School Skills For Babies and Toddlers, Part 5: Social and Emotional Skills

This will be my last post in this little series about school skills for babies and toddlers. Social and emotional skills often get overlooked when people are thinking about what it takes for kids to be successful in school. As a former classroom teacher, however, I can assure you that these are some of the most important skills a child needs to develop in order to thrive (both in school and in the larger society that awaits them after graduation). Being able to cooperate, work with others, obey an authority figure, and follow the rules (at least most of the time) will go a long way in getting your child through school in one happy piece.

Social Skills
People are social creatures. And, since babies are just little people, they are born as social creatures. Children need to learn how to get along with others from a young age because, let’s face it, they’ll never be alone. There will be many situations that your child will be in where they will need to use good social skills: sharing with a sibling, playing with a friend, or completing a project with a school mate. Here are a few things you can start doing with your budding socialite now!
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  • Socializing baby- Introduce your baby to others and include him in your conversations. Baby will feel included and start to learn how to behave in social situations.
  • Practice playing with others- Young children don’t really play together, and they are psychologically not yet able to share. So don’t put that expectation on them.  What you can do, however, is give them opportunities to practice playing (some day they will actually care that there’s another child there who wants to play with them). Have play dates with other kids who are about the same age (for young children, keep play dates small—1 or 2 friends at a time–so they don’t get overwhelmed) and let them each do their own thing while occupying the same space. If nothing else, they’ll learn that the world  does not solely consist of them nor does it solely exist for them.
  • Solving Problems- Your toddler will throw a tantrum (“But MOM, I wanted to cut the dog’s hair with those scissors! How DARE you take them away!”). If your toddler is like mine, he will throw a tantrum every 15 minutes or so.  This is good–it gives us lots of opportunities to practice problem solving. After he calms down from the tantrum, have him help you solve the problem (“Sorry, scissors are for grown ups. Let’s get a brush for the dog instead. Would you like to help brush her fur?”). Get those problem solving skills down solid now–you don’t want to get “that call” from your kid’s principal about the fist fight on the playground!
  • Obeying- Learning to obey authority figures (you, Grandpa, a preschool teacher) is an absolute necessity. Sometimes when I find David is not obeying particularly well we’ll sing a little song: (to the tune of “Farmer and the Dell”) “O is for obey. O is for obey. Obey is doing what you’re asked, right away.” It’s a little cue for him to listen up and obey (and he knows by now that discipline is coming next if he doesn’t). When I start singing he usually will stop what he’s doing and sing with me–a good sag-way into diverting his attention to some other activity, thus forgetting about the need to disobey in the previous activity.
  • Following Directions- This goes along with obeying. Play “Simon Says”, “Red Light, Green Light” or “Mother May I?” to practice. Cook together and follow the directions in the recipe. Tell your baby how you are following directions: “When I’m driving I put on my seat belt and always drive the speed limit because that’s the law.” (You’re welcome, officer.)
  • Teach them how to use manners: Say please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry. Even babies can learn how to say these words with sign language. As soon as your little one starts doing “bad things” on purpose, have them apologize.  Then, say “I forgive you” and move on. As the parent, you can also demonstrate apologizing to your little one when YOU’VE done a “bad thing” (“I’m sorry I yelled. Sometimes Mommy gets frustrated when you don’t obey. Will you forgive me?”). If your child has wronged another, have them apologize to them (I even make David apologize to the baby. He’ll give Jacob a hug and a kiss, and then Jacob usually tries to eat his face. I love it!).
  • Role Playing Social Situations- Does your child get nervous every time they meet a new person? Does he like to hit to get what he wants? Does she scream to get your attention? Whatever your kid does that drives you nuts, practice it. Do a role reversal and pretend that you’re the kid and he’s the daddy–and throw a little temper tantrum for him (he’ll LOVE this!). Then show him the right way to get dad’s attention. Switch roles, and let him show you how to do things right and wrong. Or, before you go out for a play date, “play”  play date at home. Practice how you might say hello to your friend, how you will ask to play with a toy, how you will help clean up, etc.
  • Have them help- Even toddlers can help with simple chores like putting away their toys, sorting laundry, and washing things (this is David’s favorite job! I give him a damp paper towel and he’ll spend the better part of an hour cleaning my cupboards, the walls, the floor, his toys. It’s fantastic.). This gives kids a sense of ownership and shows them that they can (and should) contribute.

Emotional Skills
Here are some ways you can help your baby or toddler get in touch with their feelings. Awwww, baby kisses!
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  • Acknowledge and name emotions- Tell your child what the emotions are that they are feeling in a given situation. When your child is kicking and screaming because you have to leave the park, tell him that you know he’s frustrated by leaving something he enjoys. When your baby is giggling at your silly faces, tell her that you enjoy making her happy. Let your little ones know that it’s okay to feel _____ (mad, sad, shy, etc.).
  • Sing a song-We sing our own version of “If You’re Happy and you Know It” using lots of different emotions. Each verse has an emotion and an action (or a face) that goes with that emotion: If you’re happy and you know it, then you smile; If you’re sad and you know it, cry big tears; If you’re mad and you know it, make a frown; If you’re excited and you know it, jump up and down; If you’re scared and you know it, hide your eyes….and on and on until I can’t think of anything else to sing about.
  • Showing empathy-Help your child to notice how others are feeling: “Your brother is crying. He’s sad right now, but he’ll feel better soon. Let’s give him a hug to help him cheer up.”
  • Find emotions in books- Most children’s books have characters who express pretty obvious emotions. As you’re reading, ask your child (or tell your baby) how the puppy or the princess or the dinosaur is feeling right now.

So, that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my little series on school skills this week as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. You’re well on your way to having one savvy little student! Feel free to leave a comment with ways that you like to incorporate learning into your days–I’d love to get some new ideas!

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