The Importance of Social-Emotional Development in Early Childhood Education: A Call for Adequate Training and Support for Providers

Author: Holly Gursslin M.Ed, NCC, LPC (she/her) with Amanda Boquist, MA (she/her)

Kids Hands

Imagine an 18-month-old child is dropped off at childcare. After a quick hug from their caregiver, they are immediately immersed in a room filled with other same-aged kids. Some are snacking, some are running, some are playing, and some are crying. Stimulants of color, movement, and sound is everywhere. It’s 7:30 am and this child’s morning has just begun. The child takes a few cautious steps and starts to cry.   


Now imagine a voice from a teacher across the room telling the child to stop crying and come to them, to find a toy and start playing, or feel themselves getting whisked up to get their pamper changed. The child stops crying.    


Or, imagine a teacher walking across the room to greet the child, kneeling to their level, using their name, naming a feeling of uncertainty, or asking how they are. Imagine being invited into an activity led by someone holding their hand or talking to them about how their pamper will be changed soon. The child stops crying.   


Neither of these scenarios are necessarily wrong, however, one likely pulled on your conscience as preferable. This likely stems from experience with positive healthy relationships, the need to be seen and understood, imagining what being overwhelmed feels like, and the awareness of emotional comfort and support. Those tenants come from your social-emotional development.   


Social-emotional development happens gradually and is imperative to building the capacity to express, manage, understand, and experience emotions and build healthy relationships. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.1  Studies have shown the best way to support a young child in their growth is through supportive, safe, nurturing relationships and the environments that surround those relationships. Early childhood mental health and development sets the stage for future outcomes in both physical, cognitive, and emotional health.


But what happens when one of the foundational aspects of child development isn’t taught to providers who work with and educate children? What happens when providers are brought into positions without training and are asked to manage and teach children without the appropriate knowledge regarding children’s mental health? Typically, we see a rise in “behavior problems.” This is an issue that’s becoming commonplace at childcare centers, where unprepared staff and systems fail children by not putting the education about a child’s social-emotional development at the forefront.   


Many factors can lead to children not being supported in child-serving settings. One unexpected, but massive impact, was that of COVID, which stretched the limits of providers and caregivers, brought new light to the childcare crisis, and is continuously perpetuated by workforce instability. Additional factors we see are a lack of quality leadership, consistency with and access to training opportunities, funding cuts, overenrolled classrooms, and provider/parental stress. This, in addition to the ever-rising cost of childcare.   


To garner a better understanding of the opportunities childcare teachers have, we interviewed folks from various centers, including privately owned, state-funded, and faith-based. One teacher shared that all training and understanding regarding social-emotional development has come purely from self-taught strategies and personal experience; on-the-job education. Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon response, as it was echoed in several other teacher’s comments. Some cited their knowledge as a parent themselves, while others used online videos as their means of learning. A teacher from a state-funded center reported receiving education from courses in high school. Interestingly, all the teachers that provided us comment could quickly speak to the process (or lack thereof) for expelling children from their centers.   


If providers are not aware of social-emotional development and its implications on a child’s ability to learn and regulate, then why are children being held solely responsible for their behavior?  Ensuring that early childhood providers receive adequate training and education is essential for the success of their programs, as well as for their own well-being and regulation. Furthermore, it has a positive impact on children's ability to learn and develop. The old adage is true: knowledge is power.  To create equity in childcare, and to best support the growing needs of children, training on and utilizing social-emotional learning techniques allows children to learn how to understand and manage their emotions, make good choices, and learn how to cope/adapt to stimulating environments.   


Positive social-emotional development is a cornerstone to a child’s overall well-being. Let’s use Children’s Mental Health Acceptance Month to remember the importance of educating ourselves and other early childhood providers. Remember to bring social-emotional development to the forefront of training opportunities and curriculum within childcare settings. Address the workforce burdens by providing knowledge and power to those who serve. Let's make sure that those millions of neural connections children are creating are being nurtured in a positive and safe way that supports their overall brain health and emotional development.



Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2017). InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from


About the authors:

Holly Gursslin M.Ed, NCC, LPC (she/her) received her Master’s in Counseling Guidance and Education from the University of Hawaii at Mañoa and is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Ms. Gursslin has over 15 years of experience in project management and oversite, implementation, research, clinical and managerial supervision, and clinical therapy. Her research interests include mental health for child and family service systems, implementation fidelity of mental health interventions, and strategic planning strategies, for enhancing workforce competency.

Holly Gursslin is a Senior Project Coordinator with the Steve Hicks School of Social Work’s Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Coordinator with the South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center providing research, training, and technical assistance on early childhood mental health initiatives.

Amanda Boquist, M.A. (she/her) received her Master’s in Forensic Psychology from Adelphi University in New York. She has over 15 years of experience working in clinical settings and most recently in schools and districts, supporting school counselors across systems. Amanda is a Senior Administrative Program Coordinator with the South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center providing training and technical assistance in the school mental health space.



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