As an enthusiast of the Responsive Classroom guiding principle that teaching social and emotional skills is as important as teaching academic content, I am mindful of putting forth a concerted effort to plant seeds of social-emotional skills in my students organically and authentically throughout the school day. Just as academic skills such as reading, writing, and math are important to practice and reinforce both in school and at home, the social-emotional skills—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—are equally important and useful in everyday life. Building and strengthening these social-emotional skills helps students form and maintain relationships, and navigate through social situations and conflicts that can occur during the day.
Families will often ask me, “How can we practice social-emotional skills with our kids at home?” Social-emotional competencies can easily be taught, practiced, and reinforced at home in a way that feels natural and even fun. The best approach is to model and practice these skills for children in a way that feels authentic. What follows are some suggestions for working on each of these social-emotional skills at home.
One way to think about cooperation is the idea of working with others toward a common goal. Consider collaborating on projects that can be completed as a family.
- Solve an age-appropriate puzzle together. One approach is to assign jobs. For example, have some family members find the edges while others locate the middle pieces.
- Create a family mural together or have an art session that could include painting picture frames.
- Set out to tackle a fun task together like decorating your home for a holiday or creating a gift for another family member such as a grandparent.
- When there is disagreement, use it as an opportunity for modeling cooperation. For example, if grown-ups disagree about who is going to clean up the kitchen after dinner, model cooperation by delegating who does what in a team effort to tackle the problem: “I will clean up the dishes—how would you like to clear the table?”
Assertiveness can be defined as “the ability to take initiative, to stand up for one’s ideas without hurting or negating others, to seek help, to persevere with a challenging task, and to recognize one’s individual self as separate from the environment, circumstances, or conditions one is in” (Fly Five, n.d.-a). Assertiveness is about clear and respectful communication, and is a useful skill when conflicts and disagreements arise.
- Teach assertive sentence starters such as:
- “I see it this way . . .”
- “Right now I am feeling like I want to . . .”
- “I respect your opinion, and I have a different perspective about that.”
- Make an effort to model appropriate tone and body language for being respectfully assertive.
- If you need assistance with something, seek help by asking each other. For example, say, “Wow. I thought I could tackle all of the things on this to-do list by myself, but there is too much. I need help. Which of these jobs can you help me with?”
- When practicing assertiveness with young children, try authentically implementing it in daily decision-making. For example, you might ask, “Tell me which one of these cereals you would like for breakfast” or “Which of these pants do you want to wear to school today?” With older children, pose questions such as “What gift do you want to bring to your friend’s birthday party?” or “Which camp would you like to sign up for this summer?”
Messaging to children that they are capable and able to depend on themselves helps to boost their confidence and self-esteem in academic and social settings. Practicing responsibility at home offers many opportunities to build that skill.
- Invite your children to add three to five things to your grocery list that they would like from the store. When shopping, encourage your children to find the items in the store, cross the items off of the list, add them to the cart, and then load them onto the conveyor at check-out.
- Help your children pack their lunch and snacks (with guidance).
- Beginning when your children are around the age of two, have them help with chores around the house. Young children can match socks or wipe surfaces with a wet paper towel. Older children can put away laundry, help prepare food, and lend a hand with any pets.
Think of empathy as feeling with someone. Empathy helps build connections with one another and strengthens relationships, and it “plays a critical role in shaping how we share experiences, how we perceive others’ emotions, and the extent to which we can see the world from another’s perspective” (Fly Five, n.d.-b, p. 2).
- Model and encourage empathy skills by sharing what you notice about other people’s feelings. For example, “My friend Rachel seemed really sad today. I checked in with her and she shared that her sister has a cold. She seemed worried about her sister.”
- When reading picture books, study the characters with your children. Check out their body language (are their arms crossed? hands on hips?) and facial expressions (eyebrows up? eyes wide? frowns or smiles?). Ask your child, “How do you think __ is feeling? How do you know?”
- Teach empathy as a listening skill. Sometimes children (and adults) share their thoughts and feelings, and rather than wanting advice, what they are really looking for is someone to listen. When someone is expressing their feelings, practice and model empathetic language such as “I’m so glad you told me” or “That feels hard.”
- When responding to someone sharing, avoid saying “at least” to make them feel better. This can actually make someone feel they haven’t been heard or that their feelings are not valued.
Self-control can be seen as “the ability to recognize and regulate one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to be successful in the moment and remain on a successful trajectory” (Fly Five, n.d.-a).
- Model your thought process and decisions based on self-control. For example:
- “I really want this whole chocolate cake because it looks so yummy. But I’m going to practice self-control and have just a slice instead.”
- “I notice I am starting to feel frustrated. I want to maintain my composure. I think I’ll stop, sit down, and take a few deep breaths so I can be my best self when I handle this challenge.”
- Incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine. Consider sitting down together as a family to practice a “mindful moment,” making use of deep breathing and/or visualizations.
It can be challenging to have self-control during a busy day with a full schedule. Avoid overscheduling back-to-back activities (such as school, sports, then stopping at the grocery store). Overscheduling leaves little time for children to engage in fun or rest and can lead to misbehavior. Include some rest time in the daily schedule so family members can relax and/or engage in play.
Be sure to utilize language as a tool when practicing social-emotional skills. Using specific reinforcing language will help children name what they are doing well. For example, you might tell your children, “It really shows responsibility how you brushed your teeth without reminders” or “I notice you’re being respectfully assertive to let us know how you’re feeling about this.”
Make the effort to point out when you did not demonstrate these competencies. It’s important to acknowledge the journey. For example:
- “Whoa. I really could have shown cooperation much better when it was time to clean up the house. Next time instead of doing it all by myself and getting angry, I think I’ll be assertive and tell people I need help. Then we can cooperatively tackle the job of tidying up together.”
- “I don’t think I was very empathetic earlier when you were sharing your feelings. Can we try that again? I want to be a better listener.”
There are plenty of times during a family’s day-to-day living that offer opportunities to practice social and emotional skills. Families who make the effort to do so will not only help reinforce what is learned in school but will also positively influence relationships within the family.