HOW do you teach kids social and emotional skills?

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people and then inside the child.

–          Lev Vygotsky, 1978

What did Nelson Mandela’s Mom do right? How about Mother Theresa’s Mom? I have wondered how the parents of indisputably admirable people who have changed the world through their contributions did it. How did they nurture children who would become so influential to so many people? Like many, my desire as a parent is not to push my child to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I do want to support his development in becoming a caring, thoughtful person who can significantly, competently contribute. So how do parents influence social and emotional development?

Researchers have found that parents influence their children’s social and emotional development in four key ways.

1. Modeling[i]

Children keenly observe not only your words and actions with them but also, your interactions with neighbors, on the phone, at the supermarket and in turn, they model their words and actions based upon what they’ve observed of yours. It’s a critical way for them to understand how to relate to others. Being aware of what and how you are modeling behaviors can be a powerful teaching tool. For example, you have an angry interchange with your spouse and your child is nearby. Make sure that your child also sees you both take the time and space to cool down and talk through the problem afterward.

2. Coaching[ii]

Like a sports coach, parents remind, reinforce, provide feedback, and build and maintain trust in order to influence behavior. Many parents do this automatically. Social and emotional coaching can provide simple, quick ways to promote positive behaviors, prevent risky or unacceptable behaviors, and provide skill practice. For example, you witness your child struggling with puzzle. Instead of solving the problem for them, you ask good prompting questions such as, “How might you try this piece in a different way?” You provide clues and offer encouragement and celebrate them when they have solved the problem.

3. Creating Practice Opportunities and Experiences[iii]

In day to day life, parents can provide practice opportunities for empathy, feelings identification, perspective-taking, appreciating differences, creative problem-solving, and decision making. You likely already do this to some degree. But being aware of the goals you have for social and emotional skill building and being aware of a child’s developmental readiness can heighten your awareness in looking for opportunities for practice and help you in being more intentional about creating those experiences. For example, there are many small decisions you make in a day for your child and yourself. Are there some that your child could make? He might choose his own clothes in the morning or decide between two options for lunch. These need to be his decisions. So if one option is unacceptable, it’s not a good decision to offer him. He might really feel strongly about wearing plaid with stripes and you have to be okay with that if you’ve allowed him that decision!

4. Creating a Responsive Environment[iv]

Research on parenting styles shows that the most successful parents are the ones who are responsive to children’s needs, both physical and emotional and involved in their development, but not controlling (a.k.a. “helicopter parents”). “The most effective mothers combine reason with loving concern and high expectations for prosocial  behavior.”[v] Creating a responsive environment means that parents are aware of the development of the child, what they are working on and how they can support their development. It also means understanding the emotional climate of the household and how to create conditions that allow for the constructive expression of emotions and ways to manage stress. Sacred spaces in a household permit each person to get away without leaving the house. I tend to retreat to my bedroom and sit in my favorite chair I acquired when I was single prior to family life. Other family members know and respect those spaces so that when there, I am confident that I will be given some time to reflect and be quiet.

You may notice an obvious strategy that does NOT make the top four list and that’s direct instruction. Oh, but we all try it at some point. “Let me show you something…” we may start. And most of the time we are met with an unapologetic rejection particularly when we’ve accidently shown our cards and put some emotion behind it. Just as in dating, when a dater shows the date-e any sign of desperation, she runs for the hills! Children can smell our strong desire to teach them something and often, resist with every fiber of their being. Why? It’s not just you and your child. Your child is not particularly stubborn in this area. Here are a couple of compelling reasons that just may help you the next time you want to teach your child something.

First, think back to a time when your parent tried to teach you something by telling you what to do. Did you learn what they wanted you to learn? It’s possible that you did if you had a high interest in the subject matter or they involved you in an experience that helped you to learn. If they just talked at you, it’s likely you didn’t learn anything and probably felt annoyed by the whole experience. Skip to an image of a class you took that was strictly lecture format, no discussion, no visual aids. That describes my child psychology 101 course in undergraduate school, the content I wanted to pursue in my career. It was a high interest subject area for me yet I learned nothing from the professor who stood in front of the room and read from the textbook in monotone. Here are the percentages for adult learning strategies from the National Training Laboratories. These percentages show how much the learner actually retains of the new knowledge taught:

Lecture 5%

Reading 10%

Audiovisual 20%

Demonstration 30%

Discussion Group 50%

Practice by Doing 75%

Teaching Others 90%

And of course, this applies to child learners too. If you really want to teach your child something, consider one of the top four strategies. Instead of telling them how you hit a baseball, allow them to see you practicing hitting. Give them an opportunity to hit and encourage them. In the same way, give children an opportunity to see you creative problem solving (talk through your process aloud as you go). Find opportunities to allow your children to experience creative problem solving. Instead of offering solutions, ask good questions to facilitate their generation of solutions and remind and reinforce when appropriate to coach them through.

New knowledge and skills are not adopted without connecting to previous knowledge and skills. So make comparisons, relate to something that a child loves to do and an area where your child has already demonstrated proficiency. A child will be able to see how they can build on the competence they already possess to add a new skill.

When my Mom retired from teaching high school English after forty years, she received lots of letters from former students telling her what impacts she had made on their lives. One wrote, “She taught us more than English. She taught us about life.” All the best teachers do. Here’s to our role as our children’s primary teachers and may they say the same about us someday!


[i] Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[ii] Gottman, J., & Declaire, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child; The heart of parenting. NY: Fireside.

[iii] Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[iv] Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[v] Cole, M., & Cole, S.R. (2001). The development of children. (4th Ed.) NY: Worth Publishers.

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