Fostering Social & Emotional Skills
Social Emotional Development is one of the core developmental domains for young children. What does that really mean? What determines their ability to handle social and emotional challenges?
I have compiled for you a few practices that I've found to be highly effective and helpful in fostering social emotional skills during my 10 years as an infant/toddler teacher. Not only will these elements add more joy and connection with your child(ren) in the moment, it also sets them up to succeed in school and beyond. The first 5 years before academic learning are the times little ones can dedicate to social emotional skills so they can be successful in dealing with challenges, social conflict, and coping with difficult emotions.
Fostering social emotional skills in young children was always my biggest passion as an educator, which is why I think it's essential to share. It is a great topic for grandparents, babysitters, nannies, or anyone who would be spending a significant amount of time with your kids. Let's dive in!
And let's be real. So many adults can use a refresher in social & emotional well-being, myself included!
Name the emotion(s)
Naming the emotions your child feels builds awareness and the vocabulary to express what is going on. Think of it as "telecasting" what you see. In play, routines, or difficult moments--every moment is an opportunity to teach! Conversations can be as simple as, "You were startled when the dog barked, it made you feel a little nervous. Now you're in my arms and you're safe!" or "It made you so frustrated when your milk spilled! We all make messes sometimes. Here, let's get towels and clean up together."
Your child may not even be old enough to understand what you are saying, but the language acquisition is occurring. The more consistently you dialogue with your child, the more likely it will become a routine in your parenting. It's okay if it feels foreign or strange at first; things take practice.
Examples of emotions/feelings: scared, sad, frustrated, nervous, shy, disappointed, excited, surprised, mad, angry, etc.
To take this a step further, the more in tune we are to our own specific emotions, the better equipped we are to recognize and help our children work through their emotions & feelings.
Utilize "Teachable Moments"
We can be so quick to say "Stop that!" or "No!" & "You're okay." It's almost a muscle reflex, I find it slipping out of my own mouth more than I would like. When children cry or have tantrum constantly, bear in mind that they don't know healthy ways to navigate those sad, angry, disappointing emotions. If we shut down their process through the negative feelings, we miss a valuable moment to teach them what they are feeling and what is a healthy way to work through it. Not to mention emotionally support them in that space to acknowledge that even adults feel embarrassed or shy sometimes too.
Talk with your child about why they feel what they feel and teach them tools to cope and grow from their experiences. It can be simple as teaching them to take a deep breath or reminding them to use simple word phrases like "turn please!" If we as adults ignore or brush over our kids negative emotions, we'll miss out on really crucial teaching moments.
EXAMPLE: Your child was playing quietly and independently with his blocks. All of a sudden, you look over and see him hitting the blocks together and then throwing them across the room. Instead of reflexively shouting at him to stop throwing toys, here's a response that could foster emotional development:
"Oh no! I saw that you tried to put the blocks together and it wasn't working. It made you feel mad and then you threw the blocks. When you are frustrated, you can always ask me for help. Let's try taking a deep breath [model it] and try again. I'm here to work with you!"
Investigate the Root Cause(s)
There is a reason for every action & behavior. If your child develops a regularly occurring negative behavior, do some investigation! Reflect back if there have been any recent transitions or changes in her environment or schedule that might be causing the behavior. Alleviating environmental stressors can often propel a behavior change for the better.
If your reflections uncover a potential cause for the behavior, test out some changes. Try it for a week or two to see if anything improves!
Adopt the 5:1 Rule
For every one redirection you give to your child, you should give them five positive statements. I've gritted my teeth trying to remember this when I was in the classroom, but boy, does it work! If your child is acting out and having tantrums on a regular basis, they're not a "bad kid." They have emotional needs that aren't being met.
If they're getting your attention with negative behavior, they will learn that's how to get your attention. It may feel like finding needles in an endless haystack, but intentional verbal acknowledgment and positive attention when you see your child doing something positive will make a huge difference. We as humans, adults alike, thrive on connection and love. Try making a conscious effort to give connection and love in abundance :)
As a former educator, I often referred to Zero to Three, an organization founded by researchers and clinicians whose mission is the well-being of infants and toddlers. Here is a link to their social and emotional development articles and resources. I find that many of the insights I gained professionally are incredibly helpful as a parent!
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