Social Emotional Development
Developing Social-Emotional Skills
Understanding their own feelings helps children know how to express themselves and how to behave in difficult situations. Understanding the feelings of others helps children build strong friendships and learn fairness and compassion.
- Set practical goals for your child’s social skills development. Limit your requests and be clear when you ask your child to act differently. For example, asking a child to keep his body still is clearer than asking him to be good. Plan social events at good times of the day for your child, and don’t let them last too long. A hungry or tired child may behave poorly in a new situation that could otherwise be fun. Say clearly what happens if rules are not followed, and always follow through on any results you’ve stated.
- Set daily routines to help your child learn order and structure. For example, a daily routine might include choosing a shirt, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and then brushing teeth at the same time every morning. When your child completes tasks and routines without being distracted, give a lot of praise.
- Model good behavior in settings where your child must be polite, honest, or make mistakes without getting upset. Talk with your child about different kinds of feelings, and show how to be caring toward others. For example, small children will quickly learn to ask a crying person if he or she needs a tissue or a hug. Remind your child often of polite words to use, such as, “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” or “Are you okay?” Practice how to wait until the other person is done talking in a conversation and how to nicely say no to a friend’s request. If your child gets upset or throws a tantrum, try to stay calm. A parent who gets upset during a tantrum will only reinforce bad behavior. Instead, calmly tell your child to ask for what he or she wants without crying or whining. Another plan that may be useful is calmly setting a time-out period where the child decides when he or she is ready to come out.
- Let your child pay attention to one thing at a time. Often the toys or activities children choose give them a chance to practice a new skill at their own rate and in their own way. Make time to play with your child. You can pretend to be a patient for the doctor or a customer at a restaurant. Don’t be surprised if your child often picks the same activity or toy, or if he or she stays on one task longer than expected. Your child will move on to the next thing when the time is right.
- Encourage your child to play with other children. He or she will learn to show feelings, to respect others by sharing and taking turns, and how to get along with new people. When children are very young, invite one or two other children of the same age to play in your home.
- Assist independent thinking by going along with your child’s pretend play. Your child’s imaginary play is made up of his or her first original ideas, and it’s important to show that you value those ideas. Encourage your child’s creativity by playing along even when it feels silly. Provide dress-up clothes, pretend or real kitchen items, or puppets for creative play. Offer your child plain paper rather than printed coloring books. Ask your child to describe things he or she likes or dislikes and tell you why. Start a “This is Me” album for keepsakes or pictures your child decides are important. This album may become a journal or diary as he or she grows older.
The early childhood section of the mental health tool kit from Bright Futures at Georgetown University includes PDFs of articles and activities related to fears, sleep, limit setting, creating special time, behavior, communication, sibling interaction, and time outs.
Free Spirit Publishing offers books for children and parents about children’s social-emotional needs.