How to Teach Your Kid Social-Emotional Skills From Day One

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Many first-time pandemic parents are worried: Are their children are on-track with their social and emotional skills? With the world in lockdown mode for the better part of two years, many babies born in or after 2020 have missed out on the usual playdates, birthday parties, music classes, and other opportunities for frequent socialization with their peers—times they would normally be developing lifelong social skills. But the good news is, there are ways parents can develop and bolster social-emotional learning from day one.

What is social-emotional learning?

“Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children develop the critical skills of empathy, communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, and emotion management,” says Tia Kim, Ph.D., vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children. “These life-long skills prepare kids to build and maintain positive relationships, excel academically, make responsible decisions, and collaborate in the workplace.”

Why is social-emotional learning important for kids?

While social-emotional skills can be learned and taught throughout a person’s life, research has found that kindergarteners who were stronger in SEL competence were more likely to graduate from high school, complete a college degree, and obtain stable employment in young adulthood.

“We know children’s social-emotional development is critical to their life success,” says Dr. Kim. “A 2017 research study found that SEL benefits children for months and even years, including a 13-point increase in academic achievement, positive attitudes and social behaviors, and a decrease in likelihood of conduct problems, emotional distress, or drug use.”

How parents can teach SEL skills from day one

Parents can begin teaching children basic versions of these foundational life skills from a very young age—and they should. “Research suggests that many of young kids’ social-emotional skills are learned through their relationships with their parents,” Dr. Kim says. Here are some of the concrete ways families can support social-emotional development throughout their child’s early life.

Practice responsive care. The World Health Organization defines responsive caregiving as “the ability of the caregiver to notice, understand, and respond to the child’s signals in a timely and appropriate manner.” Calling it “essential for ensuring children’s health, nutrition, safety and security,” the WHO recommends all infants and children receive responsive care during their first three years of life. (This means, contrary to some old-school popular wisdom, you can’t “spoil” a baby by holding them “too much.”)

Essentially, Dr. Kim notes, responsive care matches caregiving to a baby’s needs, so the baby knows they are loved and safe. “It may seem like a no-brainer to some folks, but this is why it’s really important to be affectionate with infants by touching, holding, comforting, rocking, singing and talking to babies, even when they’re fussy,” says Dr. Kim.

Teach problem-solving early. When children are as young as 12-24 months old, parents can begin to teach their kids how to solve problems confidently. If your toddler is trying to figure something out on their own, such as how to open a jar, allow them time to attempt to solve it by themselves. Praise the process of problem-solving, and celebrate their persistence and determination. Dr. Kim gives the following example: “Good thinking! You were very resourceful in opening the lid to that jar. Sometimes it helps to use a dish towel to get a better grip. Try opening it with this.”

Foster healthy conflict resolution skills. Parents can teach toddlers how to solve conflict in healthy, appropriate ways by helping their child understand how their behavior makes someone else feel, using brief sentences and simple language. “I know you want that toy. But when we take toys from others they feel sad. Let’s take turns.”

Validate their emotions. When a toddler has tantrums, which they inevitably will, instead of immediately trying to get them to stop, label and validate how they’re feeling. “Sometimes when children are upset, parents hurry to fix things and make the unpleasant feelings go away because we want to protect kids from any pain. However, it’s important for kids to learn how to cope with difficult feelings they may have throughout life. Research has found that labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them,” says Dr. Kim.

For example, a parent might say: “I see you’re mad you can’t watch TV right now. It’s time to go to the store. When you are done being mad, I’ll help you put your shoes on.” Naming feelings helps kids recognize and have compassion for others when they experience difficult emotions.

Model and practice empathy. Hand in hand with validating emotions is modeling empathy towards your child. When you see they are upset, before entering into “correcting” the behavior, connect and empathize with them. Inquire about their emotions. “Are you feeling frustrated because your coat won’t zip? It’s okay to feel frustrated. When you feel better, do you want me to help you with it?” Frequent practice talking about feelings (their own and the feelings of others) will go a long way towards developing empathy—and their ability to have successful friendships down the road.

When to worry about your kid’s social-emotional skills, and where to seek help

Every child will develop social and emotional skills at different paces. But, in conjunction with ongoing communication with your child’s pediatrician, parents can consult the CDC’s Developmental Milestones checklist to assess whether their child may be experiencing a developmental delay. (The CDC checklist was recently revised from milestones that 50% of children were expected to hit by certain ages, to include milestones that 75% of children are expected to hit by certain ages). Dr. Kim notes that while the milestones checklist is not a substituted for standardized developmental screening tools, it can be a valuable resource for early detection of potential delays.

If you find yourself concerned your child isn’t meeting developmental guidelines, always reach out to your child’s pediatrician first. “I think it’s important for parents to remember to stay calm and know that social-emotional skills can be learned and taught throughout life,” says Dr. Kim. “Each child is different and will develop in different ways, so it’s never too late to start fostering these skills in your child.” Throughout, stay in communication with teachers and childcare providers to ensure the best possible outcome for your child.

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