Supporting Social Emotional Learning in Young Children


2 Boys playing in classroomHelping children through the process of social emotional learning and setting them on the path to social emotional competence is an important role of the adults involved in their lives. Social emotional competence is associated with so many factors related to leading a productive, fulfilling life, including personal mental well-being, school success, positive relationships, responsible decision making, and self-management.


What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning is the process by which children learn to understand and manage emotions, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It is a complex process that involves integration of a child’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior in order to develop competence in these five areas:

  1. Self-awareness – Having an accurate perception of ourselves and being able to recognize our own emotional states.
  2. Self-management – The ability to use self-awareness to handle stress and impulses, as well as persevere and consider options for dealing with feelings in a way that’s socially accepted.
  3. Social awareness – The understanding of our relationships with others, and the development of respect and acceptance of others who may be different than us.
  4. Relationship skills – Mastering the complexities of relationships involves becoming aware of others, being attuned to the emotions of others, and understanding the impact of our actions on others.
  5. Responsible decision making – The ability to make a decision about what actions or responses we’ll choose in reaction to our emotions within the context of our relationships with others.


The Adult’s Role in Social Emotional Learning

Parents, teachers, and other caregivers have an important role in helping young children develop social emotional competence. Their most important roles can be summed up in three categories:

  1. Modeling – Throughout the day, adults can set the stage for children to develop social emotional competence by modeling their own emotional recognition and thinking aloud about how to manage those emotions. It’s also important to model negative emotions so children have the opportunity to see that all people experience negative emotions.
  2. Reacting – Noticing and responding to each child’s emotions and relationships is important. It requires vigilant attention and sensitivity. Some children show their emotions more obviously than others. Knowing how a child looks when they’re happy, angry, sad, or distracted provides you the opportunity to model for the children how socially competent people interact.
  3. Teaching – While much of social emotional learning takes place during informal interactions, there’s definitely a need to provide formal, direct instruction about emotions and relationships. The best instruction involves opportunities for role play or puppet play, modeling of desired skills by the teacher, partner practice, and practice in various environments.


Social emotional competence develops when children have the opportunity to recognize their own emotions, understand the feelings of others, consider the impact of their actions on others, value their relationships, and make responsible decisions based on all of these factors.

These tips are from the new Exceptional Child course: Early Childhood: Social Emotional Learning, by Lisa Combs.

Click here to view the full course list.


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