Here are some ways that adults can support children’s understanding of emotions and developing and use social emotional skills:

1. Give explicit instructions.

You can ask children directly to demonstrate their social-emotional learning skills through certain prompts and activities. For instance, you can show children different picture cards of emotional expressions and teach them the names of new emotions (like disgust or surprise). This may occur during story time at school or at home. The lesson can be as simple as saying, “When I make this face, it means I’m feeling ____.” Another activity adults can do is displaying pictures showing children making different facial expressions and asking them to point toward the image that represents how they’re feeling that day.

2. Practice through books.                              

You can read a book and help children to think of times when they have felt the same as the main character. For example, the Mercer Mayer classic ‘I Was So Mad’ can encourage children to think of times they’ve been mad and what they do to feel better. For a great list of story books that can support children’s social and emotional learning, check out the list published by Vanderbilt’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

3. Model rules and expectations.

Articulate the rules you set about expressing emotions in the classroom or at home. This includes providing specific rules — no hitting, share your toys, and so on — but also means following the rules yourself. Children learn a great deal through observing and imitating others, especially their parents and teachers. As such, adults can promote social-emotional learning by conscientiously modeling ways in which emotions are expressed and regulated in social situations. This can be through elaborate role-playing activities, or just by expressing emotions and narrating to children how you feel and what you’re going to do about your feelings.

4. Validate and encourage the expression of feelings.

Respond to a child’s emotions by validating their feelings as opposed to dismissing them. For instance, this means asking, “What’s wrong?” rather than saying, “Stop crying.” Teachers and parents can encourage a child’s emotional expressions by responding constructively to them. Only when an adult understands why a child is upset can the adult help the child cope with their emotions and what has caused them. Minimizing, punishing, or dismissing a child’s emotions does not give the child the opportunity to learn how to respond constructively to those emotions.

5. Guide children toward reflection.

It is important for children to associate social and emotional competence with some relief from strong emotions, either on their part or on others’. This is key to their development of traits such as think about and understanding how others feel as they get older. You can point out moments at which these occur to help your child understand them. For example, you might say, “I like how you noticed Johnny was upset and gave him a hug. How did that make you feel?”

Children are learning social and emotional competencies through nearly all of their regular interactions with teachers and classmates. These lessons continue on the playground and at home, where parents can continue to teach social and emotional competencies to their young children — and in the process, better prepare them for kindergarten and beyond.

By Kate Zinsser