that are conducive to the development of both social-emotional and cognitive skills (Garcia & Weiss, 2016).

Suggested Programs for Social Emotional and Mental Health

This article suggests 14 selected programs considered to be critical to the success of school-based SEL programs emphasizing curriculum design, coordination with larger systems, educator preparation and support, and program evaluation. Table 1 below shows some of the selected examples of social and emotional and mental health programs implemented in U.S. schools. Most of the programs are for students in elementary and high schools featuring curricular items taught in the classrooms.

Table 1. Type of Social and Emotional Skills' Programs Offered in U.S. Schools
1The 4Rs Program (Reading, Writing, Respect&Resolution) PreK-5 curriculum that integrates the teaching of social and emotional skills and the language arts through the use of diverse children's literature.
2Character First Focus on good characters traits such as compassion, determination, diligence, enthusiasm, flexibility, forgiveness, etc.
3I Can Problem Solve (ICPS) Provides a balanced focus on cognitive regulation, emotional processes, and interpersonal skills throughout the program.
4Lions QuestPreK-12 program that integrates social and emotional learning, character education, drug and bullying prevention, and service learning to promote school and life success.
5The Mutt-i-grees CurriculumPreK-12 program that combines social and emotional learning with humane education, building on children's love of animals to promote social-emotional competence, academic achievement, and awareness of the needs of sheltered pets.
6The PATHS® program 1PreK-6 curriculum designed to reduce aggression and behavior problems by promoting the development of social-emotional competence.
7RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions)PreK-12 approach to social and emotional learning that builds emotional intelligence in students and adults and prepares adults to model these skills and create a supportive and healthy emotional climate for students.
8The Social Decision Making/Problem Solving (SDM/PS)K-8 program designed to help students develop the social awareness, self-control, and decision-making skills they need to make sound decisions and healthy life choices.
9Too Good for ViolenceK-12 violence prevention and character education program that teaches social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behaviors to help students manage bullying situations as well as resolve conflicts and cope with frustration.
10We Have Skills A video-based social skills program for Grades K-3 designed to facilitate positive behavior and learning in the classroom by teaching seven behavioral skills that research shows teachers want to see in their students.
11Conscious DisciplineEarly childhood social and emotional learning program that integrates social and emotional learning with classroom management.
12Good Behavior GameTeam-based classroom management strategy for early grades that uses positive social reinforcement to promote positive behaviors related to student success.
13Playworks National nonprofit organization that leverages the power of play to transform children's social and emotional health.
14Before the BullyingK-8 universal prevention program designed to prevent bullying and teach positive social skills through the use of music, videos, and the performing arts.
Source: Jones, S., Brush, K., Bailey, K., Brion-Meisels, G., McIntyre, J., Kahn, J., Nelson, B. & Stickle, L. (2017). Navigating SEL from the Inside Out. Harvard Graduate School Education: Wallace foundation.

Children's social, emotional, and mental health has been a subject attracting increased attention over the past several years. Positive social and emotional skills can promote children's ability to cope with difficulties and help prevent mental health problems and benefit personal, academic, and social life. Social and emotional skills and mental health issues should be looked at from the perspectives of children's cultural and environmental backgrounds. In the U.S., newly immigrated children often struggle to understand the social and emotional skills practice by their peers in schools and these may have a negative impact on their mental health as well.

Research has shown that social and emotional learning programs which improve children's social and emotional competence are more likely to achieve goals related to improving students' mental health. Learning skills such as self-awareness, effective communication and conflict resolution can also help to prevent the development of mental health difficulties in children who might otherwise be vulnerable. In the last decade or so, numerous schools and children in the U.S. have had to face the issues of bullying and school shootings. Educators and parents hope that teaching children social and emotional skills will help to promote resilience in children, and give them the capacity to cope and stay healthy in spite of the negative events that happen in life. Addressing mental health is crucial for children's school and life success especially if SEL programs are implanted with fidelity and integrated into the fabric of school and community.

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Sham%E2%80%99ah_Md-Yunus.jpg Sham'ah Md-Yunus
Dr. Sham’ah Md-Yunus is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Eastern Illinois University, USA. Her research focuses on the early numeracy and diversity. Currently, she is conducting a survey evaluating the 10-year undergraduate elementary programs preparation in the STEM education.