Ways of teaching social and emotional skills

child with strong social and emotional skills holding an autumn leaf  - tots to teens

It can sometimes be hard to remember that the brains of our little ones are not nearly as developed as ours. This means that we, as their parents, must help them develop the social and emotional skills they need to grow into happy and healthy adults.

Our children’s goal for engaging in any activity is different from our own. Because they are hard-wired to learn from play, magic, and wonder, that’s what they look for. When approaching any new situation, their question is: “How can I experience fun and deepen my connection with the people I depend on for love and trust?”

Parents, on the other hand, become the responsible providers from the moment we see that plus sign on the pregnancy test or get the call that there’s a child ready for adoption. When entering any activity with our children, our goal is to keep them safe and help them be successful. Typically, we think, “How can we get this task accomplished quickly before we have to move on to the next thing?” Often, fun is an after-thought.

When stepping back and examining a misbehavior or power struggle, ask yourself, What skill does my child need to learn to make positive choices?

When considering how to promote a critical life skill in our child—such as empathy or collaboration or responsible problem-solving—consider a few questions that will open the door to learning connections with your child: How can our exploration of this skill bring us closer together? If you begin in this way, you will move toward motivating your child.

Take it one step further and ask: How can this become a joyful experience for both of us? Or, How can we engage in discovery and wonder together? These emotions promote focused attention, a higher-order thinking skill that can lead to flow, or losing track of time because you are so fully involved in what you are doing. Now, that’s making music together!

There are five essential ways we can help our children develop the most critical skills that will advance them toward their (and our) hopes and dreams. Let’s look at them.


If you plan ahead for dealing with your own heated emotions, such as anger or frustration, you are able to model what you hope your child will learn. “Mummy needs a minute to calm down because I’m feeling very angry,” Mum says, as she plops down on the floor, closes her eyes, and breathes silently until she can reclaim her calm to deal with the situation at hand. This can become powerful modelling for a child learning to deal with her big feelings.


In addition to modelling, we can offer coaching. The purpose of coaching is to help a child find his own solutions to a problem, recognizing that we are all our own best problem-solvers. The coach—through questions, active listening, and focused reflections—creates the conditions necessary for the child to have his own realisations about his feelings and thoughts and how they inform his behaviours. This deepens his self-awareness. As in modelling, coaching allows a child to feel and experience the skill we are trying to strengthen. Like a sports coach, you allow your child to try out the skill, make mistakes, continue trying, offer encouraging feedback, challenge when needed, and notice effort as small steps are taken. Unlike some sports coaching, however, you never solve a problem for a child or directly tell him what to do, as that takes away valuable practice opportunities. Instead, prompt the child’s thinking and support his solutions, as long as they are safe.


Next, we can offer our children practice opportunities with particular skills, such as empathy. We might intentionally create a game when entering a crowded mall, like guessing the thoughts and feelings of people we observe. If we have identified the specific skills we want to work on, practice opportunities can naturally appear throughout our day. When our child comes home from school upset about an interaction (“He told me I was a geek because I enjoyed the book we’re reading for class”), you have an empathy practice opportunity at the ready. You might respond with, “What could your classmate have been worried about in that situation? What could he have been thinking about himself to label you like that?” These small, simple practice opportunities can add up over time to build strength in social and emotional skills.

Creating Positive Learning Environments

Becoming intentional about creating a positive learning environment for your children can greatly impact your ability to promote social and emotional skills. You might ask yourself, Is the physical space chaotic or well-organised? Can my child learn to play a role and take responsibility in organising, cleaning up, and maintaining our spaces? And what about the emotional space we create? Does it feel safe to my child? Will his upsets or concerns be judged or accepted with compassion?

Consider the feeling that you get when you walk into your own parents’ home. Do you have a sense of safety? Or does it feel unsafe? What contributes to those feelings? Now consider what emotional space you are creating in your own home.


When you notice and appreciate the small actions children take to attempt to show responsibility, to try out a new behaviour you’ve encouraged, or to act with kindness, your attention is a source of pride for that child. Its worth is invaluable. When you call out a small attempt at a positive contribution, you reinforce that behaviour and encourage more of the same.

Secondly (and less commonly discussed), another tremendous source of pride for a child can be when a parent acknowledges, articulates, or underscores what they themselves are learning from their child. Yes, the best teachers are also avid, humble learners. And there’s much our children teach us, including advancing our own social and emotional development—skills that we work on for a lifetime.

Edited and extracted with permission from Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids, by Jennifer S Miller (Fair Winds RRP$32.99)

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