Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Posted: Monday, May 5th, 2014


We’re very excited to welcome guest blogger Dylan Arena to the blog. Dylan has done some amazing things in the field of education: he’s the co-founder of Kidaptive, holds his Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford, and sits on the board of a local charter school. An early-learning specialist, Dylan wrote a guest post for us about supporting social-emotional learning at home.

Mother together with the son. Tenderness, love and care.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is exciting—and not only because it promises well-behaved, considerate kids! When a child practices social-emotional learning, he is learning how to recognize and manage his emotions and navigate social relationships. Recent research on over 270,000 students showed that those who received SEL instruction outperformed those who didn’t by an average of 11 percentile points on measures of academic achievement.

In short, SEL matters, whether you care about whole-child development or pure academic achievement. So what can we do to equip our children with the social and emotional tools they need to thrive?

What You Can Do

For early learners, there are three foundational aspects of SEL: understanding and expressing their own emotional states; responding to others’ emotional states; and beginning to learn to control their emotional states. (Young children’s brains aren’t yet fully wired to allow them the kinds of emotional control that adults can muster.) Parents can support this learning at home, every day.

Build Social-Emotional Vocabulary

First, help give your child words for the emotions he feels. To a preschooler, feelings like frustration, fear, and boredom can just seem like a bunch of ways of feeling “sad.” Understanding their differences helps pave the way for finding solutions. When you comfort your child, describe the kind of “sad” he’s feeling. You might say, “Whoa, you almost fell off the bed! That must have been scary. I bet you’re crying because you’re feeling scared right now.”

Identify Peer’s Emotions

As your child learns to name different emotional states, you can help him spot those states in others. Many conflicts between young children arise simply because one child doesn’t see how their actions have affected their playmate. Helping kids learn to notice those effects can be powerful. You might help your child observe another child’s emotions like so: “Do you see how your sister’s forehead is scrunched and her mouth is turned down? I can tell that she’s upset. Why do you think she’s upset?”

Learn to Manage Emotions

Now for the hard part: helping children begin to manage their emotions. The part of the brain that controls self-regulation functions doesn’t finish developing until after adolescence. So when a preschooler is in the grip of a tantrum he is literally out of control; he can’t choose to calm down! Trying to reason a child out of the tantrum won’t work, because as long as he’s upset he can’t follow your reasoning. Instead, connect emotionally and offer strategies for riding out the storm. Give your child a hug, help him find a quiet space, or encourage him to breathe deeply, listen to music, or hold a favorite toy. When the waters have calmed, you can talk to your child about what happened to make him upset and what he might do next time to avoid the problem.

In an era in which academic success seems like the end-all-be-all, it can be tempting to focus solely on “the basics” of early learning, like ABC’s and 123’s. But there’s nothing more basic than our emotions; and learning how to manage them and be sensitive to others is a powerful way to succeed in school and in life!

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