In their separate domains, educators and parents both understand the importance of social-emotional skills—that the ability to manage emotions, to empathize, and to collaborate is key to fulfillment and success, in school and in life. But schools and families are not always in sync on how to develop those competencies. As schools implement large-scale, research-backed SEL curricula, caregivers at home often have little guidance on how to help their children become resilient, mindful, and kind.
Consistency is key when it comes to building these skills, according to developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones of the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When schools and families have shared behavioral expectations and a common language for social and emotional skills, it can be “easier for kids to transition smoothly and be successful across multiple settings with many different adults,” she says.
Jones and her research team helped us compile advice on how schools can involve families in their SEL programming—and how families can apply those same practices and skills at home.
For Schools: SEL Practices That Engage Families
To engage families in social-emotional development, teachers and school administrators can’t just send ho
me packets and to-do lists. They need to create strong relationships, partner with families on goals for their children, and receive and provide ongoing support.
- Start by learning about families. Use surveys, open houses, or phone calls to find out about family composition, special skills, concerns, and likes and dislikes. This knowledge can help teachers connect with families on a personal level throughout the year.
2. Invite families to generate SEL goals for their children. Ask families to identify what specific skills
they would like their children to develop, and what kind of characteristics they would like their child to personify. Ask children, too, to write down their goals and the challenges they might face in achieving them. These goals can be connected to school or home.
3. Designate internal capacity focused on SEL and family engagement. Have a designated staff person—an SEL or school-family partnership coordinator—who not only oversees SEL program development, implementation, and evaluation, but also serves as a liaison between educators and families. That position can be part of a larger school-wide committee that is involved in SEL planning and decision-making, and that includes people from every part of the school community, including families.
4. Create a resource center for families. Schools should create a physical space where family members know they can go to pick up resources or books related to social-emotional development. This designated space signals to parents that they are welcome at the school—and that the school values their role in their children’s development.
5. Plan ongoing SEL initiatives. Create opportunities for families to learn more about social-emotional wellbeing. At other family engagement events, such as holiday celebrations or class presentations, hand out a one-page SEL resource or ask parents to participate in a short activity about developing a specific skill. Provide examples of ways parents can build those skills at home.
For Families: SEL Practices That Continue the Work of Schools
To build on the work of schools, families should think about social-emotional learning as an all-day idea—rather than as a strategy to manage a singular stressful behavior or situation. In the same way that a strong school-wide SEL program helps children develop key skills for many settings, families can use their everyday interactions to build critical competencies that will aid children throughout their day.
6. Focus on your child’s strengths. Especially when it comes to academics, it can be tempting to focus on problem areas. First, though, ask your child what she thinks she did well. A focus on accomplishment can build self-efficacy and help children persist when things get difficult.
7. Use visual aids to help your child plan. When something is new or hard for your child—completing homework, keeping his room clean—make visual reminders or step-by-step checklists that you can display prominently in your home. By showing children what they need to do to succeed, these practices also help children develop self-efficacy—and contribute to a sense of pride when goals are met.
8. Ask about feelings. Together, talk about emotions—what it feels like to be frustrated, worried, or excited. The ability to identify and label negative emotions can grow self-awareness. Encouraging your child to use “I” statements—“I’m mad,” “I feel sad”—can help build self-control and communication skills, teaching her to pause and think when she’s upset.
9. Stay calm when you’re angry. Learn to recognize your own “trigger situations” and talk about coping with anger as a family. Show your children how you calm down: i.e., “I’m feeling very upset, so I’m going to take a couple of deep breaths before we talk about this.” Modeling these cool-down strategies can help your kids develop self-control.
10. Be willing to apologize. When you do get upset, or make a mistake, apologize to your kids. Explain what you meant to do or say. In these moments, you’re teaching social competence—that conflict is a normal part of life, and that it can be solved respectfully and calmly.
11. Encourage helping and sharing. Regularly talk with your children about what others might need, and how you could be helping. Think about big and small ways that you can help—whether by taking out the trash for an elderly neighbor or by volunteering at a local food pantry or at your church, mosque, or temple. These acts build empathy, cooperation, and a community-oriented mindset.
Leah Shafer is a writer for Usable Knowledge, a publication based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for practicing educators everywhere.