Setting the stage for success: Promoting social and emotional health in young children

Adults often tell children to “use their words” to solve their problems, but do the young children in our care know what those phrases mean? Learn more about how to teach children about their emotions and how to form secure relationships.

Parents and caregivers do much to help promote healthy development. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Parents and caregivers do much to help promote healthy development. Photo credit: Pixabay.

What is social and emotional health? What role does it play in children being ready and able to succeed in school and life? Much emphasis is placed on teaching young children their ABC’s, colors, shapes and numbers in preparation for heading off to Kindergarten. Research, however, is showing that one of the greatest predictors of children’s success in school is their social and emotional health. According to the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, social and emotional health is a child’s developing capacity to experience and regulate emotions, form secure relationships, and explore and learn. This all happens within the context of one’s family, community and culture background.

Parents and caregivers do much to help promote healthy development. Many of these are things you are already doing every day with the children in your care. Other skills take targeted effort to develop within the context of your home or child care center. However, it is well worth the effort to plan for children’s social and emotional development in the same manner we do for academic success. Michigan State University Extension believes that children who understand and cope with their emotions usually:

  • Perform better academically
  • Form stronger relationships with their peers and adults
  • Have fewer behavioral problems
  • Handle their own negative emotions better
  • Lead happier, healthier and less stressful lives

One key strategy to prompting children’s social and emotional development is through the use of children’s literature. Books provide a wealth of opportunities to teach young children about their emotions, how to identify and label their feelings, how to problem solve, and to see characters engaging in situations that might be similar to their every day life. MSU Extension offers Family Book Sheets to help parents and child care providers expand on these concepts beyond reading the book.

Even as very young toddlers, children can learn to express their feelings appropriately and learn to label their emotions. For example, teaching toddlers to sign the word “stop” instead of biting when they feel frustrated. Give preschoolers the opportunities to be reflective about their feelings and expose them to a wide variety of feeling words beyond just happy, sad and mad. Take the time to say in front of the children in your care that, “It is frustrating when the CD player won’t work!” or “It’s disappointing that it’s raining and we can’t go outside today.”

It’s also important to teach children friendship skills. What does being a good friend look like? Are you modeling that for your children? Teach empathy by being empathetic and recognizing emotions in others. Provide positive verbal support to children who are “caught” engaging in positive play with their peers. Practicing turn taking and build in opportunities for children to help each other, such as serving snack to their peers.

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