Many foster, kinship, and adopted children who live with the impacts of prenatal substance exposure may struggle with social-emotional learning. Your child might have challenges with emotional regulation or difficulty identifying complex emotions. Your child might also have a difficult time making or keeping age-typical peers. Delays in social-emotional learning can leave your child frustrated and lonely without understanding why.

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

The topic of social-emotional learning is a popular one right now in child development and education circles. But what is it? And why does it matter?

The Committee for Children defines social-emotional learning as “the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills vital for school, work, and life success.” Social-emotional learning forms the foundation from which our kids build the other life skills like decision-making, self-discipline, emotional regulation, and self-control needed to learn, grow, and thrive. They also equip our kids to learn how to problem-solve, form relationships and build healthy self-esteem.

Practical Ideas to Boost Social-Emotional Skills

Many kids struggle with social-emotional learning. However, kids with prenatal exposure or a history of trauma often struggle more than their age-typical peers because those experiences impact brain development. We must be more intentional and direct in teaching our kids the skills that can improve their understanding of emotions and social connections. These ideas are for any age, and you can personalize them to the things that interest your child to increase the appeal. Start with these common activities parents do with their kids and “boost” social-emotional learning with our suggestions.

1. Read Together!

Mix fiction and non-fiction into your reading time. Choose a variety of reading material that interests your child – from graphic novels to short stories to comic strips to chapter books. If your child wants to go deep into one genre or a specific subject, go with them on the journey. Take turns reading to each other.

Here are the boosts:

Ask Open-Ended Questions. When you are reading character-driven stories, ask questions about the characters’ emotional experiences in the story. Include questions about how the characters’ interactions affect your child.

Put Yourselves in the Story. Help your child identify with the characters by asking, “what would you do if this happened to you?” Role-play a scene from the story or make up your own together.

Draw the Emotions. If your child has difficulty verbally expressing the emotions they observe in the stories, ask them to draw a picture of what is going on and how it connects to the characters’ experiences. Then ask them to tell you about the picture and label the emotions together.

2. Write Stories Together.

Highlight your child’s creativity and write stories about social situations that have stumped them in the past. Again, you can cater to your child’s interests by writing the type of story they love – comic strips, flip books, novellas, etc. Focus on dilemmas you have already worked on together so they can shine in the problem-solving part of writing the story.

Don’t be intimidated by this suggestion – your stories can be short and sweet. You can staple scrap paper together or use index cards on a ring to keep the story’s length manageable.

Here are the boosts:

Make your child the Superhero. Every child loves the idea of being the hero in their own story. Craft a storyline in which they can “swoop in” with the solution or the rescue. Talk about what the superhero had to know already before offering the fantastic solution. Ask a question about how the superhero learned those skills. Incorporate the answers into the story.

Create sequels for the story. As your child develops additional social-emotional skills, help them get those into story form too. Let the child’s imagination go big – the exaggeration over a learned skill is a confidence booster, too! Make each story focused on just one skill to keep the messaging clear and concise.

Craft a never-ending story. Like a sequel, this kind of story is one where you start writing right where you left it. When you take turns continuing the storyline, you can gently direct the experiences to address the challenges your child faces through the characters’ activities. It can be a great tool to teach that many of the challenges we face repeat themselves in new ways throughout life.

Practical Tips for Raising Kids with Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposure

3. Teach Your Child to Journal.

The habit of journaling is an excellent social-emotional learning tool for many ages. Purchase a simple journal or composition book. Encourage your child to put their thoughts and feelings on paper. Let them draw pictures if they are not yet fluent writers. Explain that a journal is a safe, private space to “get it all out” and process what they might be feeling. Assure them that spelling, grammar, and “right answers” are not at play here.

Here’s the boost:

Pass it back and forth. Try switching up their journaling habits by passing the journal back and forth between you. You can write a conversation starter or a question that requires more profound thought. Ask your child to answer it and put it in a safe place when they finish. Then you can read it and share your answers or reflections with them. You could share an inspirational, growth-oriented quote and ask for their thoughts. Keep your responses and reactions free of judgment or criticism – remember that this is a safe place for them to explore their emotions.

4. Play Charades Together.

Charades are an excellent game to build attachment through laughter and teamwork. From movie titles to favorite foods or famous singers, charades are a fun way to learn how each other thinks. Watching how they translate what they are thinking into silent, physical motions can give you great insight into the social-emotional skills your child needs to boost. Create game cards to be used repeatedly as your child gets the hang of expressing themselves this way.

Here are a few boosts:

Slowly add real-life challenges to the cards. Start with simple daily activities and experiences that typical kids face. Add situations you know your child finds challenging – like making a new friend on the playground. Be sure to get in on the fun and act out the cards in the deck, too. You can even ask your kids for input on what cards would be fun to add to the stash. Their answers will likely give insights into what challenges them.

Play “Feelings” charades. Use a deck of “feelings cards” (make your own or purchase something like these*). Take turns acting out the cards you draw, starting with the simplest to copy (like mad, sad, glad, scared). If one of you gets stumped, give the others a chance to try it out. Be non-critical and non-judgmental with this game. The goal is to learn how the emotions feel and look on their faces and how others perceive their expressions.

5. Engage in Self-Reflection.

The skill of self-reflection builds self-awareness and can pave the way toward self-compassion and empathy for others. Family dinner time can be a great time to engage in light-hearted self-reflection by asking each other simple questions like:

  • I felt most proud of myself today when ______________
  • I noticed that my friend was nervous about ______________, and it made me feel ___________
  • My win for today was ________________, and it felt ____________________

Focus on the emotions or physical sensations during daily life experiences. Connecting what happened with how it made us feel is a vital step toward self-reflection. Start with primarily positive prompts and build in more real-life challenges as your family gets more comfortable with the process.

Here’s a boost:

Write self-reflective letters. Create a regular schedule for this activity. You could tie it to marking periods in school or other seasonal milestones. Take one night to write a letter to yourselves about what was good this season and what was challenging. Include “what I could have done better” and “what I learned about myself” in each letter. Make it accessible to everyone in the family by providing paper, writing tools, and maybe even some calming background music. If your child is not a fluent writer, make it a guided exercise and be their scribe.

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6. Challenge Your Child.

There’s nothing like discomfort to bring up all kinds of feelings that may be unfamiliar. Find an uncomfortable activity to do with your child that they consider challenging. That might be hiking a strenuous trail. It could be taking swim lessons together. Prepare yourselves by focusing on what might feel strange or complicated and what might be fun about the event. Whatever you choose, be “all in, ” present with your child, and narrate your feelings while you engage. Check-in with them using open-ended questions about their emotions. “Debrief” together afterward and discuss what you learned about yourselves.

Here are the boosts:

Get the whole family in on the challenge. Build camaraderie and boost family connectedness by inviting the whole family to an activity your child finds daunting. Prep the rest of the family in advance to be all in and nothing but encouraging. Take the opportunity to reinforce the message that your family is a safe, nurturing space for this child, which will boost their self-confidence. By cheering on your child about their effort and perseverance, you also build a vocabulary for positive self-talk.

Look for opportunities to fail. None of us like to see our kids flounder and fail. When you challenge yourselves as a family, and one of you fails, you can model for each other what it looks like to overcome. However, when we intentionally create space for our kids not to succeed, we give the message that they are loved regardless of performance. We are teaching them to exercise the muscle of perseverance, prize effort, and be open to learning from mistakes.

Social-Emotional Learning Leads to Thriving

Equipping our kids with these skills helps them identify their feelings and consider themselves and others. Healthy social-emotional learning leads to satisfying self-confidence, healthy self-esteem, and tools to handle life’s challenges. Even when a child is coping with the impacts of trauma or prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, they can learn – and keep learning – these skills to develop a sense of ownership of their feelings and where they fit in your family and their world. These are all crucial elements to set your kids up to thrive.

What have you done to boost your child’s social-emotional learning? Tell us about it in the comments!

Image Credits: Tima Miroshnichenko; MART PRODUCTION; MART PRODUCTION

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