Effectiveness of EL interventions for facilitating children’s social and emotional development

Table of contents


The aim of this paper is to present a critical evaluation of the effectiveness of interventions focused on emotional literacy to facilitate children’s social and emotional development. To complete this aim, the first section will describe the cognitive theories of Piaget (1929) and Vygotsky (1986) in regards to child development and present the current understanding of the concept of emotional literacy (EL). The second section will present a critique of studies that initiated EL interventions for children and discuss their results in light of the two aforementioned theories. The last section of this essay will present the final concluding remarks and recommendations for efficient EL interventions.

2.Theories of Cognitive Development in Children

Cognition is defined as the study of processes involved in the correct understanding and the correct interaction with the environment. Hence, cognition encompasses all these cognitive processes, attempting to explain ways in which humans understand their world. A total of seven of these processes (perception and memory, thinking and knowing, learning, reasoning, using language and problem solving) have been described in the study of cognitions (Palaiologou, 2016). Two of the most eminent cognitive psychologists, Jean Piaget (1929) and Lev Vygotsky (1986), developed two very distinct theories with regards to the way in which children attain development. Piaget argued that children attained development through various stages by which they construct knowledge (the so called schema). The schema would change according to the age of the child, as they would begin to perceive the environment in different ways. For example, teaching children letters and numbers at one schema and reading and writing at another. Thus Piaget set a strong emphasis on the environment in which the child grew up, as a strong contributor to his/her development. Reminiscence of this theory can be seen today in practical terms, where school environments are adapted to suit the learning needs of children of various ages (Saracho, 2012; Palaiologou, 2016).

Vygotsky (1986), on the other hand, did not view child development as an individual process which resulted from environmental interaction, but as the result of social interaction (Justice and Sofka, 2010). The researcher introduced the term zone of proximal development to signify actions that the child can learn from others and the zone of actual development to signify actions that the child can maste (Justice and Sofka, 2010)r. From this perspective, Vygotsky (1986) argued that the process of learning is characterized by a partnership between the child who learns and the adult who substantiates the learning needs of the child through social interaction (Justice and Sofka, 2010).

Currently, in the most classroom environments, the cognitive model of Piaget (1929) is used, in which children pass through development stages that are mandatory. However these stages cannot be correlated with children who, under social cultural influence, have to acquire behaviours that their counterparties only acquire later in life. For example some children may learn reading and writing earlier than their counterparties. In this regard, Biddulph (1995) makes a connection between failure in cognitive tasks at an early age and aggressive behaviour among children in primary schools arguing for the importance of EL. In Piaget’s model, emotional literacy is disregarded in favour of cognitive literacy, which leaves children exposed to negative emotions and subsequent problematic behaviour (Sherwood, 2008).

At this point, it is important to explain the notion of EL. This is defined as a set of skills that encompass the ability to recognise, comprehend, manage and express appropriately emotions. EL is also referred to as emotional knowledge (Park and Tew, 2007). Other definitions of this concept describe it as the practice of thinking collectively and individually about the way in which emotions shape actions and use this understanding for attaining an enhanced thinking capacity (Park and Tew, 2007). One other possible definition of this term describes EL as a process of interaction by which a better understanding of personal and collective emotions is achieved. This understanding of emotion is then used to inform actions (Park and Tew, 2007).

Social and emotional developments in children have been connected with EL as well as with academic achievement as many of the skills need for attaining academic success are similar with skills that come with EL (Brian, 2006). These include the use of language, cooperation with teachers and peers as well as being able to listen. At the same time, EL promotes a safe and caring environment for children in which positive relations are established which in return provide emotional security to children and help them reach their developmental potential (Brian, 2006).

3.EL Interventions

Several EL interventions that aim to achieve child social and emotional development have been implemented. These will be discussed in the following sections. From the literature, studies testing their efficiency have been extracted. According to the setting and approach used by these interventions, three types of EL interventions have been distinguished: EL interventions under the form of educational programmes, EL interventions that focused on parental involvement and School Based EL. The following sections will assess the efficiency of the EL categories interventions identified.

3.1.EL Delivered by Educational Programs

A pilot study conducted by Gimenez-Dasi, Fernandez-Sanchez and Quintanilla (2015) demonstrated that children as young as 2 years old can benefit from EL interventions. The study contained a total number of 54 participants who were randomly assisted to control and experiment group. Baseline measurements were taken and the intervention was applied. In this case, the intervention to the experimental group consisted of a 30-min session per week for a period of six months. The EL training was delivered by a teacher who had been previously trained in this procedure. Anova analysis of the two groups showed that the intervention group had higher scores in affective knowledge and social competence but both group maintained roughly the same level of emotional regulation capacity (Gimenez-Dasi, Fernandez-Sanchez and Quintanilla, 2015). The authors conclude that this intervention was efficient, at least in part, in improving EL in children as young as 2 years old.

A similar population was studied by Camil et al. (2010) who conducted a meta-analysis study of 123 comparative interventions with EL and control groups for pre-school children. In the selected studies the EL intervention was delivered either by direct intervention in a pedagogical manner or via inquiries which set a stronger emphasis on student participation. The authors found thatEL interventions which focused on cognition tend to have a descending effect through time. Simply put, the effects did not last. Direct intervention EL showed some positive effects for cognition yet individualisation had a more significant impact. Burger (2010) also argues that EL intervention programs have some short-term and long-term effects even for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Going back to the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky it can be argued that quality social interactions aids child development even under an improper economic environment, hence Vygotsky approach of information transfer seems more efficient for EL.

Another study conducted by Humphrey et al. (2010) with children in the age group of 6 to 11 years old noted that EL has been attained and maintained by children seven weeks following the intervention. Similar to the methodology used by (Gimenez-Dasi, Fernandez-Sanchez and Quintanilla (2015), Humphrey et al. (2010) divided the 253 children participating in the study in control and intervention groups. The conclusions of this study have demonstrated improved EL skills in children when data was analysed from self-reporting questionnaires, but the same results were not present when self-reporting questionnaires from parents and students were assessed (Humphrey et al.,2010). This renders questionable the efficiency of the intervention, especially since the duration of the programme was only 7 weeks and data was collected under the influence of participant reporting bias by self-reporting questionnaires.

Liew (2012) argues that self-regulatory interventions that aim at achieving social and emotional development need to be administered in conjunction with temperament-based frameworks. In other words, cognition and learning comes easier when there is a self-regulatory mechanism already in place. As this author argues, separating the two does not provide long lasting EL effects (Liew, 2012). One way to analyse this statement is to assume that EL interventions in schools may be more successful as they will encompass both cognitive as emotional development. The next section will analyse these aspects.

3.2.EL School Interventions

One such study (Brown and Aber, 2011) analysed results upon delivering an intervention consisting of social-emotional learning with literacy development for children’s social, emotional, behavioural, and academic functioning. The intervention lasted for two years, with 1,184 children from 18 elementary schools taking part in this experiment. As with the previous two studies discussed (Gimenez-Dasi, Fernandez-Sanchez and Quintanilla 2015; Humphrey et al., 2010) baseline measurements were taken and children were randomly assigned to the intervention or control group. Two years after the intervention, children in the intervention group noted improvements in self-report of hostile attribution bias and aggressive interpersonal negotiation strategies. Lower levels of depression have also been recorded in this group. Teachers in the participating schools also reported less instances of aggressive behaviour, higher attention skills and higher social competent behaviour in these children (Brown and Aber, 2011).

Denham and Brown (2010) discuss the notion of Social–emotional learning (SEL) and its possibility to aid child social and emotional development through an integrated framework (Appendix 1) that encompasses school, parents and peers for aiding achieving development. At the same time, the authors link SEL with academic success and note that this model may be adjusted to a variety of variables which would suit the child’s development needs (i.e. student teacher interaction or child parent interaction) (Denham and Brown, 2010). Given that the framework accounts for a the main relationships that are defined by social interaction, by the skills needed to obtain positive interaction and by accounting for the environment and self-regulatory mechanisms, it can be argued that its application may be highly effective. Nevertheless, due to its complex nature, the framework may also be difficult to apply and may also require high levels of cooperation between children, parents and teachers for it to be implemented.

Durlak et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis study researching the effects of SEL in various schools. A total number of 270,034 participants were accounted for from the 213 analysed studies. The participants were followed up from kindergarten through high school. By contrast with control groups, children that were involved in SEL programs showed significant improvements in attitudes, social skills as well as emotional skills. Additionally, academic performance and behaviour were also improved by 11 percentile-point gain in contrast to control groups. Upon analysing the results, Durlak et al. (2011) concluded that the most successful SEL programs focus on four distinct areas, combining them for attaining optimal results. These are strategies that include emotion, behaviour, cognition and communication. As the authors argue, EL programmes which do not include all these components may achieve only short term benefits and may also be less successful.

Kramer et al. (2009) obtained similar results in a qualitative study design involving 67 student participants and 67 parents/caregivers. The implemented SEL strategy was delivered via a new curriculum named Start Strong. The programme was developed two years prior to this study, and included various EL strategies including behavioural and cognitive tasks (Merrell et al., 2007). Kramer et al. (2009) investigated not only the effects of this curriculum for SEL but also potential barriers to implementation of such programs in schools and the support provided by local educational authorities. Based on the analysis of the collected information, the authors concluded that there were statistically noticeable improvements in child behaviour and emotional skills. These effects were maintained in the 6-week follow-up measurements. The authors also identified barriers to implementation, such as limited understanding of the programme, lack of interest and limited resources delivered by local authorities.

3.3.Parental Involvement

Other researchers followed the lines of the theory developed by Vygotsky in regards to exploiting the notion of zone of proximal development. Thus, a series of studies investigated the effects of parental involvement for child EL. Sheridan et al. (2010) argue that parental engagement is connected with a series of adaptive skills in children who are in the pre-school age group. The authors conducted a randomised control trial with a longitudinal approach using parental involvement as an EL strategy. A total number 220 children participated in the research and data was collected for a period of four years. The authors noted that significant differences were observed between the control and the intervention group in self-control, aggression and anger and other behavioural problems. Furthermore, differences were also noted in initiative behaviour, attachment and anxiety and withdraw behaviours. While the authors concluded that parental involvement plays a significant role in child development of emotional and social skills and overall EL, Sheridan et al. (2010) also note that this area needs further exploration.

In a similar study conducted in Australia, Havighurst et al. (2014) analysed the effectiveness of EL intervention that involved parents and teachers for children with severe behavioural issues. Professionals delivering the intervention had background training in EL while parents involved in the experimental group were trained via the Tuning in to Kids (TIK) method, developed by Havighurst et al. (2009). Positive results of using this tool for training parents in being more emotionally attentive with their children have also been reported by Wilson et al. (2012).

The results obtained by Havighurst et al. (2014) in measuring the real world effects of the TIK intervention as an EL strategy showed that children of parents who attended TIK obtained significant behavioural improvements, including higher levels of behavioural control, social positive interaction, empathy and better emotion understanding.


Based on the studies analysed in regards to EL interventions, a series of conclusions can be drawn. Initially it is important to point out that almost none of the EL strategies follow the approach of Paige in regards to environmental implications for development and stages of learning. However, some notes to different age groups and the effects of the EL strategy were made. In this regard, Gimenez-Dasi, Fernandez-Sanchez and Quintanilla (2015) showed that children as young as two can obtain some benefits from EL, yet the small age may be a factor for which behavioural control was not achieved. Moreover, if looking at programme interventions and school-based interventions, it is notable that these studies focused on bringing in a professional or training a professional to teach children EL. This in return implies that Vygotsky theory of knowledge transfer from adults to children is the preferred approach for EL. This becomes particularly evident in EL strategies that aim for parental involvement, where children of parents who are taught to be more emotionally aware of their child’s social and developmental needs, obtain positive results in EL. As it was noted, interventions that are delivered with focus on only one area (behaviour, emotion, cognition and communication) do not bring efficient or lasting effects, especially if they are delivered for a short period of time and if there is little interest or understanding of the intervention (Liew, 2012)Moreover, some frameworks are extensively complex and their complexity may act as a barrier for implementation. Effective EL strategies must begin early, preferably in the pre-school period especially considering that good EL plays a strong part in cognitive capacity. Furthermore, effective EL interventions must include all four areas of development and should be relatively easy to apply and understand. Also, effective EL strategies must be implemented over an extensive period of time and benefit from parental involvement.


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