San Diego Moms: Explaining Social Emotional Learning and How to Teach It

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As the mother of an amazing child on the spectrum, I learned about the ins and outs of social-emotional learning. I also learned how crucial it is to teach children about inclusion, compassion, and understanding.

Unfortunately, in my research of San Diego County schools, I learned that the principles of social emotional learning are not taught everywhere, as teachers are pressured to focus on the Common Core Standards.

Here’s the good news: parents can easily teach social-emotional learning at home. I spoke with Bridget Laird, executive director of Wings For Kids, a nonprofit organization that works to improve SEL through after-school programs, teacher training, and curriculum development for low-income schools across the country.

Laird explains that social-emotional learning “encompasses all the ways a child can fully develop.”

“That includes managing emotions, having empathy for others, setting and achieving goals, and learning about relationships,” Laird said. “ One way I like to describe it for parents or anyone else who isn’t familiar with this is this: School is where kids go to develop their brain smarts, and SEL is about getting their ‘heart smarts.’ ”.

Bridget Laird

Laird, who has a master’s degree in education, said the pandemic has shown that social-emotional learning is more important than ever.

“Children are feeling a wide range of emotions due to school being back in-person or even losing family due to COVID-19,” Laird said. “It is important that children learn to support each other given the various circumstances in which they return to the classroom. After all, remote learning means many children may have forgotten what it’s like to work with others or even listen to others. Your relationship skills will need fine tuning and SEL can help.”

How can you instill social-emotional learning in your own parenting?

Laird said that “the key is to help them identify their own emotions.”

Here are some examples provided by Laird:

“When I had to take my daughter to get her flu shot, I could tell she was nervous. She could also hear another child who had entered before her and was crying because of the gunshot. While we were in the waiting room, I talked to her about how she was feeling. She let me know that she was nervous and it made her stomach ‘quiver’.

I told her to take a deep breath and close her eyes when she felt this way. It was about acknowledging how she was feeling and giving her tools, even ones as small as these, to use as soon as she linked her body’s response to feelings of nervousness or anxiety. In other situations, some parents may choose to pretend they got an injection before telling them that it “didn’t hurt” or simply telling their child to “be brave.” But I prefer a different tactic, one that helps her prepare and deal with her feelings.

As for my son, he often lost it on his math homework. He struggled with fractions and always got angry. I had to sit him down to first help him identify his emotions and why he was frustrated. “I’m angry,” he would yell and I tried to dig deeper by asking him why and what made him feel that way. Eventually, we were able to come up with a homework plan and calming techniques for whenever he encountered difficult fraction exercises.

Another time, when I was working as a counselor for Wings For Kids, I announced my engagement and one of the fifth graders seemed really disappointed. “Oh man,” she pouted, “now [that you’re married] you will be very sad and you will come to school bruised”. At first I laughed thinking it was a joke, but then I decided to pay more attention to him and his mother every time I came to pick him up. After a while, I sat him down and talked to him about how excited he was and really looking forward to getting married. It turns out that what she had seen of his relationships with his own mother was that they were abusive. So, in his mind, marriage meant sadness and pain. So what I focused on was sharing my happiness at getting engaged. It wasn’t about belittling his mother or minimizing his feelings. Instead, I tried to highlight the positivity of relationships and help him understand the power they can have.”

Laird said that social emotional learning is versatile and can be taught in many different situations, including school settings.

“SEL is also beneficial for maintaining healthy relationships,” he said. “Taking a closer look at many adult interactions reveals many fractured relationships that might have been different with a more intentional introduction to SEL at a younger age. In fact, SEL isn’t just for kids and the skills they learn can carry well beyond K-12 into adulthood when they enter the workforce.”

To learn more about social emotional learning or Wings for Kids, visit

San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Do you have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.

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