Building Foundational Social-Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Classrooms

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we interview Nancy Garrity, Senior Director of Early Childhood at Scholastic. Nancy dives into the topic of social-emotional skills in young children and how educators can support the foundational building blocks of these skills in an early childhood setting.

Nancy’s Top Tips for Supporting Social-Emotional Development in the Classroom:

Discuss Managing Feelings. Books can be used as a great tool for helping children understand language, emotions, and managing feelings. Nancy discusses how books with a wide variety of words and concepts can offer children a better understanding of feelings and how they can manage overwhelming and challenging feelings of their own.

Think Symbolically. This is a skill often used in math and is also an important foundational skill for children to develop naturally. Encouraging children to use dolls to represent people or blocks to represent buildings, that play and thinking then lays the group work for talking about letters that represent sounds and numerals that represent quantities.

Embrace Bilingualism. Nearly 30 percent of children enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs are English learners. Source: Education Week. Use a strength-based approach to strengthen children’s language skills and use the vocabulary they’ve already learned at home and combine them with the language they’re learning in the classroom. Bilingual children tend to score higher in cognitive performance, have greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment, and responsiveness to feedback.

If you teach children the language they need to address some harder to manage situations, it can really be very useful to children.

Nancy Garrity, Senior Director of Early Childhood at Scholastic

Nancy has spent more than twenty-five years developing educational experiences for children, teachers, and families—first in the classroom and then at Scholastic, working with leading early childhood experts from across the country. Nancy is passionate about early learning and its impact on children’s engagement and success in school and beyond. If you want to connect with Nancy or check out the collaboration with Scholastic and Yale or The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard you can visit their websites to learn more.

Note: In the interview, Nancy states that more than 50% of young children speak a language other than English at home. In reality, 33% of young children speak a language other than English at home and those children make up 50% of the state-funded preschool population.

Episode 262 Transcripts


Every book could spark a lesson where we could teach with those solid examples from the book, teach those social and emotional skills or the executive function skills, whatever those foundational mind builders are, as well as more the academic skills.


Nancy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thanks so much, Ron, it’s great to be here!


We’re delighted to have on the show today Nancy Garrity. She is the senior director of early childhood at Scholastic Education Solutions, a name that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Welcome to the show, Nancy, great to have you on the Preschool Podcast. As we always do, let’s start off learning a little bit about you.


Okay, well, I’m happy to be here with you today. This is my first podcast, actually. So, this is exciting for me. But I’m a lifelong learner, so I’m glad to be doing this with you. I started off my career planning to become a teacher, so I’m certified to teach. And my interest was in kindergarten through second grade.

And then as things go, I worked at a children’s museum for a bit. I worked with a classroom. And then it wasn’t long before I had a great opportunity to work at Scholastic way back in the nineties, actually, developing their first interactive reading program, which wasn’t what I expected to do, but was sort of where I found myself, again learning exciting things back then.

And one of the things that’s really interesting to me and exciting to me about Scholastic is that we work with a lot of outside researchers. And that was part of what drew me to Scholastic initially and sort of led me on that unexpected learning path.

So, long story short, I was at Scholastic for quite a while. I left, went to grad school to follow more of the learning that was sparked of Scholastic. And my life sort of went in a few different paths. I worked for Sesame Street for a little while.

And then a few years ago, a former coworker who was still at Scholastic reached out and asked me if I wanted to come back and help develop a new early childhood program, which at that point in my life just sounded perfect to me.

I sort of started off in kindergarten through second grade, but the way that my interests had developed was more and more toward those early years, just the more we worked with researchers in different capacities and just understanding how those early years make such an enormous difference in children’s lives. I was really excited to be able to do this. So, that is how I came to be back at Scholastic now and doing what I’m doing now.


Very cool. So, let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re doing right now. You mentioned an early childhood program. Tell us more.


Sure. Yeah, so we’ve just finished developing a program, it’s called PreK On My Way. And it is a full-day curriculum. It’s in English and in Spanish. And it’s geared toward four-year-olds with scaffolds for three-year-olds and five-year-olds built in. And it’s really… we worked with a number of different researchers to develop it.

And I’d say probably the most exciting part of the development for me has been getting to sort of translate that research into a program that’s just fun and joyful for teachers to use and for children to use.

So, we’re Scholastic, we’re the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books. So, books are at the heart of the program. They really spark all the learning that we do across the year.

And then we worked with a number of different researchers to build in different aspects of the program – including a strong social and emotional component – and to really structure the programs so that we built in these research-based routines that are easy for teachers to do so that if a teacher is a new teacher, there are these sort of predictable routines that they can follow.

We have scripting built in for teachers who want that, but we also just sort of educate teachers along the way while they’re using the programs so that they learn the power behind what they’re doing and give them little research tidbits on why what we’re recommending they do at any given lesson is so impactful and what a huge impact it’s going to have on the children in their classroom. So, that’s what we’ve been working on and what we’re really proud to be sort of putting into classrooms now.


Cool. Yeah, that’s great that there’s a bit in there on the Why you’re doing the things that you’re doing. And for somebody like myself who is completely ignorant to how you might create a curriculum, I’m just curious, like, where do you even start? Like you said, you worked with these outside researchers to create a curriculum. Where do you even begin?


If you begin well, the whole program will turn out well. So, that’s one of the things I’m particularly proud of that are team did really well. We laid a really solid foundation for the program. We started off looking at what children need to know and be able to do across different states in the US. You probably know that there aren’t Common Core standards for pre-[kindergarten]. So, it’s really [going] state-by-state.

So, we really did sort of a scan of all of those state standards and just talked to a lot of people out in the field: different administrators, teachers. We talked with parents also about their expectations for children’s learning.

And then I mentioned that we work with different researchers. One of the first groups that we talked with were our partners at Yale. Scholastic is fortunate to have a Yale Child Study Center / Scholastic collaborative. And Dr. Linda Mayes is the head of the Yale Child Study Center at Yale. And she likes to talk about the bridge that’s freely crossed. So, we have this bridge that we crossed together. And they learn from us. They get to talk with educators through us and we learn from them. We get to talk with all the researchers that work at the Yale Child Study Center.

And we sat down with them really early on and looked at those state standards. Just, “Here’s what we expect young children to know and be able to do. Where do they run into issues with knowing these things and how can we help them with those things?”

And through hours of conversation and learning from Dr. Mayes, we came up with basically social and emotional executive function and motivation and creativity skills that are at the heart of all of children’s learning. So, they’re not going to succeed with some of those more academic skills if they don’t have that solid foundation. So, we worked closely with Yale to develop what we called “mind builder skills” that were really at the heart of the program. And that is where we began.


Cool. Yeah, I like that. I can see how spending that time up front to understand those fundamentals was a good investment to create the program from there. So, that makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned the strong social-emotional component. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about how social-emotional learning is built into PreK On My Way?


Sure. So, that was another question that we sort of wrestled with. And we looked at what… certainly social and emotional learning isn’t new to pre-K. So, we looked at what’s out there, talked with a lot of teachers about what worked well for them and what was challenging for them.

And a lot of what we heard was that the social and emotional learning that is sometimes – at least in the programs that are provided for teachers – it’s sometimes separate from the rest of their learning they’re doing in the classroom. And based on the work that we were doing with Yale, we knew that that was the opposite of how we wanted it to be, that those social and emotional skills are really central to all learning.

So, as we sort of move forward in fleshing out the structure of the program, we knew that we wanted books to be at the center of everything because we’re Scholastic, that’s how we do. So, we started looking for books that would not only spark lessons related to the academic skills that children needed to learn – so, books that have great science concepts in them and books that have great math in them and books that have some good social studies lessons in them.

We also made sure that every book in the program has mind builder skills visible in it so that we could use that single book to generate a lesson – “generate” sounds like such a cold word, it’s really more like “sparking” – every book could spark a lesson where we could teach with those solid examples from the book, teach those social and emotional skills or the executive function skills, whatever those foundational mind builders are, as well as the more academic skills.

So, that’s really sort of the next step that we took. And I think that is something that’s different about our program because it was honestly very hard to do. It took a lot of work but it was one of the more joyful parts of development for us, was really doing that book search and finding the perfect books to spark all the lessons.


Cool. And let’s spend a moment just touching a little bit on tips or more tangible things that our listeners might be able to take away from this conversation. So, maybe this is something related to how you built the curriculum and your learnings through that process or feedback you’ve gotten. What are some tips that you can provide to any early-childhood educators who are listening to this podcast that they might be able to play in their classroom based on your learnings of developing PreK On My Way, and whether that’s about that social-emotional component or those mind building skills that you talked about or anything else?


Sure, I could talk about some of the things that I was particularly happy that we were able to find in books because I think they can be challenging for children or particularly valuable for children.

I think that certainly talking about and managing feelings is something that we talk about a lot. And one of the partners we had on developing the program were researchers from the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center. And they had developed a research-based way of teaching vocabulary. And their method was also grounded in great read-aloud books.

So, we worked closely with them to really tease out what sort of language is most helpful to teach children so that we’re empowering them to have these really meaningful conversations that help move their learning along. So, not only teaching words like “happy, sad, excited”, but really teaching kids words to manage their feelings and to talk about feelings with others. It really helps with, I think, so many aspects of social and emotional learning, some of the harder aspects we tend to gloss over.

But if you teach children, whether you’re a parent or a teacher, if you teach them the language they need to address some of those harder situations, it can really be very so useful to them; it can really be a game changer.

If you teach a child the word “frustrated” or if you teach children the words they need to know to ask how to join a group of children that are already playing, that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing for adults to do at a party, to go over and join a conversation. If you give children some language that they can use in those situations to join other children and play, to express their feelings to other children, that can be really helpful. I’d say that’s definitely one thing.

I would say another thing that we found in thinking through those mind builder skills and sort of those happy surprises that that we learned while we were developing the program, a second thing is – this is more of an executive function skill – thinking symbolically. That was something that was really fun to explore.

One of the other researchers we worked with on the program is Dr. Jie-Qi Chen from the Erikson Institute in Chicago. And she comes from a math background. But she also just loved the opportunity to work with Yale and the mind builders and apply those to math. And she was fascinated by the idea of thinking symbolically because that’s so huge in math.

But it’s also just an important foundational skill for children to develop. And it’s something they do naturally in their play. But if you encourage that as a parent or a teacher, whenever you’re playing with dolls to represent people or using blocks to represent buildings in the town along a road, that sort of play and that sort of thinking then lays the groundwork for talking about letters that represent sounds and numerals that represent quantities.

And it really just opens such a wonderful door. So, doing as much symbolic play and I think symbolic, hands-on activities as you can is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do for children at the pre-K level.


Yeah, that makes sense. I know, one of my sons, he’s so imaginative. And it’s almost like you don’t really need to have the real things. You can just use your imagination and use pretty much anything that’s around you to pretend. And it’s amazing what children can do with their imagination. So, that certainly resonates with me.

Now, you mentioned that there is a Spanish component. Can you talk a little bit more about how this curriculum approaches the bilingual education component, which I think is very important, of course, in the US and Canada and increasingly in many places in the world?


Sure, sure. Yeah, one of the things we learned is that in the US, at least, at the pre-K level more than 50%, if you look – certainly this isn’t true in every state in the country – but if you look at the country as a whole, more than 50% of children who come into pre-K classrooms speak a language other than English at home. *After review, this statistic is closer to 25%.

And so what we really did was we took sort of a strength-based approach to children’s language skills. And again, this was, I think, re-emphasized by our partners at the Children’s Learning Institute, who had done a lot of research into this, that when children come into the classroom, they already have vocabulary that they’ve learned at home. They have vocabulary they learn in school. The combination of those two sets of vocabulary is huge and wonderful.

And there is a definite bilingual advantage. Children’s brains develop in a way that gives them a cognitive advantage in the long term: their executive function skills are stronger. That sort of switching back and forth between languages is really a strength.

And we celebrate that through PreK On My Way. We developed the English program and the Spanish program so that they can be used separately if classrooms are teaching in one language or the other. But we really coordinated the development closely so that the two are reinforcing each other and complimenting each other, as well. So, they’re cognates that are used across the two.

And the alignment of all the skills that we’re teaching is matched so that we’re really, rather than sort of teaching English in English, teaching Spanish and Spanish and having sort of a monolingual approach to both, we are really working hard to create children who are bilingual and biliterate.

So, teaching those skills that reinforce each other along the way and helping children to develop those sort of trans-language skills across the two languages. So, that’s something we’re really proud of, too.


Very cool. Before we wrap things up, a couple more things: One is around our own learning and development. So, our listeners want to continue to develop and learn. Where are some places that you might recommend, whether that be other podcasts, books or websites that they can check out for their own continuous, professional development?


I think… I mean, two of the things, just thinking back to the to our mind builders and with those, based on this conversation, those at the front of my mind: I think that the work that we’re doing – and I say “we” but it’s not just me. Lots of other folks at Scholastic and at Yale are continuing to work together.

So, there’s an exciting website where there are articles that are posted and webinars that are posted for the Yale Scholastic Collaborative. So, you can [web search for] Yale Scholastic Collaborative or you could type in the URL And you can you can access that site.

And that’s an exciting place for me to go to because sometimes there are other folks at Scholastic who are coordinating with researchers at Yale on something totally new that I hadn’t even thought of yet. And I’ll go and find a new video about something there. So, that’s something that I love.

And then a second one I really love is the Center On The Developing Child at Harvard. That’s another great, great resource and that’s https://DevelopingChild.Harvard.Edu. And again, they worked closely with the folks at Yale, too. But they just put out these great videos that give insight into how the brain works and sort of how that looks for parents and teachers to be either managing children’s stress or having serve-and-return conversations. All sorts of really fascinating things on there I’d recommend.


Yeah, great resources. And if our listeners want to check out PreK On My Way, where can they go to get more information about that?


Sure, they could go to


Cool. And Nancy, who typically would use PreK On My Way?


It’s typically used in either pre-K classrooms that are part of an elementary school system or Head Start classrooms or sometimes also independent care centers also sometimes would use it. Anybody who’s actually looking for… well, it’s two different things. One, it can be used as a full-day curriculum. But we [also] developed it in modules: language, literacy and math. So, people who are just looking for a language supplement or math supplement could also use it that way if they just want to use it for part of their day.


Got it, that makes a lot of sense. Very cool, Nancy. Thank you so, so much for sharing all this insightful information and more about how you developed PreK On My Way. A great new curriculum from Scholastic. Thanks for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you, Ron!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!