Building Social & Emotional Intelligence in Children – How to Teach Connection and Civility

Building Social & Emotional Intelligence in Children - How to Teach Connection and Civility

In our changing world, teaching children civility is more important than ever. Civility goes beyond being polite and courteous; it involves listening to others with an open mind, disagreeing respectfully, and seeking common ground to start a conversation about differences. By teaching skills like empathy, problem-solving,and perspective taking, we can help nurture civility in our children.

Perspective taking.

Perspective taking is a critical skill for working in groups and resolving interpersonal conflicts. When children don’t stop to think about other people’s perspectives, it’s easy for them to make inaccurate assumptions about others’ intentions. And acting on these assumptions can lead to unnecessary conflict. 

Here are a few ways you can teach perspective-taking skills to your child: 

1. Read books together. Books are a wonderful resource for teaching perspective-taking skills, because you can take your time and ask lots of questions to help your child identify how a character might be feeling, spot the clues that reveal the character’s emotions, and discuss why the character might be feeling that way. 

2. Point out someone else’s emotions. Considering how someone else may be feeling in a public or social setting helps children learn to interpret and decode other people’s emotions. Though witnessing another person’s strong emotions can sometimes be uncomfortable, it can also be a wonderful teaching opportunity.

3. Share your own emotions. Talk with your child about how you’re feeling throughout the day. You can share why you feel certain emotions, and what you can do to problem solve or resolve a situation that’s causing a difficult emotion. This experience not only helps children build their perspective-taking skills, but normalizes both positive and negative emotions and helps develop empathy.

Empathy.

Empathy—the ability to feel or understand what someone else is feeling—is the foundation for positive interpersonal relationships and healthy communication. Having empathy in tough situations helps children treat others with kindness and respect, and may also help them intervene when another child is being bullied.

Modeling and showing empathy when you interact with your child is the most effective way to teach this important skill. So when your child is having a rough day or misbehaving, make your first response an empathetic one. This might sound like:

• “It’s so hard when …”
• “Oh, no …”
• “Uh-oh …”
• “Oh, man …”
• “You look/sound … ” 

Responding with empathy communicates to your child that you hear and understand him or her. When children feel heard, they’re more willing to listen, and more open to understanding and identifying with another person’s perspective.

Problem-solving.

Both bullies and their victims tend to lack problem-solving skills. Children who tend to avoid being drawn into bullying dynamics, on the other hand, are better able to recognize problems, brainstorm solutions, and make connections between their actions and consequences. The following three-step process is one you can use to help guide your child toward solving problems when they arise. 

1. Listen and validate. Listen empathetically and respond to your child’s thoughts and experiences with validation. Encourage your child to tell his or her story. (For example, “Hey buddy, tell me what happened.”) Then reflect back what the child said or paraphrase with something like “It sounds like you’re ________.”

2. Help your child label emotions. It’s important that you allow your child to label his or her own feelings, instead of dictating how to feel. Listen in a way that shows you’re paying attention and taking your child seriously, and don’t dismiss any emotions as silly or unimportant. 

3. Set limits while problem-solving. Set alimit on the behavior or choice your child expresses while acknowledging his or her emotions. For example, say, “It’s okay to feel/want ________, but it’s not okay to do ________.” Once the limit has been set, ask your child what he or she wanted or needed, then brainstorm together a few different ways to resolve the situation that are both safe and respectful. Help your child evaluate those ideas based on your family’s values and then let him or her choose what to do to fix the problem, try again, or try the next time the problem occurs.

Acting with civility requires children to be respectful, reflective, and self-aware. Learning the skills of perspective taking, empathy, and problem-solving helps children understand that their actions and words affect individuals as well as their entire community, encouraging them to rise up and act with civility in tough situations.

(This blog post originally appeared on the Committee For Children blog on February 24, 2017)


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya


Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

6 Comments

Siti

hey. this is encouraging read as I deal with my 2 teenagers n my 3 yo kid. Have to start young or start at the groundwork first though. can’t just jump right into the middle of this exercises! Thank u for making me feel not alone..

Reply
Melissa

Siti
I am so glad you found it helpful! I can only imagine the work you are doing as a parent of 2 teens and a toddler. Not easy work, but very important work!
Be well,
Melissa

Reply
Chelle Pugh

A friend directed me to this website regarding a great book about anxiety. I decided to have a look at the rest of the site too, and this article was the first that I read.

What a fantastic article – it has reaffirmed for me the approach that I try to take (albeit with needing a few small tweaks around some of the language/word choices) and I will show it to my husband who tends to disagree with my approach as he’s a lot more ‘old fashioned’ and I want him to see the benefit in taking a kinder approach that involves listening to the children, not just making them ‘shut up’ and toe the line without ever considering their feelings.

I look forward to reading more on this site. Thank you for taking the time to write this article though, Melissa.

Reply
Melissa Benaroya

Hi Chelle!

I just saw your response to the article that Karen at Hey Sigmund shared. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Karen is amazing and shares a ton of my writing, but you can also find more on the ChildproofParenting.com website.

Reply
Ari Yares

These are great suggestions!

We’re always working on building up emotional vocabulary. Not just in the moments when the child is experiencing a complicated emotion, but more importantly when we are reading or talking about emotions.

I’m finding that this makes the problem solving much easier.

Reply
Melissa Benaroya

Thanks for taking the time to respond Ari! I cannot agree with you more. The more we build our child’s EQ the easier it is to avoid and manage challenges when they arise.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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