Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash
They aren’t usually learned from a textbook, but social and emotional learning skills (SEL) are still critical to your child’s fulfillment and success. To learn more about SEL and how parents support their children’s development of these skills, we talked to Amanda Moreno, an SEL expert and associate professor at Erikson Institute.
What is social and emotional learning when it comes to children? What skills does it help children develop?
There are several ways of defining SEL but in short, it covers non-academic skills that are needed to live a productive, fulfilling life connected to other people. SEL includes skills like emotional regulation, collaboration, social problem solving, kindness, and resilience.
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Why is SEL important? How does it benefit young children, both in the short and long term?
SEL skills used to be referred to as “soft skills." That term is being used less, however, because it makes them sound "touchy-feely” when they are actually the foundation for academic skills. Just imagine how hard it would be to successfully engage in school, work and relationships without SEL skills. Parents usually understand that their children need both book and people smarts, but some SEL skills are less obvious than others. One example is that of a growth mindset.
When someone with a growth mindset encounters a task that’s difficult for them, they assume that they just need to learn more and keep trying. They also recognize that everyone feels that tasks are too hard for them sometimes. In contrast, someone without a growth mindset will assume that they are incapable of completing the task, and always will be — and thus give up.
Through SEL, parents can cultivate their child’s growth mindset by focusing more on process than outcome, and complimenting their efforts rather than static traits such as “smart.” For example, instead of waiting for your child to complete a puzzle or sand castle and then saying “good job,” you can say something like, “Wow, I notice how you keep turning the pieces in different ways,” or, “I see, when the walls of the castle cave in, you dig deeper for more wet sand to keep it in place.”
What strategies can I use to increase my child’s SEL in everyday activities, especially now as life begins to return to normal?
I am not someone who believes that children have dramatically lost skills in quarantine. Sure, they may be a bit rusty when it comes to interacting in larger groups (aren’t we all?), but it will just take some practice and confidence to get comfortable again. For children to regain their confidence in social interactions, they mostly need trust from their parents. Children use “social referencing” in challenging situations: If they look at you during their baseball game and you look nervous, they’ll be nervous, too. We need to find ways to manage our own anxiety and model resiliency. Doing so will help our children build their own.
As my child grows, what behaviors signify developmentally on-track SEL skills?
I love this question, because I think that due to our natural tendency to focus on the negative, it can be hard for parents to recognize growth in SEL skills. For example, we might think that after seeing gains in our child’s frustration tolerance, one big tantrum means all was lost. Instead of focusing on the tantrum, focus on the small wins. Sure, he had a tantrum, but has the amount of time between tantrums increased? Has the length of them decreased? Have certain things that used to be a trigger become easier? SEL development is not a smooth upward path, so be sure to notice the baby steps even when there are bumps in the road.
Are there any resources in the community or classroom that I can access to help my child with SEL?
Most schools do some form of SEL programming nowadays, and it is a good idea to find out what your child’s school is doing and get involved. Most programs have parent resources associated with them, which can help with consistent messaging across school and home. There are also many great resources online such as Zero to Three, CASEL, and Edutopia.
Amanda Moreno, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Erikson Institute where she conducts research, designs and teaches graduate programs, and delivers professional development training on the intersection between emotions and learning.