Partners in Estonia Champion SEL

Finnish, second step, social emotional learning

As a counselor in a kindergarten in Tallinn, Estonia, Mari-Liis Mugra knew she needed to do something about what she recalls as a “screaming need” for social-emotional learning (SEL). “I felt it every day in my work with children,” she remembers. “At that time, in 2011, the importance of social-emotional skills was just beginning to be addressed in the wider society. The main focus was on academic skills.” She started to look for programs and found Askelleittan, the Finnish version of the Second Step Program.

“Our team of volunteers […] began exploring options to develop social and emotional competence in kids in the best possible way. ‘Second Step’ immediately stood out.”

Around that same time, Liisa Ringo switched careers from teaching to IT and observed a similar need: “The popular image of a developer might be that of someone with limited social skills spending days in solitude writing code. The reality is that any successful IT project requires great communication skills and capacity for empathy from all the parties involved,” she explains. Liisa soon began to volunteer as an SEL coordinator at Avatud Kool (“the Open School”), also in Tallinn. “Our team of volunteers, which includes scientists and practitioners from fields of education and psychology, began exploring options to develop social and emotional competence in kids in the best possible way. One of our resources was CASEL and the lists of programs they recommend. ‘Second Step’ immediately stood out.”

We often think of Finland as the international darling when it comes to education policy and consistently stellar academic results, but nearby Estonia is a new rising star. The smallest of the Baltic countries (Latvia and Lithuania being the other two) with a long, troubled history of invasions from neighboring countries, Estonia is focused on a strong, independent future. Digital technology is widespread, early childhood education is fully funded, and developing children’s social-emotional competencies is part of the national education framework.

“Until now, there were great programs in Estonia for targeting certain issues, such as preventing bullying or developing better self-regulation, but these did not cover all aspects of social and emotional learning,” explains Liisa. “Of course, most teachers model and encourage social and emotional competence intuitively to some degree every day.” However, Liisa also points out, not every aspect of SEL is going to be intuitive to every teacher. Materials with practical tools to develop social-emotional competence in children will help even the most talented of educators and administrators.

Mari-Liis trains teachers and supports the implementation of Samm Sammult, the Estonian version of Second Step Early Learning Program. She will soon also expand to include a Kindergarten version. “I have a great opportunity to follow how [the program] has influenced children,” she remarks. This year, Liisa is overseeing the viability study of Samm Sammult Grade 2 in anticipation of launching the program next year.

We are delighted to have such passionate advocates for SEL in our international Second Step community and look forward to seeing how their work helps shape children throughout Estonia.