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Mastering Social-Emotional Learning in Children

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

We are all born with very intense emotions but with no skills on how to manage them! Social-Emotional learning helps children master how to recognise, respond to, cope with and express their emotions in a healthy manner. Social-emotional learning is key in order for children to be able to flourish, so how can we help them develop these skills?

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process of learning and then applying the skills necessary to manage emotions, have self-awareness, social-awareness and show empathy. These skills are essential for children to develop so that they can form and maintain positive, healthy relationships, build emotional intelligence, make smart decisions and develop perspective-taking and empathy skills.

5 Components of Social-Emotional Learning

There are 5 intertwining components to SEL, and the skills developed in one will overlap with other components as well;


Being able to recognise your own emotions and thoughts is a very important skill. Being self-aware involves;


Once you can understand your emotions, you need to be able to regulate your emotions and behaviours in various situations. This includes being able to manage impulses, control stress levels, mustering motivation and setting goals.

Decision Making

This is the ability to make positive choices about your own behaviour and social interactions based on morals, ethics, social norms and consideration for oneself and others. Competent decision making also involves;

  • identifying problems

  • analysing situations

  • problem solving

  • evaluating and reflecting

  • understanding ethical responsibility

Relationship Skills

Being able to establish and maintain healthy, positive relationships is a key skill in life. This includes being able to;

  • communicate effectively

  • manage conflict or disagreement

  • seek and offer help

  • empathise with others

  • being a good team player

  • respecting personal space

  • knowing how and when to apologise

Social Awareness

This often involves being able to apply many different social-emotional skills in diverse situations. So this could be perspective-taking, respecting others, appreciating differences and empathising with those who come from different backgrounds to oneself.

Developing Social-Emotional Skills in Children

Developing SEL skills is a life-long process but this development can start in very early childhood, potentially even from birth. SEL skills require a lot of work in the pre-frontal cortex and this area of the brain is not fully developed until our mid-twenties, so therefore we have to ensure that the skills we are trying to develop in children are age appropriate. For example, we can't expect toddlers to get involved with life goal setting or having perfect impulse control.

Having strong and competent social and emotional skills has life long benefits. There are statistically significant differences associated with learning these skills at an early age and key outcomes later in adult life. Having competent social and emotional skills is linked with a decreased likelihood of receiving benefits and welfare, lower risk of being associated with criminality and police involvement and a decreased likelihood of spending time in prison.

So what techniques can we use in school to help develop children's SEL skills?

Emotional Coaching

Emotional coaching is the process of supporting a child through an emotional situation by validating, naming and relating to the emotion they may be feeling. Children need to be aware and feel that emotions are normal, that they are important and should not need to be suppressed.

The 4 steps to emotional coaching are;

  1. Attending to the emotion: just acknowledging that something is wrong.

  2. Name the emotion: label what the child may be feeling so that they can expand their vocabulary around emotions.

  3. Validate the emotion: try to see things from your child's perspective and validate their feelings.

  4. Meet their needs: help the child follow-through with their emotion and meet whatever need they currently have.

Calm Corners

Having a calm corner in your classroom can provide a safe space for a child to escape to when they feel dysregulated. Here, you can sit with them and help them self-regulate and you can also fill your calm corner with resources that aid emotional understanding. These could be posters that explore emotions, books that explore SEMH or some sensory toys to help them calm.

Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation framework and curriculum, developed by Leah Kuypers and her team, teaches students scaffolded skills toward developing a meta-cognitive pathway to build awareness of their feelings/internal state and utilise a variety of tools and strategies for regulation, prosocial skills, self-care, and overall wellness. The program starts with early emotional skills and advancing on to self-regulation and navigating social situations.

Be a Role Model

Kids will look up to you for everything. and that includes how you regulate yourself. When children are uncertain of something, they will typically mimic how they see people they trust or feel safe with, so make sure that you know how to regulate yourself.

Be aware of your tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, behaviour etc. When you are supporting a child, be sure to show that you are remaining calm and in control and model healthy ways to cope with stress or frustrating situations.

You may want to also openly share your emotions throughout the day - both positive and negative ones. You could say things like "I'm so excited to be going with you on the trip today." or "I'm frustrated that people are not listening to me right now." This continues to expand children's vocabulary regarding emotions.

Further Reading;

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