While schools play a large role in teaching, modeling, and creating opportunities for educating children, all learning, including social-emotional learning, starts in the home.
From day one, our children are learning about themselves, their needs, and the responsiveness of others around them to those needs. As toddlers, children experience sensations and, when they don’t recognize the sensations or when they do not know what to do with them, their brainstem is activated. In the brainstem, a child's "fight, flight, or freeze" impulse is activated, and we see a dysregulated child who isn’t listening. And while our children are born with these sensations and urges, actually expressing, and managing them takes practice.
Social-Emotional Learning Starts Early
Research shows that by the time a child is three-years-old, their brain is already 80% of their adult size. By the time children are school-aged (3 to 5), adults are increasingly asking them to "sit still, be quiet, and listen", but if young children have not been taught the skills required to carry out these requests, then expecting children to perform them is like expecting a newborn baby to tie their shoes or a toddler to solve an algebra equation.
The good news is, that with modeling, children can be taught the fundamental components of social and emotional skills before they are asked to apply them; things like self-awareness, impulse control, emotional regulation, and more can be taught in age-appropriate, play-based and child-led ways long before children are placed in a school or group learning environment.
When schools and families collaborate to help children learn, a bridge is formed that helps close the learning gap that exists in our society today. By putting a stop to punitive discipline practices like time-outs, being sent to the principals' office, in-home suspensions, and more, we are putting a stop to the very same harmful, negative-reinforcing measures that contribute to the school to prison pipeline.
What Is Social-Emotional Learning?
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are 5 key skills to social-emotional learning:
1. Self-awareness: This is your child’s ability to notice feeling sensations within their body and name them. I feel mad because he took my toy or I feel happy when I work hard.
2. Self-management: When we teach our children how to manage the sensations in their bodies, they learn the skills of regulation. Eventually, this co-regulation leads to self-regulation of emotions and behaviors and develops skills such as problem-solving and impulse control. When I felt mad, I took three breaths or When I felt determined, I focused on my project.
3. Social awareness: This is when your child moves from “me” to “we” and understands, empathizes, and feels compassion for others. My friend looked sad so I gave her a hug.
4. Relationship skills: Making friends is a skill that involves many higher-level functions such as conflict resolution, open communication, and seeing others’ viewpoints. We want something different. How can we both win?
5. Responsible Decision Making: This is when your child explores and understands her values and beliefs and uses her ethical compass when making decisions. If I choose not to study, what are some likely outcomes?
While these are important skills for academic and personal success and happiness, it begs an important question: Why wait to teach these skills until a child starts school and is expected to use them? Social-emotional learning takes time and practice and by starting at home at a young age, we afford children both.
Social-Emotional Learning And School Readiness
Children cannot learn when they are struggling to follow directions, get along with their peers, and control their emotions in a classroom setting. When children struggle with these skills, they are more likely to have social troubles at school, resorting to inappropriate expressions of frustration such as hitting, biting, and screaming. Why? Simply put, they are stuck in their brainstem.
For a child to shift out of their primitive brain into a high-functioning learning brain, they must first have the tools for noticing, naming, and calming their emotions. A child who does not yet have these skills often experiences challenges in the learning environment because, just like a baby or toddler, when they feel over or underwhelmed, or have an unmet need, they express it with whatever tools they have been given. And if a child doesn’t yet know how to shift from the brainstem to higher parts of the brain, their protective responses will hijack learning. For our children to learn, they must know how to regulate.
Develop Social-Emotional Learning At Home
1. Use everyday experiences. Families can organically grow social-emotional skills by using everyday life experiences - trips to the grocery store, playing a board game, responding to their sibling who took their toy, and so forth. Every instance is a real-world learning opportunity to plan, problem-solve, and reflect as children grow their social-emotional skills. This empowers families to use life’s moments, both pleasant and unpleasant, as ways to help their child learn and grow.
2. Offer Time-Ins. Time-Ins are a useful tool in managing daily experiences and to playfully teach kids about their feelings. When a child is feeling big emotions, use the space to help them notice the sensations in their body, name them, and select strategies for calming. Once children self-reflect and regulate, they are better able to work on the other facets of SEL. Here are some tips about time-ins:
- Create a safe space to feel with your child.
- Introduce the space during non-elevated moments to intrinsically motivate your child to go there when regulated and create safety to return when dysregulated.
- Playfully introduce emotions and calming strategies through games and age-appropriate books.
- Go there with your child. Before a child can self-regulate, they must learn the skills through co-regulation. With your child, help them revisit what happened, how they felt, and if another person was involved, how they may have felt about what happened, too. Encourage problem-solving and prompt make-ups and redos.
- Go there yourself. Model using the space during your big feelings, too. Your child will learn just by watching you identify your emotions and selecting a calming strategy.
3. Join forces with schools. Parents and teachers are in partnership for the well-being of a child and there are many ways parents can help with SEL in their child’s school. A few suggestions include volunteering in committees responsible for overseeing the programs that support social and emotional learning, organizing guest speakers, and celebrating different cultures. If a school doesn’t have any programs around social and emotional learning, begin the conversation to create a web of support.
Parents can start teaching emotional intelligence from birth in the way they respond to their children’s needs, help them identify emotions, offer a vocabulary to name those feelings, and teach calming strategies. When children feel more comfortable with these skills, they are better equipped for SEL in the school setting and can better focus to learn socially and academically.
As parents, we are great teachers - it is always within us - because no one knows our child in the way we do. We are the experts in our child’s health and development. And it all starts at home, with our nurturing love and guidance.