Because children’s social and emotional competence impacts both their present and future academic and social success (Jones et al., 2013). understanding how interactions with adults outside the home influence children’s development becomes crucial. Social and emotional competence (SEC) is linked to later academic and social achievements (Elias et al., 1991). However, fostering SEC goes beyond simply teaching children to share and be kind. Teachers operate in complex environments, with their interactions with students – planned or informal – shaped by personal experiences, beliefs, skills, and the center’s culture and requirements (Pianta & La Paro, 2004).

The Significance of Social and Emotional Competence

Children’s social and emotional competence impacts both their present and future academic and social success (Jones et al., 2013). Teachers perceive more competent children as engaged learners, well-liked by peers, and better adjusted to the classroom environment (Denham et al., 2012). But what defines a socially and emotionally competent child? Competence encompasses three key skills continually developed throughout early childhood – emotion regulation, emotion knowledge, and emotion expression (Denham, 2008).

According to Denham, Emotion Regulation helps a child manage their feelings. It’s like having calming strategies in your toolbox. Imagine being frustrated because you can’t build a block tower. Emotion regulation would involve taking a deep breath, trying a different approach, or asking for help – all ways to manage that frustration in a healthy way.  Emotion Knowledge allows a child to understand their own emotions and those of others. It’s like having labels for your feelings in your toolbox. With emotion knowledge, a child can recognize that they’re feeling sad when they start to cry or identify that a friend is feeling happy because they’re smiling, while Emotion Expression involves communicating your emotions in a healthy way. Think of this as having different tools for expressing yourself. If you’re feeling angry, you might use your words to tell someone you’re frustrated or use your body language to show you need some space. Emotion expression helps a child communicate their feelings appropriately.

The Teacher’s Influence: Direct and Indirect Socialization

Social and emotional competence flourishes through interactions with significant figures in a child’s life, including parents, peers, siblings, and teachers (Denham, 2011). While previous research has explored the influence of parents and peers (Denham, 2008), this paper focuses on the role of teachers.

For teachers, fostering social and emotional learning (SEL) goes beyond showing children emotion flashcards or prohibiting biting behaviors. The teacher-child processes that contribute to a child’s SEC can be categorized as direct/instructional socialization and indirect/informal socialization (Denham, 2008).

Direct socialization may include implementing a formal SEL curriculum like Second Step or PATHS (Elias et al., 1991), incorporating previous training on enhancing children’s SEL skills, or utilizing everyday classroom moments to highlight emotional concepts, like identifying emotions felt by characters in a storybook (Denham, 2011). This type of direct socialization can be measured by the number of emotion words a teacher uses while describing pictures in a wordless storybook (Denham, 2008).

Indirect socialization encompasses teacher behaviors beyond planned emotional instruction. This includes the emotions teachers express in the classroom (happiness, sadness, anger, etc.) and how they react to children’s emotional displays (dismissing, acknowledging, ignoring) (Denham, 2011). Additionally, indirect socialization involves a teacher’s overall emotional support – their availability for student interaction and awareness of students’ needs that could lead to frustration or conflict (Pianta & La Paro, 2004).

Understanding the Context of Socialization

Understanding the context in which direct and indirect socialization occur is paramount. Teacher socialization can be influenced by two key contextual factors: center-level effects and internal teacher states (Pianta & La Paro, 2004).

Center-Level Effects encompasses aspects of the school environment influencing how teachers directly or indirectly socialize children’s SEC. The type of center (Head Start, private, Montessori) may have federal or corporate constraints on teacher-student interaction, curriculum, and so on (Mashburn et al., 2008). Similarly, the director may have some control over classroom processes, schedules, and curriculum choices (Pianta & La Paro, 2004). Finally, the center itself may have a collective culture surrounding the importance of children’s SEC, influencing both internal teacher perceptions and classroom processes (Mashburn et al., 2008).

Internal Teacher States reflects how a teacher’s personal experiences with emotions can influence their interactions with students. The most direct influence might be a teacher’s own social and emotional competence. Less competent teachers may struggle to regulate negative emotions in the classroom or separate personal or school stress from interactions with students (Elias et al., 1991). Additionally, teachers’ perceptions of the value of SEC and their beliefs about who is responsible for teaching emotions may also influence their reactions to students’ emotions and their ability to foster a supportive learning environment (Denham, 2008).


Teachers play a vital role in shaping children’s social and emotional competence. By understanding the various ways teachers directly and indirectly socialize children’s emotions, we can create supportive environments that nurture children’s development and prepare them for future success. Future research can explore how best to equip teachers with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to effectively promote children’s social and emotional learning across diverse classroom settings.


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