Why Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Active Listening 


Active Listening is when we are not only hearing what someone is saying, but also attempting to understand, empathize, and make inferences from what we heard. This skill is often taken for granted- how many times have we heard what someone says and wanted to jump at the opportunity to fire back? How many times have we been given a direction, immediately look around and ask, with a hint of embarrassment, “What are we doing, again?” Here is a small way adults can practice active listening all while teaching children what it looks, and feels like, when they experience it.


This week, try being present with one child at a time for 10 minutes- that’s right, one. When you have some down time, set a timer, put electronics down, T.V. off, and find a comfy place to begin a conversation with your child. Try asking questions that will get them talking, so keep them child- centered, “What’s your favorite color?”, “Who’s your favorite character…?”, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If your child gives the reluctant, “I don’t know.” Just wait. Try to hold back suggestions or your own opinions on the matter, make it clear you are interested and curious; remember, we’re practicing listening, not evaluating.


Be prepared- it’s easier said than done. If you are trying this for the first time and you get interrupted or you find your focus stray to the text you just got, take a deep breath and try tweaking something so you will be able to focus a little longer the next day. Find what works for you, while you are the one practicing this skill, you are simultaneously teaching your child what it looks like when someone actively listens!

Skills for Learning


These are skills that support each student’s ability to learn and grow at Westpark!  Some of the skills that your child’s teacher may talk about are Focusing Your Attention, Listening, Using Self- Talk to Stay On- Task, and Being Assertive to ask for help.  Just like any skill, we need practice, practice, and more practice to get good at it.


When at home with your child, identify for your child when they are focused, when they are distracted, when you catch them listening, when you notice they are not listening, the idea is that you are helping them recognize when they are using these skills and when they are not.  When you have time, see if they know what types of things distract them, and ask why they are distracting.  You may be surprised to learn your child’s passion or even discover their future career by asking what they think about!  


Self- talk is something that everyone does during their day, whether its to help us cope, calm down, or work through our many tasks, we use self- talk to help us.  However, as adults, we have learned to inhibit talking to ourselves out loud, although children may need to see this skill being used in order to use it effectively.   When you notice yourself getting distracted by something, whether it’s your phone or something the other child did, name it in front of your child, “Oh my goodness, I got distracted with that!  I better try to focus again so I can finish this.” or “Wow, I am sorry, I am distracted. I know that can feel disrespectful, what were you saying?” or even, “I better turn this off so I can focus better.” Although it may feel awkward at first, ultimately your child is watching you become distracted and learning how to get back on task- wouldn’t it be great if they used the same strategies you use to focus when they are at school?  


Similarly, assertively asking for help can be difficult for both children and adults, especially if they do not want someone to know they need help.  This is another skill that is best learned by watching adults do it first. Even when you may not need much help, clearly asking a partner can be just the example they need to use it later, “I am getting so frustrated with this, can you help me?” or “This is making me feel disappointed that I’m having trouble, I think I may need help.” As parents and teachers, we want to see our students and children be successful, so we offer help when we see it is needed.  But what about when it is not clear? Watching a parent or teacher ask for help from someone can provide similar words and tones to use when they use it in the future.


Naming Our Feelings and Emotions


When students can identify, understand, and respond in a caring way to how someone else is feeling, it helps create a positive and accepting school climate.


At home, help your child identify their emotions by giving them a name.  For example, notice when they begin to show a certain emotion let them know what you see: "your face looks like you feel excited", " you sound like you feel worried", "your body looks like you feel angry" are all examples of helping your child identify their emotion.  Rather than using umbrella terms like upset or frustrated, try to name specific emotions like angry, confused, or nervous.  The easier we can identify emotions, the more successful we are when using a coping strategy.  Also, notice how this strategy recognizes the emotion or feeling first and not what they are doing to show it.  Following it up with a supportive question or comment lets your child know that you notice they are having trouble with a strong emotion and they may need some help. 


Another way to help your child communicate their emotions is to do it yourself.  While adults have learned to inhibit some of our thoughts, talking out loud when you are feeling a strong emotion can be just the example your child needs to try it themselves.  When you are able to say your emotion out loud, "I am feeling so confused by this!" follow it up with a strategy to calm down, "...so I am going to take a break (listen to music, go for a walk, etc.)".  This strategy works for joyful emotions too, "I am so excited for this! I don't want to make a mistake, so I am going to take five deep breaths to calm down."  This way your child notices it is normal to feel strong emotions and there are different ways to manage them.


Making and Keeping Friends 


Having  safe and happy friendships can not only benefit childhood and health and wellbeing, but adulthood as well!  


It may be that during this time of year you may begin to hear about your student's friendships around campus.  Friendships help build self- confidence, provide a sense of belonging, as well as build feelings of security in a community.  As a result, children develop skills like communication, empathy, compassion, and of course, joy and excitement!   


When children struggle with friendships, or have negative experiences with a peer, it can be heartbreaking.  Our child, who once loved coming home and talking about the fun experiences at recess, begin to cry, talk about being teased, or is feeling left out.  Often times, parents suggest to ignore the offender, repeat the offense back, or take it upon themselves to fix it.  While these can be helpful in the moment, rarely do these strategies help to reduce future conflicts that your child might experience.  If you are noticing yourself giving the same advice every time your child comes to you, here are some different strategies to try. 


Listen to their concerns, what is it about this situation that is difficult for them?  Many times listening to why they are having difficulty with a friend is a good time to help them identify feelings of jealousy, exclusion, or fear.  Once the emotion is uncovered, it can make it easier to figure out what to do next. 


Work to uncover the root of the issue, and have your child think about the other's perspective in the situation.  Without judgment, ask about what happened when they noticed the change or what might have caused that person to react the way they did.  When trying this, help your child identify the emotion the other might have felt, and think about what would help if they felt that way.  


Relate to a similar experience you might have had as a child.   This can promote a positive connection and reduce feelings of isolation your child might be feeling.  Try to think back about what you thought worked or didn't work.  What would you do differently knowing what you know now? 


Help your child develop friendships outside of school.  Encourage your child to join clubs, sports, or other interest based groups around the community.  Having friends outside of school can provide a source of additional security when a friendship changes.


Perspective Taking


Simply considering another's perspective can impact our decision making and can act as a platform when problem solving.    Perspective taking skills such as understanding and naming our own emotions*, knowledge that others may feel different or similar emotions, and showing compassion are all important skills to practice when considering another's perspective.


Here are some things to practice with your child that can promote the perspective taking skill of building knowledge and understanding that others may feel differently or the same in any given situation.   While reading or watching a movie together, have your child name the different emotions they believe the characters are showing.  When they are able to name and notice the emotions, ask how they would feel in the same situation, and then take the opportunity to share what you, as the adult, might feel in the same situation.  Follow up with asking why they think some people feel one emotion and other might feel a different one.  While older children might enjoy more of a discussion when talking about emotions, your younger child may prefer a naming emotions "game" (as Mom and Dad are always the most fun toy to play with wink).   


Compassion is first recognizing what another might be feeling then acting on what they might need to feel better.  When teaching your child how to show compassion, it is important to name it when you notice it.  Anything from driving by and noticing someone helping another stranded driver on the side of the road, to someone asking if another is feeling okay, watching someone show compassion is an important tool when teaching and practicing this skill.   Additionally, when your child acts on compassion positively recognize their efforts!  Often, young children will naturally ask if someone is okay after falling or run over to see if they are okay.   In these moments, adults can both cultivate compassion by letting their child act on their natural instincts and then teach them to recognize more complex facets of compassion such as safety concerns, giving another "space", how to get help, etc.    A good way to do this is, "I am so proud of you for asking if your friend needed help!  It looked like they got hurt, and it is safer to let an adult help them; that is when we back up to give them space."


*More information on skills for understanding and naming our emotions can be found under Naming Our Feelings and Emotions. 


Self- Control


Self- Control is managing our own emotions enough to pause and think about what helps us calm down and prepare for what might happen next.  Ask your Westpark student about the Calm Down Steps used to rein in strong emotions.   The Calm Down Steps are (1) STOP- use your signal, (2) NAME your feeling, and (3) Use a CALM DOWN Strategy.  Here are some ways to encourage self-control in the home:


(1) STOP- use your signal:  This step requires that children recognize they are having a strong feeling and use self-talk to tell ourselves to "Stop!",  "Relax", or "Wait" before reacting.  This is often very difficult when feeling a strong emotion.   Basically, a part of our brain, called the amygdala, responsible for our emotion regulation, has hijacked our "thinking" part of our brain limiting our decision making ability (watch this video).   As a parent, this may be easier to say, however, to help your child put into practice is a little different.  Again, practicing and modeling this skill when you are feeling a strong emotion is the best way to normalize and show your child how to use it, which is an ideal way to encourage your child to use it on their own.  When you are feeling a strong emotion, say out loud, "Wow, I need to calm down!",  "I need to wait before I react.", or "I should stop."  There is nothing wrong with showing your actual emotion, however, take this opportunity to attempt to keep it under control- yelling should be minimal, no name calling, and no blaming.  


(2) NAME your feeling:  This step relies on your child recognizing basic emotions (happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.) and a feeling of security (if I name this emotion, I will still be liked or loved).  Many times the hesitation to name an emotion comes from an irrational thought that "I am not supposed to feel ______" (for example, boys shouldn't cry: "I am not supposed to feel sad").   To challenge this thought for our children, cultivate an environment where any and all emotions are accepted, when your child shares an emotion, agree with it: "I can understand that you feel _______, and in our family, we do not hit when we are feeling ______".  If you notice your child having difficulty naming their emotion, name some of the signals you are getting from their body language, "Your fists look tight, your eyes are narrowed, and your voice is loud.  It looks like you are angry.  What is making you feel like this?"


(3)  Use a CALM DOWN Strategy:  In SecondSTEP, the strategies they suggest to calm down are using positive self-talk ("this will pass", "it is not a big deal", "I can do this"), belly breathing ("smell the flower, blow out the candles"), and counting down.  In addition to these, children can be encouraged to take a break from a task, read a book, listen to music, spend a few moments outside, exercise, hug a favorite toy, etc.  It might also be helpful to ask them to help you with a task, or suggest playing a game, then revisit the issue when the strong emotion has passed.  This way, the amygdala is no longer hijacking the "thinking" part of the brain and your child can make a better decision, rather than name calling or becoming physical.




Empathy is recognizing and attempting to understand another's emotions either through their tone of voice, facial expression, or their body language.    This skill takes lots of practice!  By this time in the year, we have covered feeling different emotions, how to manage those emotions, actively listening, and taking another's perspective, all skills that are necessary to empathize with another peer.  


Empathy is pivotal in social skill development in order to nurture compassion and kindness toward another person.   When we encourage students to empathize with one and other, showing compassion and following through with kind acts are executed without adult prompting or expected rewards.   As it becomes part of an everyday practice, conflicts between peers reduce and problem solving increases as students begin to develop awareness outside of their personal world.  


When looking to build empathy with your child, remind them of the clues to look for: tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.  As they begin to look for these signs and recognize and name them accurately, ask them some questions, "What would you like someone to do when you are feeling that way?" or "Was there a time when you remember feeling like that?"; these types of questions help them reflect on their own experiences with that particular emotion and help them better plan for their next course of action.  After, try encouraging your child to think about what they might do next, something kind, compassionate, even a simple reflection can be just as meaningful.  


In addition, try these seven ways to cultivate empathy in your child, retrieved from Greater Good Science Center's article.  More in depth explanation of each of the following can be found here.       


1) Help your child develop a "moral identity"

2) Allow "do- overs"

3) Recognize empathy through stories

4) Continue the empathy discussion from school to home

5) Examine your own empathic values

6) Be mindful of social media use

7) Help your child find their "inner hero"



Problem Solving


When students learn problem solving skills, they are equipped to figure out solutions to problems that not only occur between friends, but also improve their time management skills, behavior regulation, as well as build compassion and empathy.  Second Step has identified specific steps used when problem solving:  1) Say the Problem Without Blame, 2) Think of Solutions, 3) Explore Consequences, and 4) Pick the Best Solution.  These skills require practice before they are mastered, as they are difficult to follow through with when emotions are running high.


Saying the problem without blame is oftentimes the most difficult aspect of problem solving, and many times adults have difficulty with it too!  When we blame someone or something it is often the result of feeling uncomfortable- when we are uncomfortable with a situation, we tend to reach out for the quickest and easiest reason why the situation is not working.  Instead, we encourage students to use "I messages" to express discomfort.  An "I message" sounds like, "I feel ___________ (an emotion), when ____________ (state the problem).  It would be helpful if  ___________ (a solution)".      When we begin by expressing an emotion first, we can empathize with the other person easier, and as a result, communicate clearer and solve the problem logically.  


When our emotions have been expressed, and we begin to think of possible solutions to the problem, be sure to consider everyone's input.  In order to eliminate the problem happening again, discussing a possible solution or compromise is essential in supporting those involved.  Solutions that are seriously considered should be respectful for everyone, be safe, and everyone should feel comfortable with what is expected of them moving forward.  When coming up with solutions, possible consequences and planning ahead also needs to be discussed.  This part of the conversation should take the longest to figure out, as each person should feel valued and have an input for what is expected of them.  


Try it at home!  Set some time aside to discuss a problem that you or your child may have noticed and help them break it down.  Be sure not to interrupt, lecture, or over react to the problem they are expressing.  This conversation will need to happen several more times as they get older, and over reacting or being difficult to talk to will only diminish their motivation to reach out to parents or adults in the future.  When problem solving, actively listen to what they have to say, have a clear idea of why this is a problem for them, have them practice saying their problem with an "I message", and consider possible solutions together.