Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Social-Emotional Awareness: What Is It and How Do I Help My Child Get It?

About this time last year, I was getting my son ready for his first day of kindergarten. Truth be told, I was also getting myself ready, and for good reason. I'll never forget embracing him one last time and then watching as he bravely walked into the classroom, calm and courageous despite the tears running slowly down his face.  It was a huge step toward independence. It was also a step that put his social-emotional skills to the test--he had to trust that he could feel his emotions, manage them, and take on the new experience that had been placed in front of him.

Indeed, successful navigation of the kindergarten world requires solid social-emotional awareness-- child's ability "to experience, regulate and express emotions, to form close and secure interpersonal relationships, and to explore his or her environment, and learn, all in the context of family, community, and culture" (SEFEL) Or, in the words of Robert Fulgham, All [you] really need to know, [you] learned in kindergarten:

"Share everything, play fair, don't hit people...don't take things that aren't yours...clean up your own mess...say you're sorry when you hurt somebody...live a balanced life--learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some everyday...(and) when you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together." 

These lessons, learned in the early childhood and elementary years, are important parts of development. Knowing how to regulate emotions and interact well with others is a cornerstone of learning. Good social-emotional awareness is also one of the predictors of success in this great big world of ours.

How to work on social-emotional awareness?
  • Provide your child with a safe, loving, responsive environment in which he can grow and learn and play.  It is through caring relationships with parents that children begin to develop social emotional wellness. 
  • Get your child together to play with other peers. Allow him to practice skills such as turn-taking, resolving conflict, and sharing; support him as needed during the play-dates to help him be successful.
  • Help your child talk about his feelings. Work with him so that he learns to recognize them, name them, and manage them. One way to do this is to use books to help introduce and expand the topic of feelings.  For example, check out this post on using "I Was So Mad" to discuss feeling angry. Remind your child that feelings are always okay--acknowledge your child's feelings without trying to fix them. Then teach him what to do with those feelings.
  • Discuss your own feelings. Use yourself and situations that come up in your life to model the choices you make when you are angry/sad/frustrated/happy. Show your child how you pause and take breaths before reacting, or how you write in a journal when you are sad; how you list out options when you are frustrated by a problem, and how you hug and kiss those you love when you are happy to see them.
  • Practice dealing with intense emotions before the situation comes up. Teach your child, for example, to how to recognize when anger first starts and use strategies to stop before responding. Practice, practice, practice. You are your child's coach-- run drills over and over so that when game day arrives, he'll know exactly what to do. 
This is just the tip of the iceberg of social-emotional awareness- there is much to learn and many resources available to help you do so. A great starting point is by going to the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning website run by Vanderbilt University.  I was recently introduced to this website by an early childhood teacher in our Birth-to-Three program and I am stunned at what an amazing resource it truly is:

  • The practical strategies section has a wide variety of strategies for parents and teachers on promoting social-emotional awareness. There are free, printable scripted stories such as the one about Tucker Turtle and how he learns to control his feelings and calm down by "thinking like a turtle" (tuck inside your shell and take three breaths before responding--something we all need reminders to do every now and then!). The scripted stories are to be used with young children--they each explicity teach important strategies for different social-emotional skills. 
  • And then there's the Book Nook section, at the bottom of the page of practical strategies. It's chock full of books into which lessons of social-emotional can be woven.  Each book that is listed in this section has a PDF of accompanying lesson plans full of suggestions for expanding the social-emotional lessons of the book. My favorite? The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn: a beautiful story about a young raccoon who is afraid to leave his mother and go off into the world of school...until his mother teaches him that, by gently placing a kiss in the palm of his hand, she is sending her love out into the world with him.  And that story, my dear readers, is what got me through my son's first day of kindergarten.


  1. Thanks Amy! Had you previously seen the CSEFEL website? Such good stuff! (As is your website, of course! Just read the post on the relationship between a parent/child relationship and a child's development of self-control--important stuff.