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SEL social emotional learning

Don’t neglect SEL (social emotional learning): tips from experts

These are tough times. Here are coping tips for your kids (and you!)

Editor’s note: This article on SEL (social emotional learning) was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated a bit as we enter 2021.

When things began shutting down as the new coronavirus pandemic emerged in early 2020, who could have imagined we’d still be having these conversations 10 months later?

We’re all, still, to some extent, anxious, fearful, and confused about what’s to come, and perhaps above all else, we need to take care of ourselves. Learn from three experts in the realm of social emotional health on how to manage our emotions, model healthy habits (when we can) and check in with our kids during self-quarantine.


Sherri Widen is the director of research for the Committee for Children in Seattle. She is a developmental psychologist with special interest in how children understand emotions and how to support their social-emotional development.

Scotty Iseri is the host and creator of The Imagination Neighborhood podcast, an SEL program for kids. He began his career in education developing and teaching media literacy programs for Chicago’s After School Matters program. He also ran an edtech startup called FUNDA that used interactive video and games to help kids feel more confident about math.

Dana Sheldahl is a K-12 certified school counselor with an M.Ed. in School Counseling and B.A. in psychology. She has worked in both private and public-school settings. She is also a mother to three small children. 


What is Social Emotional Learning?

SW: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a blanket term for the skills around self-awareness and self-management, social awareness and relationships skills, and responsible decision-making.  

SI: Practicing SEL at home looks very different than it does at school.  Many parents may not know what “SEL” is but they are supporting it when they ask their children how they are feeling or help their child take turns. One of the best ways to support SEL at home is to walk the walk: When the grownups demonstrate positive behaviors, help children name and process their feelings, and acknowledge and support children’s positive behaviors, they are supporting the more direct instruction in SEL that kids are (hopefully) getting in school.

DS: The goal for all children no matter the age is to develop skills of self-awareness, social awareness, decision-making and responsibility, and the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships


What are some ways parents can incorporate SEL into their child’s day in an intentional way? 

DS: The best thing families can do to support their child’s social emotional growth is to first take care of themselves during this time. Setting aside time for your own self-care allows you to more effectively parent and teach your children these skills. One of my favorite activities is having children create check-in charts (a self-awareness building activity from The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning) Children create a feelings scale from 1 to 10 using some sort of visual cue to identify what each number represents (like foods, sports or animals.) Children can then use this tool to identify their feeling state each day. This could also be a great time to start implementing regular family meetings. This can be a time to problem-solve issues, share highs and lows, and plan family activities for the week.

SI: One of the ways you can bring SEL into [daily routine] is by bringing emotionally focused questions into your everyday conversations. [Ask] things like, “How are you feeling” or “How would your brother feel if you did that?” Questions like these help show your kids that being aware of their feelings and the feelings of others are important values to you.

SW: Another approach is to think about projects that can emphasize empathy or kindness. Families can talk about ways to show empathy and kindness to others in their community or neighborhood. Then they can choose one that the children can work on together. For example, the kids could each cut out and decorate hearts and flowers to put in the window for others to enjoy. Parents can talk to their children about how the kindness project helps people feel more connected even when we can’t all get together.


How can parents apply SEL to day-to-day learning in more natural, applicable ways? 

SI: Social-emotional skills are just that: skills. And like other skills, they can be learned and improved with practice. Think about learning to ride a bike: We don’t hand kids a 24-speed mountain bike and expect them to ride. We help them learn how to ride. Many children ride a tricycle first [and] they learn how to pedal and steer with little risk of falling off. Then they graduate to a bicycle with training wheels and begin to learn how to pedal and steer and balance on a two-wheeler. Finally, after lots of practice, kids are ready to take off the training wheels. The same is true for social-emotional skills: Children will learn and get better with practice.

DS: There are many everyday things that families are already doing to support their child’s social-emotional growth. Families are supporting this growth when they help their child calm down from strong emotions, coach them through sibling disagreements, or listen and validate their child’s perspective on an issue. And when you don’t have your best parenting day and you acknowledge your mistakes and repair, your child is learning valuable social-emotional skills.

SI: In a way, it’s like those oxygen masks on the airplane. “Secure your own, before helping others.”  On The Imagine Neighborhood, we end every show by asking, “How were you kind today?” It helps [to] think about being kind on a daily basis.  So asking that question as part of a daily routine also helps kids know that this is something their parents value.


How can adults model a healthy sense of self and healthy relationships? 

SW: If we want our children to value caring and concern for others, they need to see their parents modeling those behaviors and acknowledging those behaviors in their children.  

DS: It’s not realistic for us to model ideal behavior all of the time especially during times of added stress. It’s important to give ourselves a break. It can be really powerful for our children to hear when we’ve made a mistake – this allows them the freedom to also make mistakes. [One] other important thing you can do for your child is to be available to listen.


How can the arts, or even regular activities, be integrated into SEL at home? 

SI: Stories are a very powerful learning medium, so whether you’re listening to The Imagine Neighborhood or watching the latest tear-jerker from Pixar, there’s always an opportunity to bring a little empathy into the conversation. 

SW: Parents can ask about the characters’ feelings when they are helping their children with reading. Or they can bring SEL into other subjects their kids are working on. If a child is struggling with an assignment or skill, it’s a great opportunity to sympathize with them, name the emotion, and talk about why they are having a tough time. Parents can also help their children practice ways to calm down (deep breathing, taking a short break) and to help them think of a different way to approach the problem. 

DS: You can explore with your child the feelings and perspectives in the books, movies and [other media] they are consuming. You can ask what they might have done if they had a similar experience. Family board games can be another great opportunity to practice various social-emotional skills. Children practice self-regulation skills, cooperation, and communication skills to name a few while playing games. There is also so much value in free play and students are gaining skills through this form of unstructured play. So, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t add anything more to your plate!


How can parents ‘doing it all’ also prioritize the emotional health of their family? 

SI: Well, if it helps, I’m in the same boat … I’m a single dad who is working hard on putting out resources like [the podcast]. Doing that while a squirmy first-grader wants some attention is challenging. I guess my advice would be to find ways to take care of yourself.  This is our “now normal” not our “new normal” so make sure that you’re available to be there for your children. I think one other thing is that there’s an amazing amount of community good happening, even the act of social distancing is a community helping itself, and it can help to focus on that.  

SW: Do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do everything perfectly. The goal for everyone is to do the best they can in difficult circumstances.

DS: My advice for parents that are having to take on too many roles is to have self-compassion. This is a lot; [it’s] too much. You’re doing enough! 


Other ideas and resources for SEL at home: 

  • Families could create a list or visual depiction with your child exploring the various ways you can cope with strong emotions and specific activities for self-care during this time. 

  • Children could create “about me” collages or drawings and share different aspects of what makes up their identity.

  • Children could create and decorate calming boxes or a calming space with items that help them regulate their emotions.  

  • Families could create visuals with mantras or positive self-talk statements to help encourage each other when feeling down during quarantine. 

  • Wheel of choice is another positive discipline tool for helping children with decision-making. Children can create a wheel with various symbols and words for the choices they have for problem solving an issue.

  • Incorporate various mindfulness techniques into your routine with your child. Try out a guided visualization, yoga practice, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindful coloring together. 

  • Set aside time for family members to reflect on what they are grateful for during this difficult time. These could be shared verbally, journaled or written in an email or letter to someone. Each person names something they are grateful for; big or small. The goal is to be more aware of the positive things we have or do each day rather than focusing on the negative.



More resources:

Supporting your teen amid the stress of coronavirus

Calming podcasts, art and music for kids that you can find online

The Playlist: All about home learning

Kids fighting all the time? Be proactive but patient


About the Author

Leah Winters