Social-Emotional Learning Is Essential for Child Development—Here's How to Teach It at Home

Social-emotional learning (SEL) teaches important life skills like managing emotions, building relationships, and making decisions. Learn about the benefits of SEL and how to incorporate it into your child’s everyday life.

It's true that knowledge is power, but academic achievement is only one aspect of a successful education. Children must also learn social-emotional skills like managing emotions, practicing self-discipline, setting goals, and making decisions. The process of teaching and practicing these techniques is called "social-emotional learning" (SEL).

SEL has plenty of benefits for students, ranging from improved school performance to healthier friendships. Plus, down the road, those with strong social and emotional competence are more likely to graduate high school and have a successful career, according to various studies.

Social-emotional learning is so important, in fact, that it has its own day: International SEL Day, which takes place on March 26 this year. It celebrates the value of SEL for students worldwide with a theme—and in 2021, that's "Building Bonds, Reimagining Community."

little boy drawing

Many schools have some form of SEL in their curriculum, but it's also easy to practice social-emotional learning activities at home. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of SEL and how to model the lessons in day-to-day life.

5 Key Skills of Social-Emotional Learning

If you're asking yourself, "what is social-emotional learning?" it might help to understand the five main areas of practice. They're defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in SEL instruction.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness involves cultivating a greater understanding of your emotions, goals, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. Recognizing the link between thoughts and actions can help you make decisions with greater insight.

2. Self-Management

Once you understand your emotions and actions, it's key to regulate them through self-management. You'll reach your goals faster by practicing impulse control and evaluating your performance in certain situations.

3. Responsible Decision Making

Those with responsible decision making skills think about their own goals, social factors, and self-understanding when making constructive choices. This fosters understanding of cause-and-effect, as well the consequences of actions.

4. Social Awareness

This SEL skill helps children build and maintain healthy relationships. It involves understanding and emphasizing with others—including those of different races, genders, cultures, ages, and religions.

5. Relationship Skills

Also important for relationship establishment, this SEL skill teaches kids how to act in regards to social norms. Key components are communication, cooperation, listening, managing conflict, and understanding emotions.

The Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching social-emotional learning has many benefits for children, backed by decades of studies and research. They include:

  • Increased ability to cope with life challenges
  • Improved academic performance and school attendance
  • Fewer problems with behavior or substance abuse
  • Better social skills and prosocial behaviors (such as kindness and empathy)
  • Reduction of anxiety and depression
  • Greater understanding of yourself and others
  • Enhanced ability to make sound, informed decisions
  • Improved confidence and attitude
  • Increased likelihood of high school graduation, career success, and a stable family life

For this last point, take a retrospective study involving 753 kindergarteners in the early 1990s, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Teachers rated the social competence skills of students in their classroom on a five-point scale; factors included "shares materials," "listens to others," etc. Afterward, researchers followed these children for 20 years. According to the results, published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, students with a one-point increase on the social competence scale experienced:

  • Double the likelihood of attaining a college degree in early adulthood
  • 54% greater likelihood of earning a high school diploma
  • 46% greater likelihood of having a full-time job when they're 25

Decreases in the social competency score were associated with higher chances of arrest, mariguana usage, and needing public housing.

Social-Emotional Learning Activities

SEL doesn't have to be confined to the classroom! These at-home activities can hone your child's social and emotional skills, helping them thrive in many aspects of life.

Consume Media With Empathy

Turn your child's TV time into an SEL lesson about recognizing social cues and emotions. Stop the show whenever something emotional happens, and ask your child how they think the character feels. Are they happy, frustrated, embarrassed, frightened, excited, or hopeful? You can also try this activity while listening to songs, reading books, or watching movies.

Make Schedules and To-Do Lists

Does your kid need help managing their time and making responsible decisions—like completing homework or chores on time? Help them make an organized to-do list, daily schedule, or "vision board" that spells out their dreams for the future. In doing so, they'll gain experience with goal setting and decision making.

Relieve Stress

Sometimes life gets stressful—even for little kids. Help your child recognize when they're feeling drained or upset (self-awareness) and teach them to manage their emotions through mindfulness activities, exercise, or music (self-management). Even adults can benefit from this social-emotional learning activity!

Journal for Self-Discovery

At regular intervals (say, once per week) encourage your child to list specific things that bring them joy—walking the family dog, playing board games with siblings, eating their favorite dinner, etc. They'll practice self-awareness (understanding what they like) and self-management (understanding how they react to things they like).

Draw Emotions

What does it look like to be happy or sad? How about surprised or worried? Have your child express common emotions through drawings or paintings. In creating the images, they'll reflect upon the thoughts and feelings of themselves—and other people. Your kid can also associate the feelings with different colors (for example, red means angry).

Perform Random Acts of Kindness

Throughout the day, have your child look for ways to help others. Maybe it's holding open the door, complimenting a friend's new shirt, saying "thank you," or inviting someone new to play. Through this social-emotional learning activity, they'll build social awareness and relationship skills.

Write Letters

Bring back the art of letter writing! When your child writes to a relative or friend, they hone their relationship skills by reflecting on social connections.

Listen to a Podcast

Loss, loneliness, and grief are difficult emotions to manage. You can help kids process these feelings with Emotion Motion, a podcast launched in September 2020 by SEL experts at Move This World. It involves an interactive component so kids will actually enjoy reflecting on and managing their emotions.

Volunteer or Donate

Children with superior social-emotional competence can emphasize with people of different economic and social statuses. Hone this skill by volunteering or donating to an important cause.

Play Games

As it turns out, family game night counts as social-emotional learning! While playing games, children must cooperate with others, take turns, handle frustration, solve problems, and more. They'll also see how others react to winning or losing.

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