By Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.
“What was that noise?” I asked my ten-year-old son. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and I had all heard the heavy clunk, thud, thud, clunk that seemed to make its way from the second story all the way down to the basement. “We were throwing clothes down the laundry shoot. But then, we threw a toy,” explained my son. “See if you can find it in the basement,” I replied. When my son and his younger cousin sheepishly appeared with a wooden doll house bed in their hands, the headboard was in one hand, the rest in the other, clearly broken. “Oh, that’s no problem,” said his kind grandma. The younger cousin and my son were squirming, clearly uncomfortable.
“Thanks, Grammy,” I said. I know she would have been comfortable with simply throwing it in the trash, but this was an opportunity to teach responsible decision-making skills. My son had made a poor decision. And he’s likely to make many more in his young developing years. After all, mistakes are a critical part of learning. But I could guide him to fix what he had broken. And that fixing extended to relationships and feelings, as well as an object.
My goal was to prompt his careful consideration rather than tell him what to do. So, E and I walked out of the room to a private space, and I asked, “How do you think you can make up for this?” He said he would apologize to Grammy. And he offered, “Papa can fix anything?” So, we went together to ask if E’s grandpa might work with him to show him how to fix the toy bed. I suspect Grandpa enjoyed showing E how to properly sand down the wood, apply the glue, and clamp it together. These are the roots of responsibility. This is what it takes to parent in an intentional way that develops social and emotional skills within children.
According to the NBC State of Parenting Survey, parents said they most want to promote their children’s social and communication skills even above getting good grades or understanding technology. Parents recognize that their children need to learn to collaborate if they are to tackle class projects or survive and thrive in the modern workplace. Parents realize that children have to learn to manage the feelings they experience, whether its anxiety, anger, or frustration, in order to achieve their goals. And parents are also keenly aware that their children will only be successful in relationships with others if they can think and feel with empathy for others and make compassionate choices with consequences in mind. All of these are critical social and emotional skills.
In fact, nationwide, schools are increasingly making these skills a top priority. They are using evidence-based curricula at each grade level, pre-K through college, to teach self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2016). Though referred to, at times, as “soft skills,” these can be the toughest – as in, helping kids build resilience, manage stress positively, and add to their inner strength – and also, the most critical, giving our children the tools they need to be successful in their academics today and workplaces and family lives in their future.
Research shows that this focus will yield higher academic performance. A meta-analysis, conducted by Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg (et al, 2011), of 213 studies showed that students who had social and emotional learning as a part of their academic curriculum scored 11% higher on high stakes achievement tests than those who did not.
We, as parents, know that this is just as much our job as it is our school’s responsibility. The good news is that learning about what our children are working on at each age and stage can offer us empathy. Through that newfound understanding, we can discover teachable moments that support their growth each step of the way. Here are some examples.
3 to 5-Year-Olds
Work on helping your child develop a feelings vocabulary. “Name it to tame it” is a common expression and it works! Talk about what body symptoms your child might experience, raising her self-awareness. “Does your face get red when you’re angry? Do you feel hot? Does your heart beat faster?”
Practice naming the feelings when they occur. “Addy, it looks like you are frustrated because Sam took your toy. Is that right?” Always check in to see if your feelings label is accurate. This simple practice will help alleviate some of a preschooler’s frustrations as she learns to better communicate her feelings. This will enhance her self-control.
5 to 8-Year-Olds
Practice coping strategies. There are numerous firsts in a child’s academic career at these ages, including sitting at a desk with less movement, reading for the first time, and being introduced to new academic subjects. Children feel all the pressures that go along with expectations for their performance. Help them cope with those stressors by thinking through options for calming down. Talk about them and make a list. “What can we do when we’re feeling anxious and tired?” Start with a few suggestions like hugging a teddy bear, cuddling with a blanket, or hearing a story; but allow the child to create ideas as well. Post the list or keep it handy. Use it after school to proactively practice coping strategies. After a high protein snack, ask, “Which one do we want to practice today to help us feel better?” Rest assured, this is preparing the child with invaluable self-management skills that they’ll take right back to school with them.
7 to 10-year-olds
Collaborate on household responsibilities. This age group is undergoing a whole new level of social awareness as they become sensitive to fairness, can examine larger social issues, and enjoy collaborating in groups. Build on these emerging themes by talking about household responsibilities as a family. List out the many possible ways of contributing and engage the child in identifying what she can do with competence. Be sure and model or work closely together on new tasks the first time so the child understands how to do it.
Then, allow the child to take responsibility for a task and complete it herself. Don’t go behind and fix it if we feel it’s not up to our standards. Allow her the satisfaction of completing a task. And if there are a number of tasks, make a checklist so that the child can check them off when completed. Designating a family work time so that all feel like they are contributing to the care of the home working as a team will add motivation. Turn on some kid-friendly, high-energy music and get jobs accomplished to the beat, taking pride in the care of the family’s home.
9 to 11-year-olds
Exercise relationship skills through problem-solving dialogue. This age group is influenced by their peers and may come for help with friendship challenges. The tween years are a perfect time to use coaching skills to help increase children’s relationship skills.
In coaching, trust that the child can find a good solution to a problem with some careful consideration. Instead of responding to the complaint, “Susie keeps grabbing my game. Tell her to stop!” by intervening, prompt the child’s thinking. Begin by reflecting back the child’s feelings: “Sounds like Susie’s annoying you. Why do you think she’s grabbing your toy? What you’re doing isn’t working, so what could you do to get Susie to stop?” Challenging the child’s thinking and asking how they might change their approach can prompt creative solutions. And when Charlie is successful with his own idea, he learns that he can competently manage his own relationships.
12 to 14-year-olds
Practice responsible decision-making skills in the early teen years. In fact, teens will undergo a major brain reconstruction, moving their focus from learning through play toward the logical, rational thinking that will be required in their adult years. And it is a process that requires time, practice, and mistakes. How can parents and teens reflect together on social situations where there was a negative outcome? “Tim cheated on his math exam and got caught. Now he has detention. Why do you think Tim made that choice? If he didn’t study, what other options could he have taken instead? What could have happened as a result?” These kinds of conversations help teens make the connection between the action and the consequence. These simple conversations can lead a teen to become a more responsible thinker and, in turn, a more responsible decision-maker.
Learning more about a child’s social and emotional development as they rapidly grow and change adds to confidence in our parenting. We can become our own best problem-solvers as we meet their learning challenges with practical tools for their success today and for their future.
About The Author: Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., author of the popular site Confident Parents, Confident Kids, has twenty years of experience helping adults become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She serves as lead writer, in partnership with the Center for Health and Safety Culture, for Parenting Montana: Tools for Your Child’s Success, a statewide effort to bolster engagement by those in a parenting role in developing the social and emotional skills of their children.