Social Emotional Learning: Why does it matter?

You may have heard or read about “Social Emotional Learning” (SEL) from your child’s school. What does it mean, and why does it matter? We can look to The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)  to help us understand the meaning and importance of SEL. Casel defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible choices.”

SEL improves academic performance, but also emotional understanding,     expression, and self-control. This leads to positive behavior in children and helps them to form healthy relationships. Once developed, these skills last throughout the lifespan. Adults with social and emotional skills experience more success at work, in relationships, and greater happiness.

What specific SEL skills are important for children to learn? CASEL provides us with five “core competencies” that are at the heart of SEL:

  • Self-awareness: Know your strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a growth mindset

  • Self-management: Effectively manage stress, control impulses, and motivate yourself to achieve goals

  • Social awareness: Understand the perspectives of others and empathize with them, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures

  • Relationship skills: Communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist negative peer pressure, show good conflict resolution skills, and seek and offer help when needed

  • Responsible decision-making- Make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety & social norms

Helping children to develop their social and emotional skills is more important than ever:

The past few years of coping with the pandemic and the academic challenges that were posed by virtual learning  took a toll on all of us. Children were uniquely impacted and are still demonstrating the impact socially, emotionally and academically. More than ever we need to support children in understanding their emotions and how to express them in a healthy way!

 While parents can help support their child’s academic learning, they actually have the most important role in how their children will develop socially and emotionally. 

Here are a few of the ways you can foster social and emotional learning at home:

-Create a stable,  structured  & emotionally safe home environment 

               -Help your child to understand, express and manage their emotions

-Help your child to consider the feelings of others and to build connections

-Give your child tools to manage conflict

-Teach your child to be responsible and accountable for their actions

-Help your child understand how to make positive choices and to understand the consequences of their behavior

Structure, routine & emotional safety:

In order to thrive and to develop socially, children require stability and emotional safety at home. Emotional safety comes in part by establishing routine and structure. Children feel more secure when they know what to expect, and when there is consistency and stability. This lays the foundation for emotional development.  

Emotional safety also occurs when members of the household relate positively to each other, communicate effectively and manage conflict well.  Children need to be taught how to manage their emotions well, and they need to see the adults around them doing the same. Children will watch and model the way adults  in their lives cope with stress. 

An emotionally safe environment is free from physical and verbal aggression by adults and such things as substance abuse. It’s important to be mindful of what our children are seeing and experiencing at home and to minimize experiences that may be traumatic for them. This allows the space for social and emotional growth.

How can you foster emotional understanding and expression In your child?

Teach your child an emotional vocabulary.  When your child is struggling to express him/herself, help them to identify what they may be feeling.  Teach them what their body language, tone of voice and other behaviors are conveying. You can say things like- “ it looks like by the way your arms are crossed and by your facial expression that you’re feeling angry- is that right?”

Point out the feelings of others in books or shows. Ask your child to do the same. See if they can connect to their own feelings/experiences. Let your child know that EVERY FEELING is normal and ok to talk about. Every emotion serves a purpose and gives us necessary information.  It’s not the feeling itself, but how we handle it that can lead to poor decisions. For example, you might say to your child, “It’s ok to be angry when someone skips you in line. Use your words to tell the person and/or a grown up how you feel, but it’s not ok to hit or push.”

Resist the urge to shy away from or to minimize your child’s difficult emotions. They will learn to sit with and work through their feelings easier if they know you can. Try to avoid saying things like, “don’t be sad”- when sadness is the appropriate response to a situation. Instead, invite them to talk about what’s making them sad and what might help them (when they’re ready) to feel better.

It can be difficult for us to see our children in emotional pain, however it’s important our children learn to tolerate distress for greater mental health now and in the future.

Teach your child to manage feelings:

As you teach your child to recognize how they are feeling, it’s important to also emphasize how to manage those feelings. Teach your child the importance of talking about their experiences and related thoughts and feelings. Be willing to listen. Remember something that seems silly and childish to you- may be a big deal to your child.

Give your child tools to calm down when upset. Help them to identify things that help them work through negative emotions. Does it help to take deep breaths, or to take a break? Does it help to write about their feelings or to express them in some other way? 

Help your child understand the importance of not allowing their emotions to rule their decisions. Teach them that there are consequences for our choices, both positive and negative. We have to stop and think before we act. Show your child that before they act in anger or frustration, it’s important to calm down and think about what they should do next.

When your child makes a poor decision- as all children will at times- help them to understand why this was a poor choice and hold them accountable. However, always make a distinction between a child’s behavior and who the child is. For example, never tell your child that he or she is “bad”, point out instead that you dislike the behavior or choice the child made. If a child sees themselves as “bad” this lowers their self- esteem and makes them feel as though there is something wrong with them that can’t be fixed.

Instead, if a child understands that a behavior was wrong, they can work to not do it again and can still feel good about who they are. Children who have this type of “growth mindset” will enjoy greater success.

Support your child in managing conflict:

As your child learns how to identify and express their emotions, their overall communication skills will improve. This can help them to navigate conflicts.

Teach your child and role model how to manage conflict. Be mindful of how you behave when you are in a disagreement- your child will follow your example. Help your child to consider the feelings of others, to choose their words carefully when in a disagreement. Teach your child to avoid calling names or being otherwise disrespectful when conflict arises. 

Let them know that often there is a way to compromise, but sometimes it’s ok to agree to disagree with others. Teach them that using their words effectively will serve them better than resorting to physical or verbal aggression.

If there are multiple children at home- support them in managing their conflicts. Guide them. but don’t solve it for them, so they can begin to develop these skills and to use them independently. 

Children who practice social skills at home like communication, empathy and conflict resolution with their siblings are better able to use these skills with peers at school. By this same token, children who experience bullying or aggressive behavior with siblings at home are more likely to engage in this behavior  at school. Therefore, home is a great place to work on how to interact well with others.

Together with your child’s school, you can effectively help your child develop these all important social and emotional skills- skills that will  help them succeed for a lifetime. Partner with your child’s school to help give your child the gift of social and emotional competence!