Fostering Social-Emotional Development

two young girls climb on the monkey bars

The first few weeks of school are an emotional time for all of us! Whether it is your child’s first experience in school, or they know our campuses well, there are always mixed feelings from both the families and the children. It can be a challenge for us to identify and express this mix of emotions — and that is even more true of our young children, who have a lot less experience than we do!

There are three foundational aspects of social-emotional development that we work on in the preschool years. The first is social competence, the ability to develop and maintain trusting bonds and relationships. Though infants begin this process at birth, forming a relationship with their primary caretakers, a child’s preschool years are when they begin to connect and engage with a larger community. As children learn to separate from parents, socialize with other children and negotiate play, they develop their ability to attach, relate and connect with others. A child that can learn to negotiate play grows into an adult that can navigate conflict at work. A child that develops connections with a friend and comes home begging for playdates will grow into an adult that can make friends in new environments and develop deep relationships. Talking to your children about your friendships, how you enjoy another’s company, and even how you navigate a conflict provides an important model for the skills that we are helping them hone.

Next comes emotional competence, the ability to identify, express and regulate our emotions. We are all emotional people, feeling big feelings every day and functioning in society because we know how to control them. During the preschool years, we support the children as they learn to do the same. Learning to deal with frustration, or how to self-soothe, or express what they are feeling will help them in their relationships and their day-to-day functioning from elementary school through adulthood. This is another skill where modeling is key. When we model expressing our emotions, show how we calm ourselves down, and provide a safe and accepting space for all emotions, we support our children as they develop these skills.

Last is encouraging exploration and a love of learning. When a person is excited about what they are learning, research shows they are more likely to remember and retain that new information. When we speak of “following the children’s interests,” we are both encouraging their natural curiosity and showing how much can be learned from the simplest of explorations. Children who are excited to solve a problem or try something new will not be deterred when they encounter challenges in life. Those who are eager to explore and share their learning with others are developing the creative and collaborative skills that they will most definitely need in the 21st century. By modeling our own love of learning and showing interest in their play, we help children value the learning process instead of focusing on the result.

The preschool years are spent building the foundation that will support a child’s future development. These social-emotional skills are ones that will carry them into successful adulthood and through the challenges and joys of a full life. As we head into this new year, let us remember that we are a child’s best model for behavior.

This post originally appeared in the October 2022 Journal