The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning in Early Childhood

Dr. Lorea Martinez, Author, Social Emotional Learning Consultant, Researcher and author of Teaching with the HEART in Mind discusses with HiMama the importance of not only recognizing but attuning to emotions of young children during early childhood.

Lorea gives 5 tangible tips for educators who are looking to bring Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into the classroom through the HEART method that Dr. Martinez created. In doing so, educators can recognize and redesign their curriculum and personal teaching philosophy in order to help children develop their social-emotional skills.

Through the HEART method (outlined below), educators can help children:

H- Honor their emotions. Name, interpret and identify your emotions. Many children start to learn about their emotions very young and often in the classroom. It’s important to talk about emotions in the classroom to help children identify and understand that it’s ok to have all of these emotions whether good or bad and to help regulate them.

E- Elect their responses. This is a time to create space that allows individuals to make a positive decision and to choose their behavior. Children may learn to “take a deep breath” or “take a break” during the times they have “big” feelings in order to help them not react but rather observe the feelings and calm themselves down before reacting.

A- Apply empathy. This aspect is a very important part in early childhood. For young children to be able to see the emotions in other children and being able to talk to other children about their emotions and feelings is super important as this is carried on through out adulthood.

R- Reignite their relationships. This aspect is all about establishing and maintaining positive relationships with others over time. The early childhood setting is a great place for young children to practice this.

T- Transform with purpose. This part of the HEART acronym looks at how individuals can be helpers…not just consumers. How can we help our families, communities and environments to be better by using our strengths and assets.

Dr. Martinez explains that SEL (social-emotional learning) is often seen as something separate from teaching. She encourages rather see SEL as part of teaching in order to see progress in young children. In order for educators to see the SEL skills in their children, they also need to practice these skills themselves. Adults should also have a toolbox of ways to deal with big emotions in a productive and caring way as well as show empathy for others- we need to practice these skills in an effective way so we can teach these things to children.

If we are nurturing children’s natural curiosity that children have to learn and know new things, we are more effective educators.

Dr. Lorea Martinez

Lorea recommends 3 key strategies to help educators bring SEL into the classroom:

  1. Explicit Instruction– When students are coming together during circle time and you’re doing morning greetings, this is a great opportunity to bring explicit lessons about social- emotional skills. For example, checking in with the students and asking “how do you feel today?” By sharing feelings, this increases their vocabulary for students and also helps them understand and recognize their feelings and others around them.
  2. Integrate with our Teaching Practices– As an educator, consider your routines and classroom set up and think about the spaces you provide to students for them to practice social-emotional skills. Consider the structure of your classroom and philosophy to ensure it’s helping rather than hindering children’s abilities to regulate and explore all of their emotions.
  3. Connection with Academic Content- Reflect on the moments children are identifying letters, words and numbers, this is a great chance to bring in the SEL component and discuss things that may be more interesting and less interesting to the children. For example, typically children may be very excited about science and experiments, so being explicit about the emotions present during these times as well as during more mundane subjects like math and counting. Emotions have a huge range and helping children identify how they feel during certain tasks and learning opportunities is key.

Dr. Martinez suggests that at the end of the day, taking inventory on your current teaching practices and considering the opportunities you give your children to recognize, reflect and connect with themselves and others around their emotions wether good or bad, big or small is a great starting point in implementing social-emotional learning into your classroom.

Want to connect with Dr. Lorea Martinez and learn more about TEaching with the HEART in Mind or purchase her book? You can do so through her website, Facebook, or Twitter!

Episode 248 Transcripts


And when we teach those skills from early on, truly we are planting the seeds for having healthy adults.


Lorea, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you for having me!


It’s our delight to have you. To our listeners out there: on the show today we have Dr. Lorea Martinez. She is an author, social-emotional learning consultant and researcher. We’re going to talk to her a bit today about the importance of emotions in early-childhood education, something that’s so important. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Lorea, and how you got into this very important subject matter.


Sure. So, I started my career in education as a special education teacher. I worked in the classroom for several years. And when I decided to enroll in a PhD program, I switched my focus and worked for a large charter management organization looking at student achievement data. And I did that for about four years.

And as I was doing that role, and it was the time for me to decide the topic of my research. And I had this intuition and this perspective that when we were looking at student achievement data, there was a set of skills that we were not looking at. It was mostly looking at standardized results and looking at the skills that students were using in the classroom, but only from an academic standpoint. And because of my background in special education, I saw there was something missing.

And this is how I decided to study social-emotional learning [SEL] for my doctoral dissertation. And at the beginning, when I first started, I didn’t even know that the SEL field existed. But I found the field; I fell in love with it. And since I finished my program – this was back in 2014 – I’ve been doing this work since.


Awesome. Yeah, it’s certainly something that comes up a lot in the Podcast, in terms of social-emotional learning. And it’s funny because there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the passion and understanding of how important this is among the early-childhood education community and what we’re doing in terms of focusing a lot more on the assessment and school readiness academic side of things, oftentimes, in the classroom.

So, it would be good to dive into that a little bit more and starting with something that you’re calling the “HEART Skills”. Tell us a little bit more about what that is and maybe we can dive into a little bit more about how to put it into practice, as well.


Sure. So, I created, through my work in the SEL field, I created the “HEART in Mind” model. And that’s a model to make the process of teaching and integrating SEL into the classroom practical and applicable to educators.

And “HEART” is an acronym that stands for five essential social-emotional skills. So, the H is “Honor your emotions”. E is “Elect your responses”. A is “Apply empathy”. R is “Reignite your relationships”. And T is “Transform with purpose.”

So, any educator that is wondering how to bring SEL to their classroom, they can look at these five essential skills and design educational experiences that are going to help students to practice, to learn those skills and really internalize them so they can apply them not only in the classroom, but also outside of the of the early-childhood setting.


Cool. So, maybe a good place to start is for us just to go one level deeper on what each of those means in practice.


Yeah, so, “Honor your emotions” means to name, interpret and being able to identify your emotions. And I think that’s a place that is not new for early-childhood educators. I think that that’s a place where many children start to learn about their emotions. And that’s being done in the classroom by talking about emotions, by helping the child being able to put a name to what they are experiencing. And as we know, those early-childhood years are so important to establish that foundation of healthy developmental and healthy regulation when it comes to emotions.

The second competency, “Elect your responses”, has to do with creating that space that allows us to make a positive decision, to choose our behavior. And in early-childhood, that’s an aspect that it is in progress. So, children may learn to take a deep breath or take a break and to notice when they are experiencing those big feelings that they don’t need to react to this situation. But there are certain things that they can do to calm themselves down before they can engage with a friend or before they can participate in a classroom activity.

For the A, “Apply empathy”, that has to do with being able to see and understand the emotions of others. So, being able to talk to children about, “Oh, how do you think your friend felt when you took away his or her toy?” To be able to look at characters in stories and think about how other people may feel and being able to connect with that feeling. And that’s a skill that we start very early on to teach it explicitly. But that’s a skill that we are going to be developing into adulthood.

For the R, “Reigniting relationships”, that ability to establish positive relationships and maintain those relationships over time. And I feel like the early-childhood setting is so beautiful when it comes to relationships because children are really able to build those connections and they can really play with any child.

So, in that setting, it could look like and taking turns and talking about the things we appreciate about somebody else and reflecting on how it makes us feel to have good friends in the classroom. It really creates that positive learning environment for children.

And finally, the T, “Transform with purpose”, I feel like it was very important to me to include a skill that would allow children and youth to not only look at themselves as individuals, but also their capacity to contribute to the betterment of the world. So, “Transform with purpose” looks at how we can be helpers in the world, not only consumers but also helping our communities, our families, our immediate environments to be better with our actions and with the assets and the strengths that we bring.

So, in an early-childhood setting, that could look like students or children helping to clean the garden or design a mural for the school or do something that it’s going to enhance and improve the environment.


That one is super exciting because, as somebody who operates sort of in the business world, I know there’s increasing conversation about being more social impact-minded and thinking about our influence in the world as companies. And so getting our youngest generation thinking about purpose and contributing to the bitterness of the world, as you say, at such an early age, it’s exciting to think about what that will mean for the future if we’re applying that. So, I love it.

Why do you think – going back to what we were chatting about a little bit before – why do you think there’s a bit of a disconnect between a lot of folks’ understanding of the importance of these aspects and where we’re at in early-childhood education today, which is, I guess, arguably not quite at the point where we’re applying all of these aspects of social-emotional learning in the classroom quite yet?


Sure. So, I think there are a couple of things. One is that the misconception, I would say, that SEL is separate from academics. And I think that the tension and the pressure to get students ready for kindergarten drives a lot of what happens in early-childhood settings.

But SEL is not separate from academics. When educators introduce and embrace SEL in their practice, that is good teaching. If we are engaging students emotionally, if we are nurturing their curiosity – the natural curiosity the children have to learn and to know new things – we are more effective educators.

So, if we want to have students that are motivated intrinsically to learn, where they can pursue their passions, the things that are interesting to them, we are infusing SEL in that process. And that means that students will be more successful from an economic standpoint. So, I think that the first part is seeing SEL not as something separate, but something that is part of good teaching.

The other aspect is that in order for educators to really teach SEL effectively, they need to practice these skills themselves. And something that I often say is that we cannot teach something that we don’t practice or know ourselves. So, a part of the work of SEL is for the adult to cultivate their own capacity, to connect with their emotions, to have that toolbox of things that we do when we are stressed, to show empathy for others. We need to practice that in a very intentional way so we can teach that effectively to students.

And there is a part of that that asks us to have some vulnerability and to really show up and be fully present with our students. And I think that may be a place where sometimes it can be scary for teachers.


Yeah, those are excellent points. I’m glad I asked that question. And now let’s take that a step further and talk a little bit more about the practicality of the HEART and Mind model or approach. If I’m an early-childhood educator and I want to bring this more into my practice in the classroom, what are things that I can do more practically, or tools that can be used to have that focus?


Sure. So, there are three kind of key strategies that help educators bring us SEL into the classroom. The first one is the explicit instruction. And that’s something that early-childhood educators could do in their morning meeting, for example, when students are coming together to the rug and there’s a story that is being read or their students are doing their greetings. That is a perfect moment to bring those explicit lessons about these social and emotional skills.

And that can look like that emotional check-in with students by asking students, “How do you feel today,” having students go around and share their feelings. And also increasing the vocabulary for students. In some of the research that I’ve done, what we have seen is that students have very limited vocabulary to describe their emotions. Kind of like the go-to places are “Sad, happy, upset”. But beyond that, we need to increase their vocabulary so students have the words to be accurate [in] describing their emotions.

The second strategy is to integrate with our teaching practices. And that means that, as an educator, you look at your routines and how your classroom is set up and think about, what are the opportunities that you have to create the space for students to practice those skills?

And in an extreme example – which I know this doesn’t happen in early-childhood settings, but just to illustrate what I mean – is if you were to just do lectures for students, that would be a strategy that would not be helping students to enhance their SEL skills. But any opportunities to create space for students to interact with each other, to work in groups, to create, to do a construction or to do arts and crafts in a group where they have to negotiate and talk about what are the materials they want to use, any play-based setting, that brings an opportunity for students to practice those skills.

And I think where the intentionality of the SEL comes into place is when the educator is able to connect that opportunity with the explicit skill that is being developed through that practice.

And then the third part is the connection with the academic content. So, those moments when students are doing their number literacy, where they are starting to identify words or practice their letters, all of those opportunities are also chances for the teacher to bring that SEL component and to talk about, for example, things that are more exciting or things that may be not as interesting.

The emotions that bring different subjects: like, for example, many students are very excited about science or doing experiments or discovering what’s in nature. So, being explicit about like, these are the emotions that the subject itself generates, that creates an opportunity to continue to reinforce the fact that we use those skills to pretty much do any task on a daily basis.


And it’s interesting because all three of those points about how to apply the HEART and mind certainly connect really well to your previous two points about why some of the areas of development to apply it more, in terms of not separating it from the academics and thinking about it as something different and practicing it ourselves as adults, seems like you would have to be doing those things very closely in those points.

And then what about from a tools perspective? So, if I’m going into my classroom tomorrow and I want to apply some of these pieces, like, any tips on that side?


Yeah, so I think that those three, kind of like the three brackets that I described, can be a starting point. I think that having that clarity of the framework, the HEART skills and knowing, “Okay, these are five essential social-emotional skills, I can look at these skills and bring them, integrate them into my classroom.”

And the book that I recently published, Teaching With the Heart in Mind, goes in-depth into each one of those competencies. And I provide tools and strategies for those three aspects of implementation that teachers can take and pretty much implement and adapt to their teaching. So, this is a model that can complement other frameworks that teachers may be using in their classrooms.


Oh, cool, that’s awesome. And I forgot to mention, but I thought it was kind of funny because a personal experience that really resonated with what you’re saying about a vocabulary-related to emotions, because I realized with my three-year-old [child] when he says a word related to his emotions, that’s almost what I’m most impressed with the word. Like, if he says something like, “Oh, I’m frustrated,” or something, I’m like, “Whoa, where did you learn that word? That’s pretty cool.” So, for some reason, that resonates with me as well, even just as a parent at home.


That’s right. And I’ve heard from so many parents that their kids go to schools where SEL is infused and it’s taught, how the kids are coming back to the parents and saying things like, “Oh, Dad, you seem to be frustrated. I think you should take a few deep breaths.”

It goes back to our families. When kids learn these skills in school and it is normalized and validated that we all have feelings and it’s okay to have a bad day or to be frustrated about something that we are trying to do, that it’s not working, to be able to say, “Wow, that was really frustrating,” there’s something I can do about it. And when we teach those skills from early on, truly we are planting the seeds for having healthy adults.


Yeah, that’s so wonderful. And how humbling to have your young children teach you something and help you out as an adult. It’s wonderful, actually, it really is. Okay, cool. So, some great tips there, it sounds like, in your book. If our listeners want to get access to your book, where’s the best place for them to get that information?


Sure, they can go to my website: They can see the content of the book there and there are links to where you can purchase [it]. It’s currently available in all major book retailers. So, if people want to buy and support their local bookstore, they can do that. Or they can also buy on Amazon, if that’s their choice.


Okay, wonderful. And for all the educators out there who’ve been dealing with all the challenges over the last year and parents with children at home who are doing remote learning and all the frustrations – one of our words of the day, “frustrated” – of dealing with that at home, any words of advice or wisdom or comfort as we think more optimistically towards the future in 2021?


Yes, first I would extend my appreciation to all educators and parents who are dealing with this pandemic on a regular basis. I’ve been so impressed with my own children, to see how they have developed this resilience and how teachers have come to the task and really found creative ways to keep kids engaged and motivated and just continuing to be kids. So, first I just want to express my gratitude.

And then in terms of any advice, I would say that it’s never too late to start learning and practicing SEL skills. So, even if you are a veteran teacher and this is something that you want to do, there’s always a time where you can get this started. And it is what I believe, from my personal experience, but also the growth that I’ve seen in educators, that it is a transformational process for people when they are able to practice those skills and truly engage with the process and then give that gift to their students. Really, it’s such an amazing way to create a flourishing learning community.


Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And those are some great words to leave us with, Lorea. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. And we wish you all the best. And thanks for all these wonderful tips. And for our listeners, check out Lorea’s website, and her book, Teaching With the Heart in Mind. Thanks, Lorea, for joining us!


Thank you, Ron, for having me. I had a great time!

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!