Building Social-Emotional Skills

social emotionalSocial-emotional development affects children in many different ways.  “Social-emotional” means how children feel about themselves and how they understand others. Healthy social-emotional development contributes to children’s self-confidence, empathy, interpersonal skills, and behavioral/emotional management skills. Just like how we need to keep our body healthy, it is also important to keep our mind healthy.

May 8, 2014 is National Child Mental Health Awareness Day, and Boston Children’s Museum is celebrating its own Mental Health Awareness Day on May 24, 2014. During the event, we will provide fun activities that encourage children’s positive social-emotional development.  And during Tasty Tuesdays in May, we will talk about how we can all support social-emotional development in young children. Come join us and enjoy some snacks and stories as we nurture children’s healthy development in both body and mind!  As a preview, here are some tips for helping your children to develop healthy social-emotional skills:

  1. Talk about feelings.

Knowing what each emotion feels like is an important first step in developing positive social-emotional skills. You can assign words to your child’s feelings and also explain why you know how he feels. “You are smiling. You look very happy!” or “You have a frowny face. Are you upset?” These conversations encourage children to understand how facial expressions or behaviors can be associated to people’s feelings. You can also state your own feelings by saying “When you throw food on the floor, it makes Mom feel upset.” or “I’m happy when you share toys with your friends.”

  1. Use pretend play to understand people’s roles and feelings.

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about pretend play.  As I discussed in the post, children often engage in pretend play to act out what they have observed and experienced. For example, when playing shop, children are making sense of the relationship between the store staff and shoppers and what it means to “buy” something.

Follow along a scenario that your child invents, and you can contribute a little guidance by saying, “Your bear started to dance? What happened to make the bear so happy?” As I mentioned in the previous post, you can just say “tell me more” if you don’t feel very comfortable engaging in pretend play.

Pretend play, or role play, also helps children learn appropriate behaviors in certain scenarios, especially if you notice that your child exhibits social difficulties in particular areas. For example, you can try a scenario about going to a restaurant. This would be a great opportunity to learn and practice appropriate behaviors in a public space.  The point of this is not to stress about doing everything right. Rather, use this opportunity to navigate the situation with more ease and time to reflect on your child’s own pace.  And you don’t even have to invent your own scenarios – reading stories is also a great way to help children understand expectations and other people’s perspectives.

  1. Exercise positive coping skills. 

We all have moments when we get upset, nervous or scared.   Managing those difficult emotions is an important part of social-emotional skills. When your child shows frustration, you can acknowledge the feeling by saying, “I can see that you are very upset because another child is using the red truck that you like.”  Then, you can guide your child to more positive behaviors and peaceful solutions to the issue. “Let’s see if the child is willing to trade the red truck with this blue truck,” or “Let’s play with the blocks until the child is done playing with the red truck.” This guidance helps children see what they can do to resolve difficult situations in more socially acceptable ways. Most likely, you will need to repeat these interactions many times until your child can exhibit the positive behaviors independently.  But it is important to be consistent with the message that you are sending to your child. Also, when your child successfully exhibits positive social behaviors, you can reinforce the behavior by acknowledging “I saw that you were able to share the toys with your friends!”

Positive social interactions help children build self-esteem. Learning social-emotional skills is a process of development that often requires trial-and-error and patience from adults. It is also important for adults to be positive role models by respecting others (like saying ”thank you” or “I’m sorry”) and managing our emotions in appropriate manners. The Museum is a great place to practice those skills by playing in a bigger social environment!

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