Social emotional learning is critical for children’s development, and yet receives insufficient attention in our schools and homes. This knowledge includes the following key life skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. SEL research has documented numerous benefits: improved academic achievement, increased kindness, sharing, and empathy, and better problem solving and planning skills. I am going to discuss three of the most important skills necessary for a child’s long-term success and happiness.
1 Intrinsic motivation
When a four year old runs up to you and asks, “What do you think of my colored picture?”, our typical response sounds something like this; “Oh, it’s so beautiful! You are the best artist; let’s put it on the fridge so everybody can see it when they come over.” What I’d rather you say is this: “What do YOU think about your picture?” Then listen to what your daughter has to say and just mirror that back to her. She is liable to say something like, “I like it because I used funny colors for her face and I used all of my favorite colors.” Reflecting her words back helps her to internalize the good feelings she has about her artwork, i.e. excitement, pride, and joy. This is her intrinsic motivation, and she will always have these feelings to draw upon when you’re not there to pump her up. Your daughter will become internally driven by what ‘s right for her and thus less vulnerable to what other people think about her and her work. Too many teens leave home never having had anyone ask them, “What do you think about your work, your performance, or your passions.”
2 Growth Mindset
People with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is fixed and innate, leaving them vulnerable to failure, a fear of challenges, and a loss of confidence and motivation when they struggle. Having a growth mindset means you think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through hard work and education. Challenges become energizing because they offer opportunities to learn, and learning becomes a more important goal in school than getting good grades. I encourage parents to commend effort, strategies, focus, persistence in the face of struggles, and a willingness to take on challenges and risk: “I love the way you tried a lot of different strategies when you were stuck, and you kept at it until you figured it out. Good for you.”
Kids who were praised for their character when they shared with others, “You are the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can; you really are a kind person” were subsequently more generous than kids who were praised for their behavior, “It was good that you shared your candy with your brother.” Acknowledging character helps kids to internalize that they are a moral person, and this effect is strongest around ages 8-10 years when they are beginning to formulate a strong identity. Research has also shown that it’s more powerful to use nouns when praising children’s moral behaviors: “You are a great helper” is preferable to “Thanks for your help.” “Please don’t be a cheater” is more beneficial than “Don’t cheat.” Shifting emphasis from behavior to character results in kids taking action because it’s the right thing to do vs. doing something to get a reward.
If you want your children to develop life skills like being self-motivated, willing to take academic and life challenges and risks, retaining their love of learning, and becoming generous and moral beings, use the above strategies to guide their social emotional learning.