Encouraging Social Emotional Development in Your Preschooler

As parents, we are always looking for ways to teach our children the skills they need to succeed. Speech and language development is important. Fine and gross motor development is crucial. And of course, all of those “academic” skills like colors, shapes, numbers, and letters will certainly come in handy! However, some might argue that the most important area of development is your child’s Social Emotional Intelligence. This shapes your child’s sense of identity, confidence, and ability to navigate a world full of other people.

In childhood, Social Emotional skills include things like cooperative play, sharing materials with others, managing conflict, or dealing with feelings of frustration. These skills allow your child to do big things like go to birthday parties, tackle playground politics, make friends, and be successful in the classroom. Building a strong Social Emotional Intelligence in childhood translates into success in adulthood. Self confidence, perspective-taking, empathy, and teamwork are all skills that allow us to be successful in our place of work, our relationships—and yep!—our parenting too!

Did you know that children develop empathy as early as 18 months of age? There is a lot we can do to help lay a strong Social Emotional Foundation. Educators and professionals are starting to incorporate Social Emotional principals into curriculum and intervention because we know that these skills develop early. When children have a strong Social Emotional foundation, they are more available for learning and are better equipped to take on challenges.

5 Ways to Encourage Social Emotional Development:

1). Build an emotional vocabulary

Give your child the words he needs to talk about how he is feeling. Use specific words to identify emotions, not just in him, but in others and even yourself. Model a variety of words, beyond just “happy” or “sad”: angry, frustrated, disappointed, nervous, excited, etc.

Throughout your day, talk about how your own feelings in relation to events. For example, rather than saying “The dog got mud on the rug,” you could say “I feel frustrated because the dog got mud on the rug.” Instead of saying “We get to go to the beach today!”
you could say “We get to go to the beach today, and that makes me excited!”

Point out facial expressions and body language in books, videos and other people. You can say things like “His face looks angry” or “She is standing like she is very tired.” This will help your child learn to recognize those non-verbal signals.

Prompt your child to talk about his own emotions by expanding and recasting. For example, if you are getting ready to leave the park and your child starts to cry “No! No!” expand by offering “You don’t want to leave the park.” Then, recast by adding the model: “I am sad because I don’t want to leave the park.”

2). Read stories that build empathy

Books are a powerful teaching tool. Look for books that tell stories of conflict resolution, helping others, or overcoming challenges. Here are a few favorites for preschoolers:

  • “Oh No, George”
  • “Giraffes Can’t Dance”
  • “Flora and the Flamingo”
  • “A Chair for My Mother”
  • “Chrysanthemum”

As you are reading, point out facial expressions and body language. Ask your child “Why do you think he feels….?” You can also relate the text to your child’s own experiences. Ask things like “What would you do?” or “How would you feel?”

3). Emote!

It is so important for children to see adults handle emotions appropriately. As adults, we often feel the need to be cool and collected at all times but in reality, kids will learn a lot from watching us. If you have a moment in which you lose your cool, circle back to your child and debrief with her. Talk about what you were feeling, why you felt that way, and what you could have done differently. You can even talk about what strategies you used to manage those feelings—did you go on a walk? Take a deep breath? Normalize the emotions and teach an appropriate response.

When you are emoting, help your child learn how to be a “helper.” Point out what your child can do to support you (or your spouse or a sibling) in the moment. For example, “Mommy is really frustrated. Could you hold the door open for me?” or “Sister is feeling sad. Give her a hug to help her feel better.”

4). Separate emotions from behavior

Raising preschoolers involves a whole lot of redirection. They are testing boundaries left and right, and tantrums/meltdowns just come with the territory. However, it is really important to separate emotions from behavior. A behavior is something that can be controlled. An emotion is not. There are no “bad” feelings but there are “bad behaviors.” If your child is crying and kicking the wall, choose your words carefully. It is ok to be sad but it is not ok to kick the wall.

In those moments, it is wise to address the feelings first, before the behavior. If your child hits his younger brother over a stolen toy, you could try “I know you don’t like it when he touches your toys. That makes you mad. But when you hit your brother, that hurts him. What could you do instead?”

Be careful not to praise your child for “being happy.” It is easy to say things like “you are in a great mood!” or “Now you are happy. Good girl.” That can send a message that you love your child more when they are happy. Instead, you can try “I like how you took a break when you needed it. Let’s have fun now!

5). Foster self confidence

Encourage your child to try things on his own before jumping in to help. This can be as major as tackling a new piece of playground equipment at the park or as minor as getting his own spoon out of the drawer. Similarly, encourage your child to be flexible. If the first way that they try something doesn’t work out, help him think through an alternative way of trying. Flexible thinkers are less likely to let frustration get the best of them!

As much as possible, do things as a team or family unit. Give your child a job to do, and let him know that his input is valuable to the group. This will not only help your little guy learn to participate in a group, but will let him know that he is important.

As you praise your little one, be as specific as possible. Phrases like “Good job!” can end up feeling a little meaningless. Instead, try saying things like “I love how you used two hands to carry that cup.” or “That was smart to put the block on sideways.” Your child will know that you are really paying attention, and will feel proud of themselves knowing that their effort paid off.

Having said all that, the best way to foster a strong Social Emotional foundation….? Just be with your child! Carve out time each day, even if just for a few minutes, to really connect. These moments of connection will provide the opportunity for social emotional learning and growth.

Remember—young children are still learning. They aren’t always going to get it right. A bad day could still result in some awesome parenting. Use those tough moments as an opportunity to teach and support your child.

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