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April 17, 2017

Is Your Child Ready for School?  The Importance of Social-Emotional Skills

This is the time of year that enrollment in preschools starts, and soon it will be time for kindergarten enrollments.  I apologize to every parent who is reading this right now, because I know you are in disbelief that your precious little babies are or will be age-eligible for school.  While I’m sure that sending a child off to school evoked many feelings in parents of yesteryear, I think it is much more stressful and anxiety-provoking now.  Nowadays, because of so much pressure on academics and SOLs, many of us parents feel pressure to make sure our children know colors, numbers and letters as soon as they can.  Some of us even choose to send our children to particular preschools because they so strongly emphasize academic learning.  While academics are certainly important, what I hear time and time again from kindergarten teachers is their frustration that children come knowing the academics but lacking the social-emotional skills needed to truly be successful in school.  The truth is, in the early years what a young child needs to learn aren’t so much the “whats” but rather the “hows” of learning. 


Since we have several months before the new school year begins, I encourage you to think about what the skills are that make you successful each day and, by extension, what social-emotional skills kindergarten teachers think - and research has shown - are related to academic success.  Actually, I’ll make your job easier; I’ll tell you what they are, but I ask that you take some time to think them through and, more importantly, that you ask yourself if your child has achieved each skill.  My general advice to parents is that in the early years, it is the social-emotional skills that should be emphasized, and even sometimes taught, before emphasis is put on academic skills.  Also, once academic skills are taught care must be taken that how the child is taught, or more appropriately learns, the academics, doesn’t undermine any of the social emotional skills that are necessary for school and life success.  So many times I see well-intentioned parents and teachers who inadvertently cause children undue stress or negatively impact a child’s developing social-emotional abilities because their focus is on cramming the little one with academic learning.  The truth is children’s ability to learn anything, academic skills and even some social-emotional skills, is related to brain development and maturation.  You can try to teach a two year old colors several times each day and the child just doesn’t “get” it, or you can make a point to name colors as you use descriptive language constantly throughout the day and one day, usually when the child is closer to three, the child will start correctly naming colors.  While it doesn’t feel like you were teaching the child colors, you were but in a way that supported his learning based on his own readiness.


So what are the social-emotional skills that children need to be ready for school?


One of the skills is confidence.  Children need to have a sense that they are capable and can accomplish things they try to do.   Is your child willing to try things for himself, or does he often ask you to do things for him?


Curiosity is another essential skill.  Does your child ask you questions about how things work?   Does your child pretend to be different people so she can think through what it is like to be someone else?


Self-control is something that develops over a lifetime, but once a child enters kindergarten he should be able to stay calm or at least behave in acceptable ways during occasionally stressful or non-preferred events.   In other words, instead of hitting a child when the child does something he doesn’t like, he should say “I don’t like that.  Stop it,” or walk away. 


The ability to relate to others and cooperate with others is also essential.  While young children tend to be fairly egocentric, does your child show care for other people? For example, does she give you a hug when she sees you are sad?  Or let others have a turn with a toy?


Another essential skill, and one that I see lots of children having issues with in this time of immediate reinforcement and electrical gadgets, is the ability to persist at a difficult task.  Is your child able to stick with a challenging task like a puzzle?  Will your child start over when a first attempt at a task doesn’t succeed - for example, rebuild a block tower if it accidentally falls over?


Being able to communicate well is another vital skill which is probably no surprise to anyone.  What might surprise some of you is that research has shown that to succeed in school, children must be able to express anger and dissatisfaction to children and adults.   If children aren’t able to do this, then what happens is children express these feelings through undesirable behaviors.


I wish all of us parents the best of luck in making all the big and small decisions about our children.  If you have questions or concerns about your young child’s social-emotional skills or school readiness, feel free to call me.  I have recently opened an early childhood mental health practice called Hope Filled Future, LLC.  I offer mental health counseling for young children and families.  I also offer preschool and childcare consultation or on-site social-emotional coaching to help young children be more successful in social settings.  I am also super excited that I am now offering a social-emotional skills group, the Calm and Kind Club, for preschool-aged children and older.


I developed the Calm and Kind Club because I have had several school-aged clients for whom ordinary school events like riding the bus, lunch, or fire drills have been so stressful that they required mental health therapy.  My hope is that if children can learn relaxation and stress management strategies, as well as social-emotional skills, it will improve their school experience.   The social-emotional skills group size is purposely kept low (only 2 or 3 children) so that each child gets significant individualized attention and practice.  When the Calm and Kind Club meets, the children get fun instruction and have an opportunity to practice the skills using puppets and other play activities.  Each child also takes home a social story focusing on the skill for at-home discussion and reinforcement.  By the conclusion of the eight week group, each child will have created their own Calm and Kind Kit.  I am able to do a Calm and Kind Club with siblings or a group of same-aged friends.  It also might be fun to do it as a family.  I am happy to individualize my services to each child and family’s unique needs.  I can be reached at  757 871-3027 or at hopefilledfuture@yahoo.com.