​​​​The role of parents and educators

Parents and educators support children's social and emotional development every day through their responses and their example of how to behave with other people.

Children are not born knowing how to behave and to get on with others. They learn this gradually over time in nurturing environments.

Providing a model of appropriate behaviour
Having reasonable expectations
Respecting children's feelings
Encouraging empathy
Teaching problem solving skills
Giving realistic and specific praise
Providing lots and lots of real life practice
Allowing the chance to 'fail' and try again
Responding appropriately if you see aggressive behaviour
Starting early with online safety (cybersafety)

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Providing a model of appropriate behaviour​

Children are very observant. If you act in a way that you want children to behave, they learn just from watching.

Provide a good example for your child in the way you deal with other people, express your feelings, resolve conflicts and solve problems.

While each child has an individual temperament, home and early education environments have a strong influence on children. Adults and other children provide a role model for children's social and emotional skill development.

Children who do not see positive examples of joining in, sharing, compromising, solving problems and dealing with conflict may have difficulty getting on with other children. They may be more vulnerable to being involved in bullying.

Having reasonable expectations

Many challenging behaviours are a normal part of development. They also give you a chance to teach appropriate behaviour.

Read about children's typical social and emotional development so you can have reasonable expectations of children's behaviour. Expect gradual progress and accept regular backward steps in new social and emotional skills.

Children need a clear idea of how you expect them to behave. Telling a child 'to be good' is too vague.

You can be clear by giving precise details, such as:

  • 'I want you to share your toy truck with your brother'
  • 'You need to put all the toys away now and come to the table'
  • 'If you don't like her doing that, you need to say, "stop it"', to her'.

Respecting children's feelings

Emotions, both 'positive' and 'negative', are a healthy part of life.

Children as young as three years of age can experience happiness, interest, fear, sadness, surprise, anger, frustration, excitement, disgust, jealousy, hurt, worry, shyness, embarrassment, humiliation, distress, loneliness, guilt, pride, disappointment, irritation, friendliness, love, boredom and other feelings.

Teach children the names for feelings and regularly talk about how you feel as well. This helps children learn to manage their feelings and it also shows that you respect their feelings.

Feelings are not right or wrong. They just are. If a child says that they feel happy or angry or disappointed or anxious or excited, just acknowledge it, perhaps by saying, 'Oh, I see,' or 'Mmm, I sometimes feel like that too.'

Avoid belittling children's emotions.

When you respect and accept children's feelings you are teaching them:

  • to identify and understand why they have certain feelings
  • to trust their own feelings and learn ways to manage overwhelming or strong feelings
  • that both good and bad feelings are a normal part of life
  • that while all sorts of feelings are accepted, not all sorts of behaviours are acceptable.

Your natural impulse might be to protect young children from upsetting or challenging experiences. However, having upsetting experiences and so-called 'negative' emotions allows children to learn that they can deal with all sorts of situations.

Helping children deal with feelings like anger can be a challenge. Their feelings can sometimes provoke strong feelings in you too. To help children develop control over their feelings, you need to say calm.

Encouraging empathy

In talking about feelings with a child, you sow the seeds of empathy.

Empathy includes knowing how others feel and having concern for other people's experience of pain or hurt.

Empathy develops over time. It gives children a great start in getting on with other children. Children tend to like other children who show sensitivity to feelings, including distress or hurt.

Talk about how other children might feel and why they might act a certain way. Talk about how things you do can affect other people.

For example, if a child grabs someone else's toy and the second child reacts by hitting the first child, use this to explore empathy. Ask each child how they would feel if someone took their toy or hit them.

Empathy is the key to positive social behaviour. It is the main feeling behind compassionate behaviour to others.

Children who are empathetic are less likely to behave impulsively and use aggression. Understanding how what you do impacts on others helps children develop self-control.

Teaching social problem so​lving skills

Avoid jumping in to sort things out before children have had the chance to find their own solutions. But if you need to get involved, use the opportunity to teach ways to sort out conflicts and solve problems.

Teach children social problem-solving skills. It may slow things down at first, but it leads to confident and resilient children who can work out what to do in most situations.

By about 5 years of age, children can begin to talk about how they might solve a problem.

When a child comes to you with a problem about sharing toys, arguments, or not being included in games, talk about:

  • what is wrong (help them identify exactly what the problem is), how they feel and what they think should happen
  • what they can do about it and the possible consequences of each idea (suggest some options for the younger child or ask prompt questions for children over about 5 years 'I wonder what else you could try')
  • which is the best idea and when will they try it
  • (later) check in about how well did it work.

Allen solves a problem is a great resource that provides you with a structure for discussions with young children about how they can work out what to do if they have a social problem or conflict.

Allow the child to decide what to do and to learn through 'trial and error', although do not allow children to try options that are dangerous.

This way, children learn they have choices in solving social problems and that some choices are better than others. They also learn there will usually be more than one option, and they can try something else.​

Giving realistic and specific praise

Provide realistic and specific praise about positive social behaviour. The sorts of things to say are:

  • I noticed how kind you were when Jane was sad.
  • That was great that you shared your toys with Eric.
  • I saw you taking some quiet time in the corner to calm down; that was very grown up of you.
  • You really tried to sort that out yourself; you should be proud of yourself.
  • You were quite upset yesterday, but I noticed you didn't get rough with the other children. You were careful about them weren't you?

Providing lots and lots of real life practice​​​

Social and emotional skills require lots and lots of practice. In the early stages, the skills can be unstable – there one day and gone the next – and will be affected by the context, by fatigue and by illness. This is normal.

Be alert to opportunities every day to talk about feelings and to promote appropriate behaviour.

You do not have to formally 'teach' social and emotional skills or use special toys or materials. Everyday situations are the basis of real life learning.​

Allowing the chance to 'fail' and try again​

Teaching children social and emotional skills and how to behave is a lengthy process of guidance and support.

Children will not always know what to do, or want to do what is expected. You need to allow children the chance to 'fail', and to try again.

Teaching social and emotional skills should not involve punishment for not knowing how to behave with others.

A shortcoming of punishment is that the control of behaviour is 'external' to the child, with you as an adult. Children need to develop their own, or 'internal' self-control and self-regulation of behaviour. This comes with support and learning, consequences for behaviour and your emphasis on empathy.

The use of punishment alone, without teaching children more appropriate ways to behave, can also result in heightened anxiety in children who don't know what to do and who may feel unable to predict what will happen.​

Responding appropriately if you see aggressive behaviour

Aggressive behaviour is a normal part of children's development.

Your role is to respond to aggression in ways that help children learn more appropriate ways to behave.

When you see aggressive behaviour:

  • comfort the child who has been hurt
  • find out why it happened
  • demonstrate other more appropriate ways to act
  • teach children other ways to solve problems
  • reassure other children if necessary.

The aim is to teach children that non-aggressive ways of sorting out problems are better for everyone. Read more about how to respond to children's aggressive behaviour.

Starting early with online safety (cyber safety)

Getting on with others includes learning how to behave online.

Start early teaching your child about being safe online and about appropriate ways to behave online. Visit the Office of the eSafety Commissioner's Parent resources page for ideas about encouraging safe online behaviour for children.

Another resource on the site is Zippep's Astro Circus, a series of online games for young kids aged 5 to 7 years that reinforces the concept of online security.

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