What is social-emotional learning?

Preschool-age children are at the perfect developmental moment to begin a lifelong journey of social-emotional learning, or SEL. This is an age when children’s language skills are blossoming and starting to form relationships with people outside their family. It’s the perfect time to begin working on skills like identifying and managing emotions, listening, having a positive attitude, managing stress, problem solving, assertive communication, perseverance, goal setting, and decision making.1

But social-emotional learning isn’t just about other people—it’s about having a positive, thoughtful relationship with yourself too. And the good news is that social-emotional learning is most effective when taught early in a child’s development.2 The even more important news? You as a parent are a key figure in your child’s social-emotional development! The bonds and attachment the two of you have can be a safe place to build, test, and strengthen these skills, and can help model successful, healthy relationships for your child for years to come.3

What are some signs of good social-emotional skills and what are things to work on?

If your child is making friends, saying things that indicate that they have positive self-esteem, spontaneously shares toys or offers to help others, listens well, shares their feelings, and overall seems confident, those are great signs that they’re on their way to healthy social-emotional development.4 But understand that your child might be better at certain social-emotional skills than others—even day-to-day. Remember that this is all new to them, and they are growing and learning and figuring out how the world works and where to focus their energy.4 And after all, some adults—maybe even you—need to work on these skills as well!

Pay attention to moments of negative externalizing—like your child complaining about a peer or saying less-than-positive things about themselves. Those could be momentary frustrations, or a sign of a deeper issue. Either way, it’s a chance for you to listen and reflect with your child on their feelings. Encourage flexible thinking—rather than something happening being “the worst ever,” look at setbacks as opportunity for improvement, a change to identify but not linger on what went wrong, and an opportunity to creatively problem solve.

Most of all, be patient, and focus on both their areas of strength and their opportunities for growth. Feel free to give them both compliments and feedback as needed. Ultimately, the goal with social-emotional learning is to build confidence and resilience while offering safe ways to process any bumps in the road that occur.3

How can you encourage social-emotional learning at home?

Here’s some activities and general tips for helping your child thrive with others and cultivate a healthy sense of self.

  • Let your child play. Play lets your child build problem solving skills and if they’re playing with others, begin to negotiate sharing and demonstrate empathy.5 It’s also an organic learning opportunity for concepts like numbers and letters.

  • A little stress is OK. In fact, it might contribute to your child building those all-important problem-solving skills, build resilience, and learning how to handle negative emotions without completely melting down. (But if they completely melt down, that’s OK too—this is preschool, after all.) Feel free to watch your child confront and handle problems, but don’t intentionally create situations where they’re uncomfortable or likely to have an adverse reaction. Too much stress isn’t good for anyone, particularly not impressionable, developing minds.

  • Mindfulness is a great way to start building those social emotional skills, even indirectly.6 Mindfulness allows kids to begin to pay attention to their body and their feelings, so encourage small, mindful practices as part of everyday activities, and focus on sensory details like what kids can smell, hear, and touch.6 Many social-emotional learning activities have their roots in mindful practice.

  • Cultivate positive self-talk with your kids. You can start each day with an affirmation, like “I am loved,” “I believe in me,” or “I got this,” or encourage small moments of gratitude, like happiness for the sunshine, your favorite color or food, or a family pet.

  • Model as best you can your own-social emotional intelligence.4 This can be tough; parenting can be as stressful as it is rewarding, and none of us is perfect in any moment. It’s OK to admit to your preschooler in an age-appropriate way that you might be struggling with some feelings at times—that actually models social-emotional skills too!3,7

Above all, know that you are a very important model for your child’s growth, and consider thinking about how you can grow along with them. And remember it’s important to feed your preschooler’s mind along with their body—no one has time to reflect on how they’re feeling when they’re feeling hungry.

1. https://smho-smso.ca/emhc/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2020/07/SEL_CommonElementsAnalysis_May12017_final.pdf

2. https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Social-Emotional-Learning-in-Action-Guide.pdf

3. https://www.ourkidsnetwork.ca/Public/Page/Files/97_WTG_PolicePractice_Social-Emotional-Dev%2012.05.14.pdf

4. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2018/promoting-social-and-emotional-health

5. https://empoweredparents.co/social-emotional-activities-for-preschoolers/

6. https://www.weareteachers.com/social-emotional-activities-early-years/

7. https://smho-smso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/SEL-Posters.pdf