By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
As a former educator, I know how critical social emotional learning skills are. Healthy stress management can greatly improve students’ academic success when facing new challenges. Building positive relationship skills ensures students have a strong sense of belonging, and in certain ages (ahem, middle school) this need to belong correlates tightly with students’ self-confidence. When a student manages their time and works well, it’s easier for them to achieve their academic and personal goals.
I also remember how challenging it could be to layer in SEL learning moments in the classroom. I taught multiple grade levels in one class, from kindergarten up to third grade. This arrangement wasn’t unusual in our district’s Special Education programs, but it meant that breaking down SEL competencies by grade level for each of my kids was essential.
Sitting in one chair, I’d have a third-grader learning how to manage his time and anxiety while taking math tests. Next to him would be a first-grader whose emotions spilled over into physical behaviors at the slightest provocation. In navigating these distinct challenges, our team’s overarching objective was to contribute to the collective well-being of the class, all the while recognizing and addressing individual needs
These two kiddos had completely differing social and emotional learning requirements. Yet our classroom team needed to ensure each child reached their individual social emotional learning goals with the knowledge these skills would help students improve academically, too.
Thank goodness for our students’ families!
These parents, caregivers, and guardians crucially supported our students’ unique social and emotional learning journeys at home as we supported them in the classroom. This continuity ensured that students developed their SEL skills wherever they went. Little by little, day by day, families and educators collaborated to practice these life skills with each student and set them up for long-term success.
Families were our MVPs on the learning team. This reciprocal partnership around social and emotional learning skills was critical for our classroom — really, for our entire school — to help all of our students thrive.
The importance of SEL competencies by grade level
The purpose of teaching social and emotional learning is quite simple: building these life skills in students creates independent, caring adults in the future. Research has shown that implementing social emotional learning programs results in positive student benefits such as gains on standardized test scores, reductions in emotional stress, and improved classroom behavior. These effects on student success are long-running, too; students with stronger SEL competencies are more likely to graduate from high school and secure stable employment thereafter.
Just as with math and literacy skills, educators break down SEL competencies by grade level and age groups teaching social emotional learning as students grow up. The list of social emotional skills that students develop from birth to middle school and beyond runs far and wide — from time management to collaborative problem-solving to cultural competency and more.
These days, many educators focus on school-based efforts to implement SEL. How can teachers seamlessly introduce these essential core competencies into daily learning? Should district leaders introduce new social emotional learning benchmarks into schools? Must every state create social and emotional learning standards? Even PE teachers are figuring out how to tackle social emotional learning concepts with kids!
Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on educators to introduce and build these competencies in students. This is especially important now as everyone heals from the pandemic’s many impacts, including those affecting student learning outcomes and mental health.
But let’s be clear: families support developing social and emotional learning skills in students, too. SEL is not limited to the school building. In fact, SEL skill-building happens all the time for students — in the classroom, at home, in the community, and beyond! When families and educators align on cultivating certain SEL competencies by grade level, it just makes teaching and parenting that much more successful.
Families are the ultimate partners for SEL
How does connecting social and emotional learning with family engagement benefit schools? Ultimately this pairing catalyzes both student development and positive school climate.
Think of it this way. Most educators already recognize the benefits of strong and equitable family-school connections on academic outcomes. When orchestrated well, positive relationships between home and school can result in increased graduation rates and higher math and reading scores. Research has also shown that effective family engagement helps kids be better regulated and prepared to learn in the classroom.
Do these benefits sound familiar yet? They absolutely should! Social emotional learning competencies in students also yield these positive results. Now imagine combining the power of family engagement in schools with social emotional learning.
Strong family-school partnerships support social emotional learning skills development in students of all ages, just as they activate academic learning at home and at school. By working together to mutually establish students’ SEL competencies by grade level, families and educators actualize SEL’s benefits for the entire school community.
How families drive SEL, from birth to middle school
So how exactly do families impact social and emotional learning across age groups?
In the earliest years of a student’s life, families are THE role models when it comes to SEL. Even before little learners have the words to talk about feelings or the organizational skills to manage their own schedules, they observe how their parents, caregivers, and guardians interact with the world around them. This form of social emotional learning is so organic that many families might be unaware that it’s happening.
And that’s the beauty of families and SEL: they are already teaching these essential skills to their kids. As one parent shared in our recent survey, activities like the ones offered through ParentPowered can help families feel “more confident that the small amounts of learning work I [already] do at home matters.”
At ParentPowered, we want to help educators and organizations serving students to align with families to prepare students for long-term success. So we designed our programs to build evidence-based skills and competencies linked to positive child outcomes, including social and emotional learning skills. Delivered to families weekly by text, our everyday learning activities cover a wide range of life skills, including self-esteem, positive social identities, executive functioning, and more.
Let’s unpack just one of these crucial areas of social emotional competence for students – relationship skills – and discover what families can do to cultivate these abilities in students, from birth to middle school.
Birth to PreK
The beginning of a child’s life comes with many incredible growth milestones that impact them physically and emotionally. How magical it must feel to discover that you have hands for the very first time, or that you can walk on two feet!
From the social perspective, these first years of learning are heavily dependent interactions with family members and other adults around the child. As described by Michigan Kids Matter, structured socialization and lots of practice are the key to help toddlers learn basic skills that later cultivate healthy relationships.
Bringing SEL to life
In particular, learning how to express, understand and manage one’s emotions is an essential component to connecting in positive ways with others. Families of young learners can use this activity to help toddlers practice identifying, expressing, and calming their emotions:
- FACT: Your child may be young, but they can still feel stress just like you do. Time spent with you just snuggling and being together is a great way to relieve stress.
- TIP: As your child lies in bed, snuggle or hold their hand. Ask about their day. Try questions like “Did any hard things happen today? How are you feeling about tomorrow?”
- GROWTH: Young children don’t often have the words to talk about stress. Instead, they might be extra clingy, have a hard time sleeping, or say they have a tummy ache. Reach out to your doctor if you have concerns.
PreK to kindergarten
PreK and kindergarten mark exciting milestones for a student’s learning journey. These years are often the first time a student steps into a classroom environment and spends significant time away from their home and families. As preK and kindergarten students come together in community, it is essential that they learn group cooperation and appropriate socialization. Basic self management skills such as listening to what others are saying, taking turns during a group activity, and following directions are fundamental for forming positive relationships with others.
Bringing SEL to life
Perspective taking is an excellent SEL competency that families of young learners are well positioned to practice at home. Offer this activity to your preK and kindergarten families to encourage positive social behavior wherever students go!
- FACT: When kids start to understand other people’s feelings and needs, they have an easier time making friends and getting along with people.
- TIP: At bedtime, make up WHAT IF questions about friends’ feelings. Ask: “What if you saw a friend who looked lonely? Sad? Mad? What would you say or do?”
- GROWTH: Keep up all that feelings talk to help kids learn empathy. Now practice with a favorite stuffy: “Look! Bear is angry. How can you help?”
Early elementary school
As students move from kindergarten to elementary school, their relationship skills shift, too. In particular, elementary students form their own social spheres with other students, learn how to respond to social cues, and recognize differences in opinions and experiences among their peers. They also practice problem-solving as a collective group, establish and maintain friendships that stretch beyond shared likes and dislikes, and identify positive, unique traits in others. Last, they learn how to recognize when they need help and which individuals to ask for support with particular challenges or tasks, emphasizing the importance of healthy and supportive relationships.
Bringing SEL to life
Celebrating differences among people is an essential relationship skill for early elementary school kids. Families can foster this appreciation for diverse individuals in their students’ life by using this activity around mealtimes:
- FACT: We are all different. When kids celebrate their differences, they are better able to friends and learn from others. These are keys to success in life!
- TIP: At mealtime, ask: “Who’s someone you know that’s really different from you? What are they like? What’s something they do really well?”
- GROWTH: Keep celebrating differences! Tell your child about a time you got to know someone really different from you. Describe a fun thing you did together.
Late elementary school
As elementary school students get older, they further refine skills learned in first and second grades to maintain positive relationships. They practice their empathy skills and continue to recognize others’ unique perspectives on the world. They also improve their ability to specifically describe others’ perspectives and how they may differ from their own thoughts. They explore positive interactions with students of all different cultural backgrounds and discover effective ways to make friends – maintaining existing connections while forming new ones in different social circles.
Bringing SEL to life
Self-awareness is a key relationship skill for students during the later elementary school years. When kids recognize how their words and actions affect others, they are better positioned to work collaboratively and make positive choices in social situations. In nurturing this self-awareness, students not only enhance their ability to navigate varying social dynamics but also cultivate a foundation from which they can feel compassion and understanding for others. Share this activity with your late elementary school families to foster students’ self-awareness.
- FACT: As kids grow, they become more self-aware! They start to see how things they say or do affect others. This is key for building strong relationships.
- TIP: Next time your child does something kind, point it out. Try, “When you read to your sister, it helped give me the time to get dinner ready. Thank you!”
- GROWTH: Keep building self-awareness. Now point out that their words can affect others. Try, “When you ask me in a kind way, it makes me want to help you.”
Students continue to hone their social skills all the way through middle school (and beyond). In fact, middle school students might face some of the most critical relationship challenges and wins during these early adolescent years. In parallel with changes to their physical and emotional experiences, students navigate more evolved social connections in different settings. They use the perspective-taking abilities they learned in elementary school to understand why others might feel or act in a certain way. They also learn how to recognize and resist negative peer pressure around them.
Practicing responsible decision making positively benefits older students’ social interactions. At a time when the need to fit in can feel overwhelming, it is all the more crucial that middle school students have methods that help them take action or make decisions independently from peer pressure. Families can help students prepare for these different situations in a safe environment at home first.
Bringing SEL to life
As parents and caregivers engage with their middle school-aged children, encouraging conversations about differing social scenarios and the importance of making caring and constructive choices empowers students to navigate their social landscape with resilience and confidence.
Share this activity with your middle school families to help prime students to negotiate conflict constructively and manage negative peer pressure in a positive way (and check out our recent blog post for more social emotional learning activities for middle school families):
- FACT: In middle school kids feel a strong desire to fit in. This can sometimes make it hard for kids to make their own decisions. Practicing with you can help.
- TIP: Ask questions to help your child think about decisions. Try, “What can you do or say if a friend asks you to do something you don’t want to do?”
- GROWTH: Keep talking about decisions. Brainstorm things your child might say to get out of an uncomfortable situation. For example, “I’m not into that. Thanks.”
Want more insights about boosting social-emotional skills in students? We’ve compiled resources and stories from the field in this research round-up.
Families cultivate SEL competencies at all grade levels
Despite the variety of budding SEL skills found in my classroom, I vividly remember those moments of triumph unique to each kid’s personal goals, and the key role that families played in achieving them. Like when our little first-grader finally used his favorite stress management technique to calm down all on his own, without any staff reminders, after practicing with his mom for weeks. Or when our third-grader used deep breathing and careful time tracking to ace his timed math test — with a whole minute to spare — thanks to a strong family-school partnership like the one that turned this student’s “math-minutes” experience around for the better.
The SEL journey that every student follows is beautiful to behold, for both educators and families alike. To this day, I am thankful for the support from each of our students’ families. Their backgrounds varied tremendously, as did their own capacity for participating in school activities and their cultural beliefs about education. But we all shared that steadfast desire to see our students thrive. And that made all the difference!
About the author
Maren Madalyn is a freelance content marketer with over a decade of hands-on experience in education, mental health, and technology. She has served in a variety of capacities, including counseling, customer success, instructional design, and product management. Connect with her on LinkedIn.