Talking with U of M

Talking social-emotional learning for children with U of M

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To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in communities across Minnesota, many children have spent an important period of their development at home with limited interaction with others. This can affect a child’s social-emotional learning, which develops the skills needed to manage their emotions, build and maintain healthy relationships with others, and make responsible decisions as a part of a larger community.

University of Minnesota Professor Clay Cook explains why social-emotional learning is a vital part of a child’s development and how caregivers can support their children. 

Q: What is social-emotional learning?
Prof. Cook:
Social-emotional learning (SEL) aims to ensure each child is socially and emotionally well by helping them develop a sense of belonging and positive feelings about themselves and their situation. It also helps them develop key competencies to respond to life situations and enhance the likelihood of achieving the types of meaningful outcomes we want for children now and as they transition into adulthood.

Q: How can parents and other caring adults help develop social-emotional learning with their children?
Prof. Cook:
Just as it is for any other skill like reading, shooting a basketball or learning to ride a bike, SEL develops with repetition, practice and modeling. We, as adults, all developed the skills we have through regular practice and use of that skill. Knowing that practice is key puts caring adults in a better position to create opportunities for their child to practice specific social-emotional competencies — such as social skills — to build healthy relationships with others or resolve conflicts productively.

Children are always watching. Modeling — which is when someone sees a behavior of another and then imitates it — is also a powerful tool that facilitates social-emotional learning. Through this, parents and caring adults can help a child learn the use of emotion regulation skills. These skills can be used to calm down after an upsetting situation or identifying and reframing unhelpful thoughts that are getting in the way of doing important things through intentionally modeling these through their own actions.   

Q: During COVID-19, most children are spending time at home. How can the home environment help a child develop their social-emotional skill set?
Prof. Cook:
The home environment is one of the most influential environments on children’s development and functioning. Caregiving adults have the capability of helping children better regulate themselves in response to life situations and increase their motivation to follow through with important tasks through creating predictable home environments. 

Predictability comes by establishing consistent routines that allow children to get in a rhythm with their behavior, so they can anticipate what’s going to happen. For example, creating a visual schedule that outlines the sequence of activities the child will follow each day helps create predictability so the child can anticipate what is going to happen. Also, establishing what is referred to as “first-then” routines. This involves outlining what children need to do “first” before they “then” engage in something that is more preferred. Predictability also happens for children when the adults in their lives establish clear expectations for behavior so the adult and child are on the same page. Lack of clear expectations for behavior expects children to read an adult’s mind, which leads to inconsistencies and sometimes conflict. 

In addition to predictability, caregiving adults can create a reinforcing environment by paying careful attention to what a child says, does or achieves that is worthy of acknowledgment and recognition. This demonstrates appreciation for the energy and effort the child is putting into schoolwork or some other aspect of family functioning. 

Q: Healthy relationships are an important part of a child’s development. How can caregiving adults help establish that?
Prof. Cook:
Caregiving adults can use a very straightforward strategy called child time. It involves identifying a window of time to spend with the child (e.g., 20 minutes) where the child gets to select the activity and the caregiving adult’s job is to ask open-ended questions, express interest, remain present and go along with what the child wants to do. This helps build healthy relationships, as well as provide a time where the caregiving adult is not giving an instruction to the child, correcting something the child isn’t doing properly, or making a request of the child to transition from doing something they like to do to something less preferred (e.g., go to bed).

Q: What research are you doing in this space?
Prof. Cook:
Parenting is an important responsibility; however, most parents have never received training on how to be a parent before they became one. As a result, many parents are looking for information about how best to promote their child’s social-emotional well-being and development. Recently, I’ve been working with other researchers at the University of Minnesota on a project to develop and test a family-focused intervention in which caregiving adults work to support their child’s social-emotional and behavioral well-being at home. The intervention — Brief Remoted Intervention for Engaging Families (BRIEF) — is designed to empower caregiving adults to select topics they would like to learn more about and plan ways to support their child’s well-being. This can include promoting healthy sleep as the foundation for health and well-being and practicing skills to promote emotional coping and resilience in response to life stressors.

Outside of our work, there is a wealth of research that has shown when caregivers have the support to adopt practices in the home that promote children’s social-emotional well-being, numerous benefits are likely to come about. There is a need, however, to make these effective interventions more accessible to families to increase the degree to which high quality SEL happens at home. This requires policy and a commitment among practitioners in child-serving settings to collaborate with families in the delivery of SEL supports across the environments where children spend the vast majority of their time (e.g., home, school and other community settings). 

Clay Cook is a professor of educational psychology in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. His research and interests lie in school-based mental health supports, emotional and behavioral disorders, and positive psychological approaches to intervention.

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