Social Emotional Skills in Our Children

What we are getting wrong and why

Billions of dollars are spent every year to help children develop better social emotional skills. And yet, we still can’t seem to get it right.  This is evidenced through readiness assessments, as well as children being expelled or suspended from school at an alarming rate. 

Social emotional skills include self awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making and self management. As children develop these skills, parents and educators are often working from misguided assumptions and outdated approaches, and may find themselves increasingly frustrated. 

Faulty Assumptions Around Social Emotional Skills Get In Our Way

It turns out that the reason many of our approaches either don’t work, or even make things worse, is that they are based on faulty assumptions about what social emotional learning is, and how it develops, as well as our misunderstandings around why challenging behaviors exist. In order to help, we first have to change the narrative. 

Focusing on the behavior is less likely to actually change the behavior.

We often focus first on how to change a behavior. For example, if a child is hitting, we zero in on strategies to make them stop that. And while we don’t want them to hit, this is actually the least likely mindset to change the behavior in a sustainable way. 

Instead, we need to understand that when a child exhibits challenging behaviors – including hitting, running away, shutting down, arguing, refusing to do things – these are all signs of stress. When a child experiences a threat, real or perceived, such as rejection, disapproval, or not being heard or understood, the cortisol is released in their brain for up to 20 minutes and it stays in their system for up to 3 hours. Cortisol inhibits a child’s ability to think, reason, problem solve or control impulses. This is what we often refer to as fight or flight. Very helpful when being chased by a dog, but really challenging when a child is feeling they won’t be included.

When we switch our mindset from stopping the behavior as the main goal, and instead focus on lowering the stress response, we are set up to actually help.

Why Rewards and Consequences are not working

Parallel to this concept, is the idea of why kids display challenging behaviors. Whether it is said explicitly or not, when we use rewards and punishments to change behavior, this is based on the idea that this child has all of the social emotional skills needed to change the behavior. If a child in conflict hits or kicks and the strategy to change the behavior is simply a reward for “using your words” or a punishment or time out for hitting, the assumption is that this child not only has the self control to stop the hitting but the social emotional skills to resolve the conflict to meet their needs in a more prosocial way, thus making this a sustainable change. In other words, the assumption is that this is not a skill issue but a will issue or a motivational problem only. In fact, quite often they do NOT have the self control (especially under stress) to refrain from hitting, nor do they have the skills to resolve the issue in a way that meets their own needs and that of others. 

Therefore, when we consider that this child does not have certain social emotional skills to meet the demands of a situation, including their own needs, in an effective and acceptable way, then our goal will now be to help the child build their skills. How might this child meet their own very real needs of acceptance, agency, safety, connection, sense of justice, or belonging effectively? What do they need to know how to do? And how can we help? 

This brings us to how to help children have the skills they need.  

Why social emotional curriculums fall short

Many programs are set up to teach social emotional skills directly to children, such as books on sharing, and curriculums to tell kids directly what it takes to resolve a conflict or follow the rules. These are not harmful and offer an opportunity to discuss challenges with children. However, the primary way that children learn social emotional skills is not through direct instruction.

Social emotional skills are learned through a quality relationship with an emotionally skilled adult. How an adult interacts with and responds to a child is the primary means by which a child develops their skills. And therefore, rather than focusing on programs that cognitively teach children social emotional skills, it’s necessary that adults have the skills to respond to children and communicate with them in order to connect and grow, whether that adult is a parent or a teacher. While cognitive skills are learned cognitively, emotional skills are learned emotionally. 

How we inadvertently create barriers to social emotional learning

Another common misconception is that children can choose their emotions or emotional responses to things. This is evidenced by the amount of times they hear: “calm down”, “don’t get so upset”, “don’t let that bother you”, “just worry about yourself”, “don’t get angry”… or simply our reactions of disapproval to emotions, such as anger or sadness. These responses don’t actually result in a child feeling calmer, but also they send the message that the feelings a child has are not acceptable. 

In fact, children cannot simply change their emotions. First we feel, and then we think. So we do need to accept the feelings, and show that acceptance, in order for a child to begin to think and take actions that can help a situation. While we may not accept a behavior, a child’s feelings must be accepted in order for them to build the self awareness needed in order to build skills or change behaviors. 

Social emotional learning strategies and discipline are not separate

Another way we are getting it wrong, is that often we see social emotional learning as separate from our discipline approach or policy. For example, a school may have an organized social emotional curriculum based on the fact that self awareness is the foundation for the other skills. And we then plan activities around becoming aware of our feelings. However, the same school may have a discipline policy in which if a child demonstrates anger in the classroom, they are sent out of the room, never acknowledging the source of their anger or feelings, in an effort to find a more effective or appropriate way to express that feeling. 

Rather, a SEL program and a discipline policy should really be one methodology by which the adults understand stress, challenging behaviors, and how children truly develop the skills they need. When all of the adults respond to children in such a way as to build connection, understand and accept feelings, as well as set clear expectations, children have lower stress, build SEL, and as a result demonstrate less challenging behavior. 

So, where do we start now?

First we need to examine our own beliefs and assumptions about behavior, emotions, and social emotional learning. And if you see some misguided beliefs guiding your approach or those in your school or community, you can begin to look at challenges with a very different understanding. 

To learn about how your community might learn how to change the narrative, go to for courses and free resources. Or email us at [email protected], if you are looking for programs in your community. 


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