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Easy as 1–2–3: Building social emotional skills

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a fairly new concept. At least in the way that it is currently being viewed. SEL is the process in which children and adults learn skills associated with conflict management, emotional regulation, and social skills. It is well accepted that SEL is important in the development of children, but traditionally has been thought of as an activity for children who have deficits in social functioning or emotional management, and that most children just naturally develop emotionally without explicit practice. Actually, these “soft” skills are not much different from other academic skills — they can be developed through small practices that help children to exercise their emotional awareness.

When we begin practicing and learning about emotions at an early age, the building blocks for pro-social development are strengthened and cemented, allowing for children to learn more difficult skills at a later age. Plus, simply put, who wouldn’t want a child to have a better understanding of their own emotions?

Below, I have outlined a few simple strategies to begin developing social emotional skills with children at any age:

1) Feelings Cards —

These are great because they have the markings to play Uno, Go Fish, and any other card games. With very young children you can play memory. When they pull a card that has a particular feeling, you can have them describe a time that they saw someone else feel that way. This is an early way to help children develop an understanding of feelings in other people, reading body language, and ultimately empathy. This is also an important tool in building emotional vocabulary and personal feelings. The uses of these cards are endless, and children love them.

2) Highs and Lows –

This very simple game with a variety of different names is very simple to play. Each person shares the best part of their week/day/hour, and then they share the hardest part of their week/day/hour. There is a lot of modeling occurring in this conversational game. Mostly though, you are opening up space to discuss feelings that are uncomfortable or hard, and allowing children to process those feelings. It’s okay to be angry or frustrated or upset, and that in any normal day, we will all experience a range of emotions.

3) Explicit Story Reading —

I love the book “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss. It serves a similar function as highs and lows do, but has many more elements of learning. By reading stories that explicitly teach children about feelings, social interactions, and other important skills like resilience, making mistakes, etc. we take an active role in working on skills that we want to develop in children. There is literally a dozen books for any particular subject that you would want to address with a child.

4) Calm Down Strategies —

Calm down and mindfulness activities are important for young children to not only learn how to regulate their emotions, but also to connect their feelings to body sensations. Being able to identify the way feelings affect your body is an important skill in regulating your emotions. I linked a site that has some free printables, but the star breathing visual is one of my favorites.

Of course, there are tons of different activities that you can use to facilitate emotional growth in children that range from board games to television programming and art activities. The main thing is that we are deliberate about the learning that we engage children in, and more so, that we value SEL and understand the importance that it plays in our children’s’ lives.

Bryan Heidel, Student Support Manager


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