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7 Powerful Ways to Promote Social Emotional Development in Kids

| Why is social emotional development important | Risk factors | How to help children develop social emotional skills | Social-emotional don’ts |

What is social emotional development

Social-emotional development (SED) is developing the ability to form and maintain positive relationships with peers and adults by understanding, expressing, and regulating emotions in a way that is appropriate for one’s age socially and culturally​1​

Social and emotional development involves various interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that are necessary for navigating challenges and adapting to diverse social situations. It includes both self-directed and other-oriented emotional skills.

SED is multi-faceted and cannot be described in one definitive way​2​.

Some understand social and emotional development as a set of tools that promote learning, whereas others see it as a way to promote resilience to cope with traumatic stress. Some see this as an exercise in character building, while others emphasize the importance of cognitive skills.

Strong social emotional skills can be grouped into three interconnected domains​3​:

Cognitive skills

Cognitive skills refer to executive functions, such as working memory, attention control, psychological flexibility, impulse control, and planning. They also include beliefs and attitudes that guide one’s sense of self and approach to learning and growth.

Emotional competence

Emotion competence is the ability to understand, regulate and express emotions that are accepted in a given culture. Being able to manage and express feelings is central to healthy social-emotional growth.

Social competence

Social competence is the ability to engage in developmentally appropriate social interactions with others. It is the ability to meet one’s own needs while maintaining positive relationships with others​4​.

mother talks to crying toddler

Why is social-emotional development important

Social and emotional development is at the core of human development​2​. Having skills in all three domains is predictive of many positive outcomes from infancy to adulthood​5​.

Being able to regulate strong emotions appropriately reduces disruptive behavior, aggression, and other maladaptive behavior. It promotes emotional intelligence and academic success​6​.

Proper emotional expression, positive and negative emotions, is also highly correlated with adolescent social skills, positive social behaviors, and popularity.

Understanding one’s own feelings and balancing them with the emotions of others are vital interpersonal skills. Those with social awareness are more confident in developing healthy relationships, resolving conflicts, regulating their emotions, and making responsible decision-making.

Strong socio-emotional skills also serve as a protective factor, preventing mental health issues from arising. They help young people persevere when facing challenges leading to resilience under stressful conditions.

Those who lack social and emotional competencies are at risk not only for psychopathology but also for child behavior problems, poor academic performance, delinquency, and substance addiction.

Statistics

Across the US, up to 14.2% of children under the age of five suffer from emotional and social problems that adversely affect the child’s development, functioning, and school readiness​7​.

In 2008, Yates and colleagues reported that only 40% of kindergarten-aged children had the socio-emotional skills they needed to be successful in a social setting​8​.

Risk factors

During the early years, a child’s emotional health is vulnerable. As the number of risk factors increases, child outcomes worsen​9​.

Here are some of the known risk factors in child development​10,11​.

  • Poverty
  • Exposure to community violence
  • Domestic violence
  • Inconsistent and harsh disciplinary practices​12​
  • Recent traumatic events
  • low parental education
  • Limited social support for mother
  • Parent substance use
  • Parent mental health illness​13​
  • Child abuse or neglect​14​
  • Very preterm babies (gestation <30 weeks or birthweight <1250 g)​15​
  • Maternal insensitivity​16​
  • Touch deprivation

How to help children develop social emotional skills

Researchers have noted that children’s first five years of life significantly influence their cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional development.

Social emotional learning (SEL) encompasses a variety of skills, but some serve as building blocks for increasingly complex skills later in life.

Just as children must learn to read before they can read to learn, they must learn to regulate their emotions before they can make sound judgments about how to react to challenging situations.

This is the general framework parents and teachers can follow to help children develop their early social-emotional skills.

Close relationships

Children’s SEL skills are first developed through their parent-child relationships. 

Babies are not born with the ability to regulate their own emotions and they do not develop regulating skills in a vacuum.

Co-regulation is the process in which parents and children interact and regulate emotions together​17​. Having a close parent-child relationship makes it possible for the parent to use co-regulation to help children develop emotional regulation​18,19​.

Relationships in schools, with both teachers and peers, can also promote social development ad self-regulation development.

Positive physical touch

For babies, preschoolers, and young children, touch or physical contact is an effective way to help them regulate their big feelings during temper tantrums.

Research suggests that in stressful situations, such as physical separation or emotional unavailability, touch mitigates the distress and dysregulation caused to infants​20​.

When preterm infants received skin-to-skin contact during their time in the incubator, their thresholds for negative emotions were higher. Their heart rates were lower and their crying was reduced significantly​21​.

Emotion coaching

Regulating emotional states requires monitoring, facilitating, and inhibiting elevated levels of feelings, both positive and negative. It allows a child to cope with stress, focus on social learning, and achieve optimal functioning.

Parents’ beliefs and approaches to their own emotions affect the ways they interact with their children​22​.

Parents with an emotion-coaching mindset use their children’s negative emotions as teaching opportunities. They help older children become aware of their emotions and figure out how they relate to the situation through emotion coaching.

In emotion coaching, parents listen and empathize with their children, validate their emotions, teach them how to name those feelings, and teach them how to solve the problem.​23​

Developing emotional awareness allows children to distance themselves psychologically from a current emotional episode and reflect on what they are feeling.

Coping strategies

As the child grows, they can gradually apply what they learn in co-regulation to regulate themselves. The shift from co-regulation to self regulation occurs gradually, not abruptly.

Here are four effective strategies to add to an older child’s repertoire of coping with emotions. Parents can also use them to co-regulate their children.

  • Distraction – e.g. find an attractive alternative activity
  • Reappraisal – e.g. look at the issue from a different angle
  • Soothing – e.g. take a deep breath
  • Response modification – e.g. reflect on the situation and come up with possible strategies

Role-play (Pretend play)

Pretend play has been found to be associated with better emotion regulation skills and social skills

Engaging in role-playing allows children to practice perspective-taking skills (pretend to be another person), relationship skills (imagined relationships), conflict resolution skills (pretend to deal with everyday life issues), and social skills (make-believe social situations).

However, no clear causal relationship or mechanism has been identified.

Though it is not clear whether pretend play leads to greater emotional intelligence in children, it does not appear to be harmful to them. In fact, studies show that it can increase children’s creativity​24​.

Social emotional learning (SEL) in school

Social and emotional skills can be cultivated with high-quality SEL programs. 

Using evidence-based SEL interventions in school shows significant improvements in social and emotional learning skills, prosocial behavior, attitudes, and academic performance, as well as reduced emotional distress and conduct problems​25​.

Positive school climate

SEL efforts can influence broad and systemic school contexts in a number of ways, but one of the most visible and fruitful ways is by influencing school culture and climate

The culture and climate of a school set the tone and focus of relationships and interactions between teachers and students​26​.

The school’s expectations for behavior (e.g., using respectful language at all times and showing kindness to others) can have a significant impact on the climate of the school. Consistent efforts to build caring relationships among students and with staff can also have a positive impact on a school’s climate​27​.

Also See: Still Face Experiment – Why Parenting Matters for Child Development

Socio-emotional don’ts

Several traditional parenting practices that our ancestors considered effective have been proven to be false by research. Here are some of the don’ts in helping our kids develop their socioemotional capacities.

Letting them “self-soothe”

Studies show that parenting is critical to the development of children’s social and emotional skills.

By adopting a warm, responsive parenting style, parents can become a secure base and help kids form secure attachments.​28​

For example, a toddler may be happily solving a puzzle until she finds out that the remaining two pieces don’t fit together. Her primary caregiver might offer a solution or try to ease her negative feelings in response to her frustration. 

Parents responding consistently to the child’s emotional stress can enhance her sense of security in the relationship and her ability to regulate her emotions​29​

Children will eventually learn to soothe themselves through the co-regulation process. The ability to self-soothe however does not come out of thin air. 

“Learn to self-soothe on their own” is like leaving a child to “learn to swim” without guidance. They may learn to swim, or they may drown.

Toughening them up using authoritarian parenting

When used as the preferred mode of discipline, power-assertive parenting has adverse effects on children’s socio emotional competencies.

Harsh discipline has a negative impact on a child’s behavior and emotional development, while more authoritative but less authoritarian patterns are associated with better outcomes for the child​30​.

In addition to not helping a child learn to self-regulate, harsh parenting can also lead to negative outcomes, including deteriorating physical and mental health​31​.

Neglect own mental health

The mental health of parents directly impacts their children’s socioemotional development.

If parents are stressed or suffering from mental health issues, it might be difficult for them to provide responsive, sensitive parenting and emotional support for their children.

Those who struggle with psychological problems or who are having difficulty dealing with their child’s emotional problems should seek professional help as soon as possible.

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About Pamela Li, MS, MBA

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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