A Parent’s Guide to Social-Emotional Learning for Kids

by | Aug 25, 2023 | Character

Empathy, self-reflection, impulse control, and conflict resolution—those are just a few of the skills kids develop through social-emotional learning (SEL). Working on SEL helps kids build Character, one of the 5 C’s at the heart of the Begin Approach to helping kids thrive in school and life. And that’s good, because kids with strong Character tend to behave better, do better in school, and experience less distress overall.

SEL may have a fancy name, but in practice it involves many things parents do already, like talking about feelings and considering others’ perspectives.

Sound important? We agree! And we’re here to help you understand what social-emotional learning is, why it matters, and how you can help your kids with it.

The Short Cut

  • Social-emotional learning helps kids develop self-awareness, social awareness, impulse control, healthy relationships, and good decision-making skills
  • A study of over 270,000 kids found that teaching social-emotional skills improves social behavior and academic performance, as well as decreasing distress
  • Teaching SEL at home is simple! Parents can help by naming feelings in themselves and others, having conversations about kids’ feelings, and engaging in role-play

As caregivers, we want to help our kids develop the social skills they need to thrive not only in their childhoods but also well beyond. Social-emotional learning is an important part of the answer.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Children aren’t born knowing how to manage their emotions, get along with other people, or cope with stress. If you’ve ever experienced a toddler’s tantrum in the middle of a grocery store, you know exactly what we’re talking about!

Social-emotional learning provides lessons and activities that help kids understand and manage emotions, develop empathy for others, set and accomplish goals, make responsible decisions, and maintain healthy relationships. In short, it lays the foundation for kids to grow into positive, responsible, and self-aware adults.

The 5 Components of SEL

Young kids at a table coloring

Social-emotional learning is broken up into five interrelated areas that are essential for kids’ development.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness helps kids understand their own thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and stress levels. It’s one of the foundational skills of social-emotional learning—without it, it’s difficult to recognize those things in others and know how to respond! 

SEL activities help children develop this essential life skill.

2. Social Awareness

Social awareness helps us put ourselves in another person’s shoes.

Sometimes that person may be from a completely different culture than ours. But empathy is needed in everyday interactions, too. It helps kids understand why their friend is crying, why that friend may be hurt or angry, or why they may be acting silly or happy.

3. Impulse Control

Impulse control helps us stop engaging in behaviors that may be harmful to us or the people around us.

Kids who struggle with impulse control may have outbursts and often fight with other kids. They may also have a tough time delaying gratification.

Many people refer to this as “self-management,” and it can be supported with SEL.

4. Relationship Skills

To build and maintain healthy relationships, kids need to know how to resolve conflicts, communicate effectively, and determine when (and how) to ask for help. Social-emotional learning helps develop these skills.

5. Decision-Making

Making good decisions, including prioritizing, is something that kids (as well as adults!) struggle with. It includes weighing pros and cons, considering your well-being and others’, and making sound decisions based on all of this information.

The younger kids are when they begin to understand this important skill, the more time they have to develop it before the challenges of adulthood begin.

How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Kids

Group of kindergarten kids sitting on a bench, arms around each other, smiling

1. More Positive Attitude

Social-emotional learning helps kids develop a more positive attitude toward themselves and the people around them.

2. Navigating Adult Life

While the focus at the moment might be on helping your child have better experiences, SEL skills don’t stop being useful at the end of childhood.

Kids carry these skills into their adult lives to help them effectively solve challenges in their relationships or at work. These are all crucial elements of living a healthy and balanced life.

3. Better Grades

It’s well established that social-emotional learning positively impacts kids’ grades. That may be because SEL helps them learn how to solve problems, cope with emotional stress, and overcome peer pressure.

How to Approach Social-Emotional Learning

1. Be a Role Model

Kids learn best from our actions, not our words. Your kids will learn a lot about emotions and how to manage them by watching how you manage your own. It can be hard (believe us, we’ve lived it!), and you don’t have to be perfect, but try to model handling your full range of emotions the way you’d like your kids to. 

It can be especially helpful to name your feelings in front of them (“This conversation with the cable company is making me frustrated right now.”) and talk through how you manage those feelings (“I need a few minutes by myself to settle down.”) Your child will pick up on your moods and how you deal with them.

2. Practice Role-Playing

Role-playing gives us the opportunity to understand another person’s rationale (something that’s difficult in the middle of an argument) and why they may have said or done what they did. Working role-playing into playtime (“OK, let’s pretend you’re the parent and I’m the kid.”) can be a fun way to help kids learn this perspective-taking.

3. Talk about Feelings

Communicating thoughts and feelings verbally is one of the most important social skills. You can help your child learn to do that by working it into your family routine.

Did they recently visit their grandparents or have a playdate at their cousin’s house? Consider asking them:

  • What did you do while there?
  • What was the best part?
  • Was there a worst part?
  • What made you happy?

Keep the conversation lighthearted and don’t sweat it if you don’t get a great answer every time. At first, your child might not know how to express themselves or answer these questions thoroughly. That’s OK! With a bit of time and encouragement, they’ll get there.

4. Set Goals

Setting goals and working toward them can help your child continue developing their SEL skills.

You can set goals at the beginning of any period: a soccer practice, a day at school, a week, a season, or even a whole year.

During the process, help your child think about what they’d like to achieve. Throughout whatever time frame you’ve chosen, help them chart their progress. You can even use these to work on specific social-emotional learning skills, like:

  • Learning to take a deep breath to calm down when they’re upset
  • Using words to express how they feel
  • Thinking of new ways to show others they care about them

5. Practice Working in Pairs

Young children learning meditation for kids

Kids work in teams throughout their lives, and you can help them develop the social skills to do so starting pretty young.

For instance, when it’s cleaning time, you can work together to sort laundry or straighten up a room. You might also consider teaming up to make a special gift for someone.

If your child is reading, you can take turns reading, alternating paragraphs or pages when you read together. If you have multiple children, they can share the book while you monitor.

Playdates offer another great opportunity to practice teamwork. You can plan activities that require your kids and their friends to work together, such as cooking a meal, drawing together, playing dress-up, or making a fort under a table.

6. Consider the Perspectives of Others

Considering the perspective of other people helps kids develop empathy.

One of the easiest ways to help them is to incorporate social-emotional learning during storytime. After reading a book, you might ask your child how they think a character felt or why that character took certain actions.

You can also use everyday situations to help your child learn how to understand the perspective of others.

For example:

  • Look at how unhappy Chrissy was when kids made fun of her name. I think her face looked like this (make an unhappy face). What could we do to help her feel better?
  • (On another day) Look how happy Chrissy seems now! Can you show me your happy face?

Social-Emotional Learning with Begin

At Begin, we understand that social-emotional learning is essential for helping kids develop into well-rounded adults who succeed in school and life. We build social-emotional learning activities into many of our products, whether it’s a Little Passports book, a Learn with Sesame Street game, or reading stories in HOMER.

Visit our parent resources to find more ways to help your kids with social-emotional learning. And to see how our products come together to give your child their best start to achieving their fullest potential, check out our Early Learner Bundle.


  • Begin Learning Team

    Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.

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Begin Learning Team
Begin Learning Team

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Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.