These days it can feel like a simple daily routine like turning on the evening news or preparing your child for their school day has the potential to elicit a sense of overwhelm, worry or distress. It seems that our neurological systems are becoming increasingly inundated (and at times…desensitized) to the constant feed of graphic images and harsh dialogue that creates and perpetuates fear and hate, and illustrates our world as chaotic and unpredictable. How are we to help children develop strong social emotional skills, when there are so many adults in our culture that publicly display poor self-control? Has our focus on academic readiness & achievement, and rapid advancements in technology, overshadowed the importance of developing empathy for others, waiting, taking turns, and sharing among even our youngest learners?

Even during the most difficult times and experiences, however, opportunities arise to find inspiration and hope. We have a vital need and responsibility to share positivity with others, and to advocate for children and the importance of teaching them the paths and strategies that help them connect and cooperate successfully with others. So let’s take a closer look at Social Emotional Learning and learn techniques that help children (and adults) successfully regulate their emotions, and establish and maintain meaningful relationships with peers, family members, teachers, and eventually future employers and partners.

Social Emotional Learning is about facilitating a student’s development of a range of skills they need for school, life and future work roles. Social-Emotional skills include the ability to:

  • Understand and Manage Emotions
  • Set and Achieve Positive Goals
  • Feel and Show Empathy for Others
  • Establish and Maintain Positive Relationships
  • Make Responsible Decisions

All of these skills are necessary—both for students and adults—to function well in the classroom, in the community, and in college and future careers.  Educators are finding that a focus on Social Emotional Learning is contributing to positive school climates and improved academic success.

Emotional Self-Regulation refers to an individual’s ability to monitor, evaluate and modify emotional reactions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to control impulsivity. What might seem like a reasonable expectation of managing emotions and controlling impulses, actually requires the integration of a complex neurological system. Research has provided much evidence that validates how optimal human function and higher-level cognition (executive functioning- organizing our thoughts, demonstrating flexibility, problem-solving, and resolving conflict) is dependent upon basic physiological needs being met first. Our basic need for safety, food, water, shelter, and love are part of the foundational underpinning upon which other blocks of developmental, academic, social and emotional skills begin to build. Therefore, families, educators, therapists and medical professionals must give careful consideration to a child’s living conditions, social supports, exposure to trauma, and medical conditions, and how these factors may impact a child’s readiness for Social Emotional Learning.

Strategies for Developing Social Emotional Skills:

  1. Self Reflect: As mentioned above, it is imperative that adults caring for children (parents, educators, etc) take time to self-reflect and utilize strategies that help us model healthy emotional regulation. While it can feel challenging to detangle ourselves from the web of negativity that surrounds us in the media, politics, acts of violence in our communities, natural disasters, social problems, educational concerns, medical fears, financial worries…We have to find strategies that help us become safe harbors for our children!
  2. Breathing. Mindfulness: Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain. Try making a Mind Jar to help children visualize the transition between an “intense swirl” of emotions and a return to calm (that can be aided with time and breathing).
  3. Get Out in Nature. Spending time outdoors with friends and/or family has both physical and social emotional benefits. Don’t forget your sand shovel, snow hat or rain boots. It is important to expose children to play experiences in various weather elements to develop flexibility with different sensory experiences.
  4. Exercise. Turn off the technology and get out in the fresh air to play a game that requires reciprocal activity. Playing catch, kicking a ball, or even playing fetch with your dog enhances eye contact, communication, and expends physical stress and energy. Check out top sports activities that are beneficial for children with sensory needs. Along with exercise, is the importance of proper sleep habits and nutritional intake.
  5. Develop a Gratitude Practice. One of our favorite routines is asking each other at dinner ”What was best part of your day?” or having a Blessing Jar at the table where you can write a daily blessing (reflect intermittently or at the end of the month/year). Modeling a daily gratitude practice helps to teach children to focus on positive people, influences and events in their lives.
  6. Encourage Imaginative Play. Imaginative play helps children develop shared experiences and practice various roles that help them develop empathy, flexibility and perspective sharing.
  7. Play Board Games. Unlike video games, good old fashioned board games develop social skills, including eye contact, turn taking, and sharing game pieces & physical space. In addition, board games offer a natural context for developing emotional awareness and regulation. Don’t manipulate the game so your child always wins! Learning to manage disappointment is equally as important as experiencing pride with a win!
  8. Humor. Laughter is good for the soul. SMILE. Teach children to lighten the intensity of their interactions by finding common ground and sprinkling in some humor.

  1. Connect with Grandparents & Individuals of Different Religions, Ethnic Groups and Races. Teaching children kindness, empathy, and civic responsibility comes easily when children develop meaningful, intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships throughout early childhood.
  2. Connect with your Faith. Parents sharing & teaching children about their beliefs in a Higher Power- God, Jesus, Allah, the Universe, Energy Source- helps children learn that, in addition to a trusted adult, there is a presence that they can trust and request help from during challenges.
  3. Talk to your Child’s Pediatrician. Start a dialogue with your child’s physician about any concerns you may have about your child’s emotional development or social skills, as well as any concerns with their eating or sleep routines, or physical development. They may be able to refer you to a specialist (see below) or assess the potential need for a pharmaceutical intervention. Feel confident that discussing your concerns with your child’s pediatrician does not mean that you must initiate an intervention, but that you are raising a concern and want it to be on the physician’s radar for future follow-up appointments.
  4. Seek Professional Support from a Clinician that Specializes in Self-Regulation, Social Skills & Social Emotional Learning: Occupational Therapists, Clinical Social Workers, School Psychologists, School Counselors, Speech Therapists, Child Life Specialists, & Educators. You may wish to inquire about their knowledge of the following Programs & Curriculum that facilitate development of Emotional Self-Regulation & Social Emotional Learning:
  • The Alert Program: Developed by Occupational Therapists Sherry Shellenberger and Mary Sue Williams, The Alert Program incorporates sensory integration techniques with cognitive approaches to help children (and adults) learn to monitor, maintain and change their level of alertness so that it is appropriate to the situation or task. Well known for their analogy of “How does your Engine Run?”, their child-centered vocabulary and resources help adults develop improved self-awareness, and communicate more effectively with children throughout the learning process.
  • Zones of Regulation: Developed by Occupational Therapist Leah M. Kuypers, Zones of Regulation is a curriculum designed to help develop improved self-regulation and emotional control. Learning activities are designed to help students recognize when they are in different states called “zones,” with each of four zones represented by a different color. Students learn how to use strategies or tools to stay in a zone or transition from one to another. Students explore calming techniques, cognitive strategies, and sensory supports so they will have a toolbox of methods to use to transition between zones. To deepen students’ understanding of how to self-regulate, the lessons set out to teach students these skills: how to read others’ facial expressions and recognize a broader range of emotions, perspective about how others see and react to their behavior, insight into events that trigger their less regulated states, and when and how to use tools and problem solving skills. Check out the apps created to complement the Zones of Regulation program!
  • Social Thinking: Founded by Michelle Garcia Winner, SLP, MA, CCC, Social Thinking is a treatment framework designed to help individuals develop their social thinking and social skills in order to optimize function by learning to work as part of a team, developing relationships with family/friends/classmates/etc., and sharing space effectively with others. Social Thinking offers an array of great products to facilitate social emotional learning.
  • Positive Action: A systematic educational program that promotes an intrinsic interest in learning and encourages cooperation among students. It works by teaching and reinforcing the intuitive philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions.
  • Growth Mindset: Mindset Works was co-founded by Psychologists, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. & Lisa S. Blackwell, and Ph.D. A growth mindset is the underlying belief that abilities can be developed through effort and practice. Children with a growth mindset persist in the face of challenges because they understand that effort and hard work can change ability and intelligence. A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is static, and cannot be changed. When children are in a fixed mindset, they tend to give up easily when they encounter obstacles, because they believe that they don’t have what it takes to learn hard things.

    Christina Connors, OTR/L received her degree in Occupational Therapy from Towson University in Baltimore, MD, and has been working as an Occupational Therapist with children and adults since 2002. Inspired by her son’s medical journey, and her desire to ease anxiety and improve age-appropriate communication for children and families facing medical challenges, Christina developed Child Inspired in collaboration with artist John Donato. Child Inspired is working to bring a blend of Art, Therapy and Functional Communication to healthcare and education settings in order to bridge the needs of children, families and healthcare & education professionals.