Unlocking the power of social-emotional learning


Rosie Byrnes


Learn how you can help support healthy social-emotional learning at home with your child!

In times of social distancing and emotional exhaustion, it’s tough to be a kid. Find out how you can support healthy social-emotional learning in your child, and how these skills can lay the foundation for a brighter future.

What is social-emotional learning?

Social-emotional learning (sometimes abbreviated “SEL”) is an umbrella term which, in all its magnitude, can be defined in many different ways. Most experts agree that, at the very least, social-emotional learning encompasses the process by which people learn to develop social competenc, establish their identities, create and work toward achieving goals, manage their emotions, maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions which align with their personal values.

Sounds like a lot, right? That’s because it is! Social-emotional learning constitutes a huge piece of our development as healthy human beings, and it’s definitely not limited to childhood. Even as adults, each of us is always learning to adjust and improve our social-emotional skills to function well in our own lives.

And, although SEL may be gaining more popularity in school curriculums, it’s definitely nothing new. These “soft” skills, while not always given the same attention as math and literacy, are quickly being recognized as essential predictors of future success and well-being.

Why teach SEL to kids?

As the world continues to adjust to the changes of the pandemic, learning to navigate social situations and develop healthy emotional skills is more important than ever before. Apart from the necessary resiliency and ability to adapt to these kinds of rapid and dramatic changes, school closures mean that kids have fewer opportunities for organic social interaction.

Former “playground skills” like conflict resolution, leadership, and collaboration that often develop out of interactive free play may not have the chance to do so while kids are isolated—so it’s up to us to create an environment where kids can still hone and practice these skills.

Taking the time to ensure that kids develop healthy social-emotional skills can have profound effects on their future. As more and more educators incorporate SEL programs in their classrooms, research studies across the globe are confirming their significance.

One meta-analysis in 2011 analyzed the results of over 270,000 K-12 students in various SEL programs, and found that students who had been explicitly taught these skills in school showed significant advancements in social interaction, behavior, emotional skills, and attitude, among other improvements.

In studies as far apart as China, Kosovo, and the United States, researchers have found that social-emotional competence was also a predictor for academic success.

Students can feel the impact, as well.

In 2018, researchers asked high schoolers to report how well they thought their classmates got along with one another. In schools with a strong focus on social-emotional learning, 89% of students said they thought students at their school got along well with one another, compared to just 46% of students from schools without a strong emphasis on SEL.

When it comes to social-emotional skills, we can’t afford to let the next generation fall behind. As mental health concerns in children and adolescents continue to jeopardize their well-being, we can’t ignore the importance of helping kids develop healthy social interactions and emotional intelligence.

Where do I start?

While social-emotional learning encompasses a wide array of skills, there’s no need to be overwhelmed. Like anything else, beginning with small steps will lead to a strong foundation for SEL success.

Remember, the process of developing these skills can be different for everyone—so don’t be afraid to improvise, and have fun!

1. Make Space for SEL

Whether you can create a physical space dedicated to social-emotional learning or you simply set aside five minutes of each day to talk about it, it’s important to make SEL a part of kids’ daily routines.

If you can, try making a Calm Down Corner or “time-in” space. This is an area of the room for kids to work through tough emotions or take a moment to unwind. It should be a quiet, cozy place; try using cushions, coloring sheets, soft music, squishy toys, calming smells… You can even display ideas for calming strategies, like taking a deep breath or counting to ten.

Make space in your day for SEL by having regular “Family Meetings,” in which participants can share their thoughts and emotions, and work on solving problems together. Your meetings can be as long or short as you’d like. They can include everything from giving compliments to role-playing social situations.

By giving social-emotional learning its own corner of the room, or its own block on the schedule, you communicate to kids that it’s as important as learning any other subject—and you have a ready-made opportunity to address any issue that could arise in the future.

2. Find opportunities for diverse interaction

Social-emotional skills vary greatly from person to person, and from situation to situation. To help kids develop a well-rounded set of skills, be sure that they have a chance to interact with a wide variety of other people.

If you’re teaching SEL at home, it may come naturally for you to focus on the social situations that arise within your family. But family relationships are only one type of social interaction your child will experience.

Embolden your child’s social-emotional skills by diversifying the people they interact with; consider what skills they’ll need to have healthy relationships with their friends, their teachers, other adults… Even strangers and people they don’t get along with.

Role playing activities can be especially helpful with this. You can also organize video calls, write letters to pen pals, read books about people in other parts of the world and with different experiences, and so much more. Broadening kids’ perspectives is one critical step to developing empathy and positive interactions even in unfamiliar situations.

3. Look for the “teachable moments”

While we can take the time to teach social-emotional learning explicitly, many of these skills are best learned organically. Our days are filled with social interactions and emotional exchanges; by noticing these as they occur, and allowing kids to work through them, you can provide instant practical insight on how these concepts apply in reality.

Notice when your child has difficulty in navigating social situations, and use these as a foundation for building new skills. Invite them to think of different solutions, and encourage them to try these out.

Practicing mindfulness and self-awareness can be a great tool in aiding this process, as well!

4. Set an example

When it comes to social-emotional learning, the sentiment “do as I say, not as I do” isn’t going to work. Kids learn by observation, and watching how you handle tough situations will inform how they deal with similar obstacles in the future.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make any mistakes—quite the opposite! Many adults have an instinct to hide our flaws from children, perhaps out of a fear that they’ll discover we’re less-than-perfect. But, let’s face it: it’s exhausting to be perfect all the time!

By sharing our vulnerabilities with kids, we open the door for them to confide in us as well, and can even invite them to help us solve a problem. You may be surprised at how insightful they can be!

A Day In Ms. Rosie’s class:

We use a “Calm Down Corner” in our classroom—a space where students can color, squeeze a ball, or just take a moment to recharge. One student found it especially helpful in calming his temper, and used it regularly.

Once, while my class was in P.E., something in my personal life had me feeling extremely angry. I knew I couldn’t hide my feelings from my class, and I didn’t want to negatively affect their learning. I decided to go to the Calm Down Corner.

I was there when my students returned, and after assuring them that I was upset about something outside of class (and not with them), many expressed concern and empathy. The student who frequented the Calm Down Corner asked if I was feeling frustrated. I told him I was, and he asked if I wanted to talk about it—the same things I said to him each time he’d been upset in the past. I was laughing within minutes, my anger forgotten.

After that, students used the Calm Down Corner more than ever. There were fewer outbursts in class, and I never missed an opportunity to let my students help cheer me up. I was amazed at my students’ display of empathy and understanding that day; they were amazed that grown-ups sometimes feel the same overwhelming feelings they do.