Social-Emotional Skills are Critical for School Readiness

New research is showing that school readiness is more than academic ability. Preschoolers are far more successful in school, and in life, when they are able to develop social-emotional-behavioral skills that enable them to pay attention, handle emotions, and adjust to situations.

Research also shows that children who live in poverty are at increased risk of difficulties with self-control, impulsivity, oppositional behavior, and making friends. Social and behavioral competence in young children predicts how they will perform academically in the first grade, over and above their cognitive skills and family background.

Family Services is seeing the results of a comprehensive early childhood development program, in which teachers and mental health professionals work side by side in the classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds in its Head Start program. While the agency’s Forsyth County School Readiness Project (FCSRP) directly benefits participating children, their teachers and parents are recognizing significant benefits, too.

King (name changed for privacy), a five-year old, is enrolled in a dual emerging-language class (English/Spanish) program. Last year, like many three- and four-year-olds, King expressed his frustrations through tantrums and struggled to stay focused on short tasks. He was in constant motion, often disrupting and distracting his teacher’s ability to carry out her lesson plans and his own ability to learn. Fortunately, King was in one of the FCSRP classrooms. A mental health coach observed the dynamics and worked directly with the teacher on a plan that set King on a strong developmental path.

Learning to govern his own self-control also increased King’s abilities in other areas. He gained motor skills, learning to hold scissors, crayons, and pencils and entered kindergarten knowing the alphabet, numbers, days/months, writing and basic word recognition, and important motor skills, such as tying his shoes. He also learned social manners expected outside of the home environment, especially with his peers, and how to use his imagination and trust his instincts.

“It is often taken for granted that young children just pick up the social-emotional and behavioral skills that help them in school and in life,” says Casey Combs, a mental health coach who has worked with FCSRP since it began two years ago. “But these important skills are learned, and every child should have access to opportunities that help to develop them.”

FCSRP is modeled after a very successful Kindergarten readiness project in Chicago. In 2015, funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust helped Family Services implement the project in a handful of classrooms in its Head Start program, which serves children 0 to 5 and their families who face extreme economic hardship. Coaches are in the classroom one day a week throughout the school year to help implement strategy and curriculum. They assist the teachers with stress-management ideas and help them implement social-emotional strategies in the classroom. The coach helps develop personalized behavior plans, and partners with the teacher and the parent to ensure that all skills are in place before a child enters Kindergarten.

“The teacher plays a huge role in the process,” says Casey. “They learn new ways to build structure in the classroom, how to maintain energy and fun, and how to make expectations for the children more predictable. They use a lot of praise as reinforcement and find ways for the entire class to work on issues together.”

“It’s a positive experience having a specialist (i.e., coach) in the classroom once a week to mentor teachers and help with the children. Ongoing training throughout the year is equally important,” says Shelby Moody.

Teachers who are receiving support through FCSRP indicate that the project is making a difference. They report a decrease in children hitting, running around the classroom, crying and not following instructions. Teachers also report increased confidence in their own abilities.

“I feel good knowing that FCSRP is making a difference and that it may be the very thing that helps our children escape poverty and succeed in life.” says Casey.

Current funding has enabled Family Services to implement the Forsyth County School Readiness Project in 14 three- and four-year-old classrooms, with 28 teachers. The agency is seeking funding to expand the program to train, coach, and support 200 more teachers in 100 three- and four-year-old classrooms over five years, ultimately serving 2,000 children annually.

For information about the Forsyth County School Readiness Project and other programs offered through Family Services, contact them at 336.722.8173, toll-free 800.316.5513, via e-mail at, or check the website ( Family Services’ main office is located at 1200 S. Broad Street. Their hours are Monday through Wednesday, from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; Thursday, from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm; and Friday, from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm.