Consent and Social Emotional Learning in Early Childhood

Although giving consent and social emotional learning (SEL) have been topics of conversation and practice in education for some time now, I believe events in the national spotlight have brought the importance of these two concepts into sharp relief. I also believe that even the youngest children can learn they have agency about how, when, and why they interact with others and can learn self-care from a very early age.

Consent
Body autonomy is the right to control one’s body; it is the right to give or withhold consent. Consent has two parts: setting boundaries and clear communication. Young children know what feels “good” to them and what does not.

Some Things Are Scary written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by Jules Feiffer is one classic children’s book that shows children (and reminds adults) that kids’ experience their world from a different vantage point than “big” people do. The very first page of this book shows a large adult giving a small child a bear hug: “Getting hugged by someone you don’t like… is scary.” Another page reads: “Holding on to someone’s hand that isn’t your mom’s when you thought it was… is scary.”

Empathy, or perspective taking, is a life skill that can help young children (and all people) understand that individuals have the right to set boundaries for touch. Learning to clearly communicate one’s boundaries is another life skill that children can learn from an early age. Interactions with others that include “I” statements demonstrate to speakers and listeners alike that direct communication is important as we build healthy relationships.

Perspective taking (or empathy) and communication are two of seven research-based Mind in the Making life skills that support families as they offer young children opportunities for learning executive functions that impact social, emotional, and cognitive success. Visit their website for more information.

Social Emotional Learning
The family is the first place babies and toddlers learn about healthy emotions and positive social interaction. With caregivers and in preschool settings, children also learn behavioral norms that follow them into their K-12 education where SEL will help them succeed in an academic environment and throughout their lives.

As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) notes on their website: “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Please Don't Give Me a Hug Book CoverPlease Don’t Give Me a Hug!
I am pleased that our board book Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! addresses both of these concepts—consent and SEL—for toddlers and preschool children, their peers, and caregivers. In the book, three non-gender specific children are shown in various social situations in which they and other characters use various gestures to say “hello, I see you” or “care” about you.

Written in the first person, the story emphasizes the importance of the child’s agency in setting boundaries and in communicating their preferences to peers, older children, and adults. The child-friendly illustrations by Estelle Corke clearly convey emotions. When receiving an unwanted bear hug, the expressions on these three children’s faces clearly show their discomfort. Their smiles when receiving or exchanging a wanted gesture show their pleasure in social exchanges that honor their boundaries.

Read Aloud and Early Childhood Education “Lesson Plan”
Of course, board books are intended for the lap listener and a reader who will engage a toddler in a reading experience. By sharing one’s thoughts to extend the print on the page, parents and grandparents, siblings, and other readers can enculturate young children into the pleasure of experiencing life through the words and illustrations of a book. Engaging book listeners in a dialogic reading experience through asking open-ended questions helps them enter into the story and express themselves through language.

Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! has the added benefit of showing young children various ways to communicate with peers and adults. For toddlers, engaging book listeners in mimicking the “acknowledgment” gestures in the book is fun. Learning to wave, smile, give fist bumps and high fives, use American Sign Language to say “hi,” and more make the reading experience physically interactive. And there may be gestures portrayed in the book that some children might not like, which present an opportunity for an additional conversation about consent.

Preschool children can actually practice using “I” statements that communicate how they want others to say “hello.” A group of children can practice this like they would a “Simon Says” game with the child in the center using “I (Susie) like fist bumps” with the other children making the fist-bump gesture. Preschool children can also stand or sit with a partner to share how they want to be greeted. Partners can rotate so that children can experience the fact that their peers have different preferences that can and should be respected.

More Information and Resources for Please Don’t Give Me a Hug!
Star Bright Books (SBB) published an excellent article about how to teach children body autonomy and consent. The article includes interior illustrations from the book that show how caring gestures are portrayed. SBB also published an artist spotlight interview with me about this book and writing for children.

Important side note: This story was first published as a donation on the Make Way for Books app. Thank you to MWFB for your vital early childhood education work in the greater Tucson community and for granting SBB and me permission to publish the board book.

Illustrator Estelle Corke, Star Bright Books, and I hope you will share Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! with the children in your care. Have fun practicing and talking about the gestures. Help young children understand their right to consent as they develop their social emotional life skills and think about how you, an adult, can make sure that you are respecting children’s body autonomy.

Early Childhood and Family Literacy

Book Cover: Vamos a leer/Read to MeI am passionate about the importance of early childhood and family literacy. When I served as an elementary school librarian and a K-5 literacy coach, I had the opportunity to take action to influence the literacy practices of the children, families, and educators in our learning community.

I wrote about this in my March 8, 2021 blog post: Literacy Partners Become Advocates and in an article that appeared in the March/April issue of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today magazine: “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.”

Practices in Early Childhood Literacy
Every kindergarten and first-grade classroom teacher and elementary school librarian can identify children who have been enculturated into literacy practices before coming to school. They may not know the alphabet and letter sounds, but they possess the basic building blocks of literacy. They know:

  • how to hold a book;
  • how to turn pages from right to left and move their eyes from left to right on a double-page spread;
  • that the squiggly lines of the page are words;
  • that words have meaning;
  • illustrations mean something and reflect or extend the meaning of the words in the book;
  • how to listen and attend to a book as it’s being read to them; and
  • that stories are communication tools that people use to share their thoughts, ideas, emotions, and experiences.

They possess this knowledge because a proficient reader read to them and talked with them about books and stories. This is why books such as Read to Me/Vamos a leer (Star Bright Books 2004) are shared in so many early childhood literacy programs and are important in promoting family literacy.

Children who possess the knowledge that comes from experiences with books are ready for kindergarten or first grade. They are prepped for literacy learning while their peers who lack this foundational knowledge are not yet ready to learn the alphabet, letter sounds, and more.

Research in Early Literacy
As an academic and a grandmother, too, I follow research in early literacy learning. Two recent studies have important information for parents and educators of young children.

On May 10, 2021, The New York Times reported on a study that I may not have otherwise seen: “The Power of Pre-K” by Dave Leonhardt. The article is subtitled: “President Biden wants universal pre-K. A large new study examines its likely effects.”

The Boston pre-K study is a rare experimental study in education because the children under investigation were placed in preschool through a lottery system. (Read “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston” by Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters.)

As in previous studies of Head Start children, this study found that the participants did not do noticeably better on standardized tests in elementary school, middle school or high school than did their peers who did not attend preschool.

However, the lottery preschool students demonstrated advantages in other key social and emotional indicators that are important to success in school and in life. The outcomes for the lottery students were evident in terms of better behavior. 70% of the lottery students graduated from high school while only 64% of non-lottery students did so. Lottery students were less likely to be suspended from school or incarcerated. These positive effects crossed racial and ethnic groups and the boys who had preschool experience did a bit better than the girls.

In another study, “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero), Christy Lao, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen studied students’ 2006, 2011, and 2016 reading test scores based on The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading.

These researchers found that the effect of poverty was negative in all three years and the positive effect of the presence of school libraries (access to books) was significant in two studies and fell just short of significant in the third.

Their study also showed that instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, which they call early literacy, did not result in a significant positive impact on PIRLS test scores. (They did, however, suggest a positive correlation between the amount of parental reading and SES both times they were investigated.)

Research Informing Practice
Taken together, preschool programs that promote social and emotional learning and elementary schooling that includes access to school libraries in a winning combination for reading achievement and school and life success.

To those two studies that suggest best practices in childhood literacy, I would add, based on first-hand experience, preschool experiences that include books and interactive reading. I would also add school libraries led by school librarians who know how to connect students with books. School “librarians have the training needed to identify and purchase the highest quality books and resources at all reading proficiency levels, in all genres and multiple formats. A well-funded school library collection reflects a commitment by the school, school district, and community to serving all students and families at school and at home” (Moreillon 2021, 11).

And through instructional partnerships with classroom, school librarians teachers also provide students with meaningful opportunities for reading for meaning, to learn, and pursue the answers to their questions.

All together, these are important contributors to students’ success.

I believe in research informing practice AND I also believe, as Ross Todd so eloquently stated, that practice must also inform research.

“Research informing practice and practice informing research
is a fundamental cycle in any sustainable profession”
(Todd 2007, 64).

The conversation between practitioners in the field and researchers must be on-going, respectful, and impactful. Research must be enacted in practice for it to be meaningful. In order to continually improve our practice, school librarians and other educators’ work must be informed by the latest research. And practitioners who daily serve the literacy needs of young learners must hold all research up to our first-hand experience the youth.

Works Cited

Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters. 2021. “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Economics Department.” https://seii.mit.edu/research/study/the-long-term-effects-of-universal-pre_school-in-boston/

Lao, Christy, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen. 2021. “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero).” (in press in Language Magazine)

Leonhardt, David. 2021. “The Power of Pre-K.” The New York Times (May 10). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/10/briefing/universal-pre-k-biden-agenda.html

Moreillon, Judi. 2021. “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.” Literacy Today (March/April): 10-11. Available at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/b46eaa78#/b46eaa78/12

Todd, Ross. 2007. Evidence-based Practice in School Libraries: From Advocacy to Action. In School Reform and the School Library Media Specialist, eds. S. Hughes-Hassell and V.H. Harada, 57-78. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.