Committee for Children Blog

New Year, ReNEWed Focus on Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Updated December 7, 2020

After this really difficult year, many parents will spend time at the beginning of 2021 writing goals or setting intentions for themselves. Often these goals are focused on personal and professional aspirations. I encourage parents to also set some parenting goals for themselves during this process that include their child’s social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. With many children learning remotely this school year, parents have a unique opportunity to help their children cultivate a strong emotional foundation to manage everyday challenges and social interactions.

At home, there are many ways parents can help support their child’s social-emotional development in daily life. I encourage parents to offer children limited choices so they learn how to make decisions, use encouragement to promote intrinsic (internal) motivation, and help children identify and name feelings to foster emotional intelligence.

Limited Choices
We all want choices in life. Control becomes important to children as early as the toddler years. And as a child develops, gets older, and separates from their parents, they develop their own ideas and preferences. It is important that parents recognize that children deserve some control and begin to offer limited choices. A great way to start is to offer their child two choices that are reasonable and acceptable to the parent. Offering choices helps kids learn to make decisions and understand that there are boundaries and limits. At the same time, it encourages cooperation because the parent is sharing some control.

For example, when parents get their child ready for bed, they could start by setting the limit, “It’s time to get ready for bed.” And then instead of saying, “Go brush your teeth,” they might ask “Do you want to brush your teeth first or get your jammies on first?”

Choices can also help parents get out of a frustrating situation. When a child is already upset, sometimes offering choices, after first empathizing or reflecting their emotion, will help move them on to the next step.

There are many choices in every situation. To increase the effectiveness of choices, it is important to consider the following:
• Offer only two choices that work for you.
• If the child doesn’t pick one of the choices, or they want a third option, you simply choose for them: “No problem, I’ll decide.” Follow through on that choice.
• To stay out of a power struggle, offer the child an opportunity to make a choice about something else.
• Keep your tone and attitude calm and relaxed as if this is no big deal for you. You are fine either way they decide.

Encouragement and Acknowledgment
Using encouragement or acknowledgment when a child has completed or accomplished something allows them to take pleasure in what they have achieved. It also helps them understand the importance of the process and hard work while promoting resilience. It is very easy to praise behavior and achievements. The problem with praise is that it can often be a discrete form of bribery or manipulation. To a young child, praise can often be interpreted as way of earning their parents’ love or favor.

Instead of using praise, parents can simply notice what their child is doing and make a value-free statement about what they are noticing. Saying something like, “Wow, you cleaned up those blocks all by yourself!” helps the child notice what they have done. Another way to acknowledge or encourage is to ask curiosity questions that reinforce intrinsic motivators (i.e., the child’s own sense of pride, ownership, or mastery). “Did you see your sister’s face when you shared your cookie with her? How do you think you made her feel?” These statements or questions provide a child with the space to notice how they feel about what they have done. The focus is not on how the parent feels about it, but more importantly how the child feels about it. These intrinsic motivators are what will encourage the behaviors that parents value while inspiring their child to be creative, take risks, and try new and different approaches.

Identifying and Naming Feelings 
Helping a child recognize and identify feelings and emotions will help them develop more effective communication and problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to empathize with others. Using characters in books and on TV shows is an easy way to teach simple feeling words. While enjoying a show or a book, parents can point out how a character might be feeling. Better yet, they can ask questions that will lead the child to identify how the character might be feeling, why they might be feeling that way, and what they can do about it. These conversations will help the child better identify these same emotions in themselves and others, which promotes greater emotional awareness as well as positive communication and empathy. With young children, using words like “happy,” “sad,” or “mad” can feel empowering because they can express themselves verbally without having to act out how they are feeling (such as by having a meltdown or tantrum). With older children, parents can introduce more complex feeling words, such as “envious,” “disappointed,” or “anxious.”

Taking the time to include SEL at home should be part of every New Year’s goal-setting conversation. Doing so will help parents be more intentional about their parenting, and it is an invaluable investment in their child and family. Choose just a few strategies to implement at a time so it does not feel overwhelming.