Building Awareness: Social Emotional Learning

Many parents are concerned about their children’s academic (e.g., math, reading) achievement and have high academic expectations for their children. While these concerns are warranted given the competitive nature of college admissions, there are other skills that need to be emphasized throughout childhood, skills that are necessary for academic success as well as success in relationships and personal well-being. More specifically, social and emotional skills are paramount for optimal child development and these skills underlie many schools’ and parents’ recent emphasis on Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

What is SEL?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) emphasizes the development of skills in five broad areas: self-awareness, social-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

  • Self-awareness. The ability to recognize and identify one’s emotions, in addition to understanding how emotions impact one’s thoughts and behaviors. Also, the ability to understand one’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Social-awareness. The ability to take others’ perspectives, appreciate differences among people, and understand how our actions impact others.
  • Self-management. The ability to manage emotions, set short- and long-term goals, control impulses, etc.
  • Relationship skills. The ability to build and sustain meaningful relationships with others, which includes the skills of effective listening, increasing empathy, offering and seeking help when necessary, etc.
  • Responsible decision-making. The ability to make respectful and ethical decisions that contribute to one’s well-being as well as others’ well-being.
SEL Important for Success

Simply put, SEL skills enhance children’s ability to be successful in both school and life. Children who are exposed to SEL interventions (i.e., programs designed to target social and emotional skills) have demonstrated improved social and emotional skills, positive attitudes, prosocial behaviors, and academic achievement. Enhanced SEL skills in childhood have also been associated with long-term positive effects on adolescents’ well-being and adjustment (Taylor, Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg, 2017).

What Can Parents Do to Foster Their Children’s SEL?

Parents Should Assess Their Own Priorities

Exactly how much emphasis are parents putting on academic achievement compared to social and emotional skills? What types of questions do parents ask their children at the end of a school day? “What did you get on your spelling test?” vs. “Were you kind to anyone today?” “How did that math test go?” vs. “Do you think you put forth your best effort on all of your school tasks today?” The questions we ask our children at the end of a school day often reflect our own priorities and concerns for them.

Encourage Children to Predict and Estimate Skills

For example, “How quickly do you think you can complete this puzzle?” “How many of these spelling words do you think you’ll get correct when we go over them tonight?” Then, compare your child’s actual performance to his/her prediction and have them discuss why there may have been a discrepancy between their prediction and actual performance. This helps children become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. (Self-Awareness)

Discuss Emotions

When children are experiencing various emotions, both positive and negative emotions, discuss these emotions with them. If your child is visibly upset and screams “leave me alone” at their sibling, give them time to calm down and then ask “What were you feeling when you screamed at your sister?” Take time to reassure them that various emotions are normal and okay (even negative emotions can be adaptive and shouldn’t necessarily be chastised), while at the same time, making sure they can label various emotions and they have a sense of the triggers for these emotions. (Self-Awareness)

Encourage Children to Think About Their Role in Peer Interactions

For example, when your child says “X wanted me to play with her at recess today” ask her why X may have wanted her to play together at recess. Did she do something nice to X? Did she smile at X? Likewise, when your child says “X was mean to me today” ask her why she thinks X was mean to her. “Could X have perceived anything you did as upsetting?” (Social-Awareness)

Help Your Child Practice Impulse Control by Giving Them Plenty of Experiences Requiring Delayed Gratification

At the dinner table when your child asks for more milk, purposely wait a few minutes before giving them more milk. When your child eagerly wants to tell you something, have them wait a minute or two. Be sure to send the message that you want to hear what they have to say, but ask them to wait a minute.

For example, say to your child “Hold on. I want to listen to you, but give me a minute to finish this task and then I’ll listen.” If and when you see your child becoming frustrated with having to wait, give them strategies for managing that emotion. For instance, if they are becoming impatient and fidgety as they wait for more milk, ask them to talk about something else during the wait time. You can say “Rather than get upset, let’s think about that trip to the apple orchard this weekend. What are you most hoping we’ll do there?” (Self-Management)

Help Children Develop Frustration Tolerance

Simply put, in order to become more tolerant of frustration, children must experience frustration. We can give our children more experience with frustration by not jumping in to alleviate their struggles too quickly. When your preschooler gets frustrated because their crayon has broken while coloring, don’t be too quick to get a new crayon or fix the broken crayon. Either sit back and observe them work through the situation, or, if they seek your help, encourage them to take a few more minutes to figure out a solution.

For example, when your 10 year old, who is sitting comfortably on the couch, asks you to grab the Kindle charger for them because the Kindle just ran out of battery, respond by saying “Since it’s your Kindle I think you should get the charger yourself.” Sure, since you’re already standing and may even be closer to the charger, it is likely easier for you to just grab it. However, this is a scenario where the experience of having to deal with the frustration of getting off the couch and getting the Kindle charger is likely to contribute to your child’s growing tolerance with frustration. (Self-Management)

Encourage Children to Think About How Other People Feel

When your child is on the winning team after a neighborhood kickball game, ask them how their friends on the other team may be feeling. When they are on the losing team the following evening, remind them of the previous night and say “I wonder if this is how the other team felt last night. What do you think?” When one sibling gets upset because no one else in the family wanted to watch their preferred movie, have your other children think about how that sibling must feel. (Relationship Skills)

Encourage Them to Develop Good Listening Skills

Children can benefit from the explicit reminders of looking at people when they are talking, not interrupting or finishing others’ sentences, putting down electronic devices when someone is trying to talk to you, etc. (Relationship Skills)

Give Your Children Plenty of Opportunities to Make Decisions

Be sure you have them follow-through with their decisions, including the potential consequences. While all children need boundaries and guidance, it’s never too early to let children begin making their own decisions. Preschoolers can be allowed to choose which of two shirts (i.e., you pick out two appropriate shirts and then let them choose one) they will wear on a particular day. Elementary school-aged children can be allowed to decide what type of fruit you’ll put in their lunchbox (i.e., you are sending the message that a fruit needs to be in their lunch, but you’re letting them choose which one).

As they get a little older, you can allow children to decide when they will do homework. If your child says that they will do it after dinner because they want to play on their Kindle or watch TV before dinner, let them make that decision and then confront the consequences. That is, when they still have three pages of homework left, but it’s bedtime, and they have not showered, you can then enforce the rules about bedtime and ask them how they will deal with not having their homework complete. Perhaps they’ll agree to get up early in the morning and do it. Perhaps they will be willing to go to school and face consequences from the teacher. In either case, they are more likely to take responsibility for and learn from their poor decision if they are the ones who made the decision. (Responsible Decision Making)

Recommendations in Real Life

In full disclosure, I am the first to admit that many of these recommendations are easier in theory than in practice. Oftentimes, as parents, we feel as if we are in survival mode, just trying to manage the multitude of tasks and stressors that come with parenting.  We aren’t necessarily strategizing or thinking the most clearly when we engage with or respond to our children. However, note that many of these strategies can be embedded into daily activities.   The more we practice these strategies the more habitual they become. Further, taking even one minute to consider our priorities for our children (e.g., asking ourselves if our top priority is to raise academic superstars or to raise well-adjusted and kind children) can have a significant impact on how we interact with our children, in turn prompting more emphasis on their social and emotional skills.

Picture of Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Mary Beth Leibham, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loras College (Iowa), a master's degree in developmental psychology from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University. Her early research interests focused on children's cognitive development, particularly the family and home factors related to young girls’ emerging science interests and science academic motivation. More recently, her research has focused on academic motivation, perfectionism, self-compassion, growth vs. fixed mindsets, and overparenting. Mary Beth teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent development, educational psychology, and exceptional children. Despite her extensive formal training in child development, Mary Beth’s most significant, impactful, and humbling learning experiences have come from her own four children and husband.