At Moriah, and most quality schools, we talk extensively about the social and emotional benefits of being part of and belonging to the Moriah family. Often, these benefits are taken for granted or it is assumed that our children will automatically develop these skills by osmosis.
Sometimes people even view these social/emotional skills as ‘soft skills’. They put more emphasis or importance on pure academic rigour, sporting, music or other co-curricular achievement without realising that healthy socialisation and friendships are vital underpinnings for a child to feel confident and successful and to actually engage in the learning process and in all other activities throughout his or her life.
It is true that people who feel a sense of belonging tend to be much better at handling their own feelings and behaving in ways that make people around them feel comfortable. Thus, belonging helps breed belonging via friendships based on trust and empathy. Unfortunately, socially isolated young people, even in loving well intentioned families and quality school environments, miss out on many of these experiences.
What are some of the elements that help children develop healthy friendships and high social and emotionally literacy? An important influence on developing quality friendships, being social and emotionally literate, is the quality and caring relationships of a child’s early life. A child who enjoys a warm and affectionate home, with firm but fair parenting, has a better chance of forming strong reciprocal relationships with others. Children with emotionally connected families tend to have higher self-esteem, increased confidence and a deeper empathy, resulting in them being able to enjoy healthier stronger friendships.
Connecting children to groups outside of the family through co-curricular activities, Shabbat meals, chaggim, shule activities, chesed involvement and other hobbies or co-curricular activities are very important and deepen their sense of belonging. Spending time with people outside of the family is vitally important for a young person’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Sometimes there are problems and roadblocks that arise and develop in a child’s social and emotional skills development. Some children seem just not to develop the skills to keep up with other children their age during play or other social activities. Specific social skills training may be required. For some children, these skills don’t come easily or they may be delayed due to a neurological or developmental impairment or obstacle, or due to experiencing a trauma change or a major lifecycle event. Alternatively, they may be impacted by autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorders or developmental delays. However, social skills coaching from parents, educators and other health professionals, as we will discuss later on, can help children gain the necessary skills to help develop lifelong and quality friendships.
A quality online resource to help look at social and emotional learning programs to help children to get along with others, problem solve, resolve conflict and handle difficult emotions is www.beyou.edu.au.
The good news is that social literacy skills can be taught to young people and they tend to make a very significant difference. These skills can improve over time with practice and maturity.
Here are a series of social skills improvement areas with suggestions and techniques of how to build and develop them in children.
- Improving body language and facial expressions
Showing a relaxed and welcoming facial expression builds trust with others. A child with confident facial expressions and a happy demeanour places others at ease. Alternatively, a child who seems blank, agitated or is overly intense with their body language or facial expressions, can find it more difficult to form bonds with others, as other children may shy away from them as they may experience them as challenging or difficult. Children can learn to show a friendlier and more welcoming face through role plays and practising happy, warm and inviting expressions in front of a mirror.
- Being a good listener
Good listeners tend to be better companions. Often, good listeners give as much as they take in friendship. The art of good listening takes time, practice and maturity to develop. Most children need listening reminders or cues, especially when they are experiencing intense feelings of anxiety, frustration or excitement. At these times, listening becomes more challenging. Playing listening games that focus on tuning into what is going on around you or noticing sounds and nature together, or meditation or mindfulness activities, build a child’s attention span and listening capabilities. Games that require listening and remembering, or drama games, where children have to focus on what others are saying or doing, are enjoyable and effective ways to develop confidence and listening abilities.
- The ability to problem solve in a friendship
Children who are able to problem solve through the ups and downs of friendships tend to gain the confidence of their peers. They look for solutions instead of focussing on, and highlighting the problems. They approach things in a more light-hearted way. Problem solving is another way of developing empathy, which is another essential skill for friendships. Part of a friendship process is being able to endure and solve differences of opinion and to appreciate the differing needs of others. These differences allow for the development of greater empathy and a deeper self-awareness.
Social conflict itself can provide an opportunity to build skills in repairing hurt, accepting difference and learning how to compromise. Children who are able to learn and engage in problem solving often learn to prevent and proactively resolve disagreements before they even evolve. When a child approaches you with a conflict that has occurred, being solution focussed is often more helpful than repeating the complaints of the child, encouraging them to disengage from a friendship or engaging in an argument with the other party. Training them to engage in a problem solving framework is far more efficient and effective, and you are giving them a gift for life.
- Healthy emotional regulation
Another important skill within healthy socialisation is being able to regulate and handle different or difficult feelings and emotions. This isn’t always easy for adults, never mind for children.
Young people find others who are emotionally well-balanced most of the time more likeable. Children who struggle to manage their feelings such as anger, frustration, impulsivity or excessive excitement can make other people around them feel uncomfortable or anxious. Emotions are contagious and can be quickly absorbed by others. A child that struggles to keep calm often puts their playmates in a state of constant discomfort without even knowing it.
The ability to socially regulate is rarely automatic, although some children find it easier to develop than others. Appropriate social emotional responses actually take time to practice, and the brain takes time to develop routines and understand how to respond to these. The prefrontal cortex governs the ability to be able to emotionally regulate, and it continues to develop well into early adulthood. Open discussions, reflecting and practicing well-balanced and regulated emotional responses to challenging situations and feelings, help flex and exercise the prefrontal cortex and assists in healthy regulatory development.
Obviously children and teens are sensitive and discerning to our emotional states, reactions and our own emotional regulation, thus we need to ensure we are modelling appropriate and well-balanced responses to challenging situations.
Reflecting upon complex or challenging social situations or interactions within quality literature or media, discussing them, looking at the lives of the different characters, their backgrounds and cultures and talking about their feelings, then reflecting on how you would react in those situations, are very effective ways of modelling, discussing and learning about social and emotional literacy and regulation.
- Managing anxiety
Preparing children for situations that may make them anxious by teaching them coping strategies can help them feel more confident and reduce the anxiety itself. Prepare them ahead of time, encouraging them with what to expect and how they might handle it.
Even before a child becomes anxious about a given situation, for example, anxiety about losing a game, it’s effective to remind them that when playing, it feels good to win, but the important thing is to make people want to play with you again. Help them focus on the priorities.
Allowing them to openly discuss an anxiety, then packing it up into a manageable compartment and imaginary box, thereby putting the child back into the emotional driver’s seat, is a very powerful technique.
Anxiety is a vast and extremely widespread emotional challenge, affecting a large number of our children to different extents, and will be the topic of a future article.
- Role-playing and identifying feelings
Role playing often allows children to objectively practice social and emotional skills without even being present in a situation or conflict where the stakes may actually be a bit too high. Many social programs offer role playing to teach a range of social and emotional skills. Young children can even learn through role playing using inanimate objects such as stuffed animals, toys or puppets which might be even less threatening than role playing with another person.
Another effective learning technique for social and emotional literacy is labelling feelings. It is important to teach children how to identify, accept and cope with difficult feelings.
Emotions can overwhelm most children and labelling them, whether it is anger, worry, excitement or joy, provides children with a sense of emotional security and helps them relate to their feelings as separate to themselves, and builds social and emotional literacy. Children can be trained to become more comfortable talking about their feelings as well as recognising feelings in others.
Another technique is to cut out pictures from a magazine or identify pictures in a book of different people experiencing different emotions and learning to sense and empathise with those emotions in others.
- De-stressing and calming techniques
Often, when a child is feeling very stressed or experiencing intense feelings, distraction or diversion can boost a child’s ability to calm down, especially when they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Keeping a collection of calm and happy items, interesting things that bring out positive feelings in a child, such as photographs of fun experiences, pets or loved ones, books or objects that have positive associations, is a really good way of calming a child down. In fact, adults in a highly stressed environment or workplace can also do well to have objects that calm them down and that engender positive emotions.
Other distractions may include introducing a different person to the situation, pointing out an item or object, activity or interest, or asking them for help at something that they are skilled at or turning on some upbeat music that they enjoy.
Laughter can always help circumnavigate difficult emotions and help transform them into something more constructive. Being prepared to play the clown and lighten up when a child is emotionally drained can energise them and help them feel safe and connected to you.
Laughter lowers blood pressure and reduces stress hormones making difficult situations easier to handle. It is important that we have time to laugh with our children every day and ensure they are not taking life too seriously.
Other stress management techniques for highly stressed or intense emotions is diaphragmatic breathing which can be taught ahead of time. The art of distraction, redirection, laughter or breathing through stressful situations are techniques and skills that children can eventually develop and incorporate into their own independent repertoire of emotional literacy.
There is also a series of quality online tricks and tips in the Resilience and Wellbeing Toolbox that can help children develop techniques of dealing with intense emotions.
Empathy is another essential aspect of getting along with others. Empathy is increasing our perspective of others and our pro-social behaviour, especially in times of conflict. When a child has hurt another’s feelings, an adult can reflect the impact that behaviour has on the other person whilst showing empathy. For example, “you kicked Jacob’s bag angrily when you passed by him. Jacob was feeling confused and bullied.” By reflecting the experience and the emotion, the child can better understand and empathise with the impact they have had on others.
Unfortunately, when a child blames others for their actions, or is not encouraged to see things from another’s perspective, it becomes harder for them to take responsibility, empathise and maintain positive relationships.
Children with limited empathy and social perspective can be challenging to playmates and friends. They tend to interact in ways that are focussed on meeting their own needs rather than the needs of the friendship or the group.
- Social media and developing healthy social skills
Today, young people are conversing more than ever through a variety of social media channels. This reduces the opportunity of practising some vital social skills such as listening, turn taking, eye contact and the face-to-face reciprocity of communication. These are all vital aspects of healthy relationships. Too much time spent on technology, or technology mediated communication, means less time building social skills through daily interactions.
The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviour appears to be profoundly influenced by interpersonal relationships. Making face-to-face interaction and relationships between others a priority, and reducing the amount of time friendships develop through technological means, can make a long-term difference to the development of a healthy brain and ultimately healthier relationships with others.
- Professional intervention
When is professional intervention required to help our children?
How will I know if my child needs professional help with developing their social and emotional literacy? Here are a few things to look out for:
- Frequent or ongoing conflict with others that dominates the majority of their friendships.
- True difficulty in seeing another’s perspective or often feeling like they have been hard done by or misunderstood by their peers.
- excessive moodiness that cannot be explained.
- Difficulty in handling feelings and often overreacting or having meltdowns. This point can be developmentally appropriate for pre-schoolers, by school age, most children should be able to moderate their difficult feelings.
- Regular expressions of loneliness or feeling disconnected.
- Social anxiety – meaning too much time worrying about social interactions so much so, that they often miss out on the chance to play and interact.
- A poor or seemingly impaired sense of empathy, being unable to notice, understand or accept other people’s emotions or differing perspectives.
- Simply avoiding social interactions such as parties or playdates.
- Struggling to use constructive and friendly ways to get another person’s attention.
- Choosing to spend excessive amounts of time alone during play dates rather than peers.
- A child that gets along better with adults than with children their own age.
- Ongoing difficulty with winning and losing well into the Primary School years.
Only one of these indicators may not be sufficient to warrant seeking professional help or intervention, however, a variety of these indicators can signal that your child may benefit from help and intervention.
Where do I find professional help for my child?
A good start is seeing a good GP and discussing where a child’s social and emotional development might be at. A paediatrician can put a child’s developmental milestones into perspective and assess whether they are reaching the necessary milestones or whether they may require some intervention. Our school counsellors have extensive training in social and emotional literacy programs and are able to help children develop these skills in small groups in or out of the classroom.
Psychologists and health professionals that specialise in children often have social and emotional literacy programs and evaluations that your children can participate in. Other organisations that focus on child and youth mental health and wellbeing often have useful links for social and emotional literacy support and information. ‘Solutions for kids’ on Facebook offers quality regular tips for building social and emotional literacy, resilience and wellbeing.
In conclusion, a friendship can make a tremendous difference to a child’s overall sense of wellbeing and achievement. They tend to behave and perform better at school and at home. When a child has developed healthy friendships involving caring and empathising, they connect with others and develop a stronger sense of self and overall wellbeing. When people feel connected they enjoy a sense of belonging, they feel they have a platform with which to contribute to their personal development, to their peers, their families and other relationships throughout their lives.
Positive relationships with others are at the core of our happiness, and happiness results in releasing unlimited potential in our children and ourselves. As a school, having clear pro-social policies and providing a range of social and emotional literacy programs (e.g. Friendology-UR Strong, Rock and Water etc.), which we have built into the very foundation of our classroom settings is vitally important.
As a school, we maintain a culture of high expectations around how all people, teachers, students and parents should interact and treat each other. This further embeds the values essential for making and keeping friends in a healthy social and emotional environment.
Moriah is a socially and emotionally oriented school, skilled at connecting children and fostering friendships, providing a strong sense of belonging and a foundation for overall achievement.
Take home message for parents
Learning social and emotional literacy skills is a process that takes time and practice. Not all children find it easy to develop those skills, nor will all children be able to access all these skills without time, practice, encouragement and gentle reminders. Nor will a child become suddenly social if it doesn’t fit in with his or her nature.
Some children do enjoy being in quiet places such as the library instead of the school playground as they need time-out from the hustle and bustle of school life. Others simply enjoy being alone at times so that they have time away to observe and consider their environment and interactions.
Siblings can provide a healthy backdrop for developing and practising important social and emotional skills. Allowing time for siblings to play together and enjoy shared interests like bushwalking, boardgames, playing with pets, playing a sport or other fun things together is very beneficial. They can have fun or even problem solve and move through conflict together as they work towards a shared goal.
Children without siblings can join in with extended family and friends on outings and different times throughout their lives. Being part of co-curricular and social activities and other friendship groups is very important. In time, most children find their way and develop friendships that can last a lifetime.
One of my observations as Principal of Moriah College is that when you join Moriah, you are not just enrolling your child in a school, you are actually becoming an integral member of the Moriah family. Often, parents will develop very close friendships with other families through their children, and children who develop friendships through Moriah will often stay friends for life. We repeatedly hear of Moriah graduates who stay closely connected to each other often serving as the best-man or bridesmaids when their friends get married, they are there when their future children are born and share milestones in life. It is truly a nachat to see second and third generations of Moriah graduates bringing their children back to the College so they can experience the deep and beautiful social, emotional, family and communal connectivity that sets Moriah apart.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.