by Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
Pencils? Check. Notebooks? Check. Markers, erasers, lunch box, backpack, sparkly gel pens? Check, check, and check!
Most educators and families might agree that there are fundamental resources that students need for classroom learning. OK, perhaps sparkly gel pens are nice-to-have in the grand scheme of the school experience. But students do need to have the right tools available to them for the amazing job of learning.
Beyond having the right physical items, students also thrive when they are equipped with the right skills for learning. I’m referring to skills like listening, organizing their work, using stress management effectively, creating social relationships, or taking ‘quiet time’ for themselves. These tools might not be on a back-to-school shopping list, but they are essential for academic learning as well as life beyond a classroom.
What do these tools all have in common? They are all life skills, also called social and emotional skills. And when these skills are in a student’s toolbelt, they contribute directly to education’s collective goals to enable student development and success.
Educators can leverage social and emotional learning strategies in their quest to support those non-academic parts of life that benefit the school community. These include emotional development, a sense of community, healthy relationships among students, and other core competencies needed for a fulfilling life.
Let’s dive into a few examples from a social emotional skills list, developed here at ParentPowered, to learn how adults in students’ lives can teach them.
What is social emotional learning, and why does it matter?
Let’s first unpack what life skills and social-emotional learning really are.
The National Association of State Legislatures describes social emotional learning skills as those “not necessarily measured by tests: critical thinking, emotion management, conflict resolution, decision making, teamwork.” You might also think about it as an approach to educate the whole child – rounding out crucial academic learning like math and reading with learning about, well, being human.
Most models, like CASEL social emotional learning,) and other social emotional learning standards for education came into existence within the last few decades. You may recognize familiar models for social-emotional learning, such as CASEL’s “Big 5” or the Wallace Foundation Framework. In fact, the Wallace Foundation conducted a study on social emotional learning curriculum to inform their framework, examining over over 30 different programs and models.
Clearly, there are many resources now available to guide educators in instructional practices around these non-academic core competencies. While the details of these models and programs may differ, they all share this assertion: social emotional learning skills are teachable at all ages of a child’s life.
Ranging from emotional regulation to responsible decision-making to stress management, these life skills are essential for student development and success.
How social emotional skills improve student learning outcomes
Social emotional learning skills benefit students as children and as they mature into independent adults. In fact, research has found that deploying social emotional learning strategies imparts huge personal and communal benefits on students, their families, and their schools.
When students receive instruction from a social emotional learning curriculum or program, on a personal level they are more likely to experience:
- Improvements in student behavior
- Gains in standardized test scores
- Stronger relationships with people around them, including parents
The benefits continue to appear at the school community level, too. Social-emotional learning has been shown to increase graduation rates and reduce the probability of students dropping out of school. What’s more – when teachers themselves have stronger social emotional learning skills, they experience less burnout and report higher job satisfaction.
And this is just the surface of the many positive outcomes that come when students and adults have core social, executive, and emotion-regulating skills!
There are opportunities at multiple levels within education to build these skills. Teachers can bake instruction about social emotional skills into daily classroom learning. Some might even carve out dedicated time for students during the school day to explore topics like appropriate stress management strategies or why social relationships matter.
At the district level, leaders may acquire a social emotional learning curriculum for their community to align these classroom-based strategies – and there are plenty available these days. At the highest level, state educators might develop social emotional learning standards to consistently guide schools with teaching and evaluating life skills like time management or emotional regulation.
Here’s the thing – educators aren’t the only players on the team best positioned to cultivate social emotional learning skills in students. Families are essential when it comes to successful social-emotional learning. By engaging families in these practices, schools ensure that students have the opportunity to build core social and life skills in the classroom, at home, and beyond.
A snapshot social emotional skills list for families
So how do educators and families work together to instill social emotional learning skills in students? Through family engagement, of course! More specifically, by empowering families to use social emotional learning strategies to cultivate everyday learning moments.
We at ParentPowered designed our ParentPowered curricula specifically with families in mind. Our social emotional learning content is built on evidence-based skills and competencies linked to positive child outcomes. And we know that families, like educators, face time constraints – so our easy-to-implement activities always fit into existing home routines beyond the school day.
Through text message, parents and caregivers receive tips and activities to support their children to develop skills that:
- Build a positive sense of self and self esteem
- Cultivate positive relationships with peers, family, and community
- Help them understand their emotions and use self-regulation strategies
- Foster independence and cultivate executive functioning skills
- Encourage problem-solving and resilience
When families incorporate everyday learning moments into home life – especially for these life skills – they better prepare students for a bright, compassionate, and collaborative future.
Let’s take a look at example strategies that families can use to cultivate each area from our social emotional skills list.
Building a positive sense of self and self esteem
As children grow older, they are constantly learning all about their own unique selves – their personality, likes, dislikes, unique traits, and so much more. It’s important that, as students make these discoveries, they develop a positive sense of self and healthy self-esteem at a personal level.
According to research, self-esteem is correlated with student academic achievement, with students that reported having positive self-esteem performing better in academic learning. High self-esteem also comes with long-term benefits for students, many of which persist well into adulthood. These include better social relationships, a stronger sense of community, and improved physical health.
Put another way, self-esteem and one’s sense of self is incredibly important for driving positive emotional development and building relationships skills.
Families can create regular time for these activities – their morning or evening routines are often the perfect time for quick boosts to one’s confidence! Take a look at each of these examples that help families nourish a student’s self-esteem and sense of identity:
Skill #1: Cultivating a belief in one’s worth
Every child is unique, and families send a powerful message to children when they celebrate their unique qualities. The more a child knows about themselves, the more confident they will be in social situations like recess or extracurricular activities. Confidence also helps when students are in an unfamiliar environment like a new school.
Bringing it to life: Ask your families to try this morning-time ritual: stand with your child and together look into the mirror. Take turns describing the student you reflected back. For example, a parent might say something like, “You are great at being kind to other kids.” Families can expand this ritual by asking children to share their own likes, dislikes, and curiosities.
Skill #2: Building self-confidence
Many of us can think of a time in our lives when we received positive encouragement from someone we trusted. With that feedback, at least for me, came higher self-confidence.
Families that share how their child makes them feel proud build that child’s self-esteem, and that confidence can translate to a positive school experience. Confident kids are more open to trying new things and learning new abilities.
Bringing it to life: Try encouraging parents to share one way their student makes them proud before lights out a bedtime, or during a quiet time in their schedule.
For more ways to nurture a child’s self-esteem, watch our family Q&A video about how to support a child when they are feeling down about themselves.
Cultivating positive relationships with peers, family, and community
People are naturally social, and we thrive when we have healthy relationships with our friends, family (chosen or related), and broader community. Children are no exception. Strong connections between students can make a huge difference for a child’s school experience and academic learning.
Positive relationships have immense long-term benefits for children, too. Students that have supportive relationships with people, such as parents or other adults, are more academically engaged and have stronger social skills, leading to improvements in student behavior.
Students with strong friendships – beyond peer acceptance – are less likely to feel lonely and more likely to be engaged in classroom learning. Even having just one positive friendship can protect a child from the negative effects of being treated badly by others.
As a result, children need to learn relationship skills and how to use them to create a sense of community as they grow up. Core social skills are essential for healthy living!
These social emotional learning strategies help families support students to positive social relationships within the family unit, among their peers, and as part of the larger community:
Skill #3: Practicing cultural responsiveness
People come from all different kinds of cultures, backgrounds, and life experiences. When students can celebrate the unique differences among us, they are better able to navigate diverse groups of people, create supportive relationships with peers, and learn from others around them.
Bringing it to life: Mealtime is the perfect time to nurture appreciation for diversity in children. While they prepare a meal, encourage families to ask their children questions about what makes people unique in their communities. For example, a parent might ask, “Who’s someone that you know that’s really different from you? What are they like? What’s something that person does really well?” Celebrating differences among people is a powerful way to teach children the value of diversity.
Skill #4: Helping others
Everyone needs help from their community now and then. Giving kids concrete ways to contribute to the family home encourages them to pitch in to serve a larger community’s collective goals.
Bringing it to life: After mealtime or a family activity, parents can ask their child to become their special helper. Encourage families to assign kids tasks such as wiping down the kitchen table or (if age appropriate) washing the dishes in the sink. When students give regular time to assisting around the home, it deepens their sense of community, as well as skills that foster responsibility and independence.
For more family resources to help students create positive social relationships in the community, download our guide Let’s Build Friendship Super Skills.
Understanding emotions and self-regulating
In addition to being naturally social, people are also creatures of emotion. As much as we leverage logic and reasoning skills, emotional responses and experiences also guide us to understand and move through the world. Learning to recognize, care for, and regulate one’s emotions in a healthy way is crucial to make constructive choices and navigate challenges in life.
The Berkeley Wellbeing Institute defines emotional regulation as “the ability to affect one’s own emotional state.” This crucial capacity is both a key child development milestone and often found in social emotional learning curriculum for students. Research shows that a child who is capable of regulating their own emotional response often has more positive relationships with people,experiences improved academic learning outcomes, and has better problem-solving skills.
By learning how to manage their emotions, students can better respond to many situations they inevitably encounter in life. Share these example exercises with your families to encourage the whole group to practice emotional understanding and regulation together:
Skill #5: Using calm-down strategies
Sometimes, student emotions get big – really, really big. And when big feelings arise in a child, it helps tremendously for them to have go-to calming strategies at their fingertips. Families can practice calm-down strategies alongside their students, which models emotional regulation that benefits the whole family.
Bringing it to life: Have families incorporate deep breathing, a highly-effective stress management technique, into their daily routines. For example, they can ask their child to ‘blow open the front door’ on their way out of the house to school or to run errands. After the child (and parent!) together complete three big belly breaths, they can then open the door. By practicing deep breathing daily, parents can then encourage their child to call upon this emotional regulation strategy when tough feelings come up. This is especially helpful if quiet time or other calm-down strategies aren’t available. A meltdown in the cereal aisle is a perfect time to practice deep belly breathing!
Skill #5: Taking others’ perspectives
Every single person experiences emotions as part of their life. Kids that learn how to recognize and identify emotions experienced by others are better able to make friends or at least create friendly relationships with people.
Bringing it to life: Here’s an easy, empathy-building bedtime routine for parents: as you tuck your child into bed, play the “What If” question game. For example, parents can ask questions like, “What if you saw a friend who looked lonely? Mad? Sad? What would you do or say?” Try modeling relationship skills that might help in these “what if” situations, like active listening or comforting a friend. A stuffed toy works wonders to imaginatively play out what perspective taking looks like in supportive relationships!
For more family activities all about managing emotions, check out these videos from our “Calming Down” series:
Fostering executive functioning and independence
Harvard Medical School defines executive functioning as “skills that help us focus, plan, prioritize, work” toward actionable goals. These abilities also help people self-manage their behaviors and emotions, adapt to unfamiliar environments, and engage in abstract thinking and planning.
Some might think of these skills as fundamental to “adulting”, as these competencies foster independent action and thinking – both of which are crucial for life beyond the classroom and within it. Examples of executive functioning skills, like time management and responsible decision-making, greatly support a person to navigate things like having a job, managing finances, and other fundamental activities in adulthood. We all rely on effective executive functioning skills.
In fact, executive functioning skills are so important that they take significant time to build. Our abilities to organize, plan, and think abstractly develop from childhood all the way into our late 20s! That’s because our brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for skills involved in executive functioning, takes that long to mature fully. This means that students of all ages have room to grow these crucial life skills.
Share these example activities with families to cultivate executive functioning abilities in their students:
Skill #7: Creating routines
Kids thrive in structured environments. Knowing what to expect in a day helps a child feel more confident and independent – even as they get older and create their own routines!
Bringing it to life: Families can build routines by first reflecting on their children’s current learning habits and abilities. Asking questions like, “What time of day is my child most focused?” or “What helps my child keep their focus on a task?” can guide families to craft the home structure that might best foster learning. Remember that existing home schedules are the perfect time for everyday learning as they help families work around time constraints!
Skill #8: Acting independently
Adults are expected to take care of many things on their own. A great way for families to foster a child’s sense of independence as they grow up is with practice in a low-pressure environment like home.
Bringing it to life: Here’s an activity for families to encourage students to make responsible decisions and organize their own work. Have parents put their student in charge of getting something ready, like a project or a meal. Encourage families to sit down with their child and work together to decide what they will need for this project, making a list of all items. As an extra challenge, parents can then invite the child to gather everything on the list from around the home – all on their own. Of course, parents can give plenty of reminders and high-fives, which model positive relationship skills, too!
Problem-solving, resolving conflict, and building resilience
At some point in our lives, we face challenges or conflict. Perhaps we get lost in an unfamiliar environment while traveling. Or we hit a roadblock during a project. Or maybe we get into an argument with a close friend. Conflict is a natural part of our world, and problem-solving skills help us find a way through choppy waters. Students with the skills to navigate conflict, solve challenges collaboratively, and build resilience are equipped for near- and long-term success.
Families can help children learn such tools Here are a few ways to encourage families to model and practice these social emotional skills at home:
Skill #9: Collaborating to solve problems
Research suggests that collaborative problem solving – the ability for student’s to find solutions in partnership with others – helps students learn crucial skills highlighted in the 4Cs in 21st Century Learning and Innovation Framework. And this skill goes a long way in academic learning, as problem-solving skills are crucial for math and science.
Bringing it to life: Try encouraging families to engage students in activities that require invention and creativity to foster these skills. For instance, gather materials like recyclables already available at home and challenge students to use these items to build something that rolls. Then ask kids to explain how their creation works and what ideas they tried before finding a solution. Trial-and-error are part of the problem-solving and collaboration process – inventing and resilient persistence go hand in hand!
Skill #10: Practicing positive thinking
A little bit of optimism can go a long way in helping a student build resilience in the face of challenges. Families can help students cultivate positive thinking by holding dedicated time during bedtime routines for reflection on a personal level.
Bringing it to life: Encourage families to ask questions like “What’s something that you do that you feel really proud of? Can you name three things?” These guiding questions give students a chance to celebrate their abilities and accomplishments. This in turn builds their confidence and helps them then use this kind of thinking at school, during extracurricular activities, and beyond.
For more inspiration on building resilience in children, share our video for kids all about how to bounce back after making a mistake – adults might benefit from it, too!
Social emotional skills are key to student success
Building positive relationships with people, practicing emotional regulation strategies, managing time and tasks – all of these and more support student development and success in the long run. Our social emotional skills list here is just the tip of the iceberg of possibility.
Ultimately, what all of this comes down to is this: by creating safe, nurturing environments at home and school, families and educators help students prepare for both classroom learning and life beyond it. After all, our collective goals in education are to create healthy, thriving students that grow up to be healthy, thriving adults in the world.
Just as pencils, paper, and other tools are necessary learning resources for students to build their math and reading skills – so too are social emotional skills!