© Blog First Steps, IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Nancy Elias


News outlets around the world have blasted Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suárez’s lack of self-control. He was suspended by FIFA for having bitten an opponent during a World Cup match. Does this behavior say something about his childhood?

The marshmallow test serves as a means to illustrate complex behavior with enormous implications for children. A researcher places a marshmallow in front of a boy sitting at a table and says, “Here’s a marshmallow for you. You can eat it now, but if you wait to eat it, I’ll give you another one when I come back. That way you’ll have two!”Can the child hold out long enough to get the better reward? Those children exposed to poverty-related stressors have less ability to practice the self-control necessary to receive the reward of the second marshmallow.

Waiting for the second marshmallow means that the child sets a goal and controls his actions and emotions in order to achieve it. Previous blog posts such as “The Other Intelligence” have discussed the fact that a great deal of research shows that social-emotional skills predict academic success. Children with a greater ability to harness the brain’s executive functions (cognitive skills such as attention, memory, etc.) in order to regulate their emotions, solve social problems, set goals, etc. have more satisfactory experiences and better achievement at school.

What role do the adversities faced by at-risk families in Latin America and the Caribbean play? Taking into account the strong influence of the environment on child development, poverty-related stressors including exposure to community violence, displacement, unemployment, and maternal depression present significant obstacles to building these skills. Studies have shown that chronic stress has a negative impact on the development of skills such as self-control, attention, memory and planning.

The good news brought to us by studies evaluating the effectiveness of social-emotional learning programs is that these skills can be taught. These are not predetermined, unchangeable attributes but rather skills that can be learned through training and stimulation. PATHS and Tools of the Mind are just two examples of programs in the United States using stories, plays, games and puppets to analyze and practice these skills. PATHS uses the “Turtle Technique,” a favorite of both teachers and students. The exercise consists of three steps: 1. Stop; 2. Go into your shell, take deep breaths and count to 10; 3. Share the problem and how you feel.

Social-emotional learning is particularly effective when implemented early on. This is due to the brain’s tremendous plasticity during a child’s early years. As this video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University shows, between the ages of 0 and 5, some 90% of the brain develops, absorbing environmental stimuli with extreme efficiency.

Training and practice of skills to identify, express and regulate emotions, control behaviors, and socialize assertively make a big difference in the development of children growing up in risky environments. That’s why it’s so important to direct resources and attention to the teaching of these social-emotional skills, especially in the preschool years.

We must continue working to systematize the knowledge we have about the specific social-emotional teaching practices that work best in the different socio-cultural contexts of Latin America. This involves:

  1. Creating and enhancing programs that match local interests, learning styles and needs.
  2. Talking to teachers about the value of taking class time to teach these skills as part of the curriculum and providing support and training on the techniques used.

Rather than viewing it as a waste of time and effort, teachers will realize that the teaching of these skills will serve as a building block for children’s future learning and success.

What strategies are you aware of for practicing social and emotional skills? Do you know of any programs in Latin America that focus on the direct teaching of social and emotional skills in at-risk environments?

Nancy Elias is coordinator of the Child Find program run by the District of Colombia Public Schools (DCPS) in Washington D.C., which works to identify children eligible for early intervention services through partnerships with community organizations and provides community education on child development issues. As a specialist in psychology and human development, she focuses on the relevance and effectiveness of interventions with educational impact.

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