What are Social-Emotional Skills and Why Are They Important for Children’s Development

As parents and caregivers, we tirelessly seek ways to ensure that our children are happy, healthy, and successful. Some parents place a strong emphasis on academic achievement, while others focus significantly on extracurricular activities such as sports and music—all with the belief that having strengths in a well-defined area will put their children ahead of the game. When it comes to a well-rounded development however, parents often unwittingly overlook the importance social and emotional functioning, until these areas become an issue of concern. Times are changing, and there has been a paradigm shift in terms of how researchers and educators define wellness and success in our children. Here’s why social-emotional skills are important for children’s development.  

What are social-emotional skills?

Social-emotional development has been a widely studied over the past 20 years, but it remains unfamiliar to parents. Because social-emotional skills include a wide range of competencies, there is not a specific way in which social-emotional development is defined. Broadly speaking, social skills refer to a person’s ability to:

  • Build and maintain relationships
  • Communicate effectively
  • Express and receive social cues
  • Develop awareness of the self and others
  • Resolve interpersonal conflicts

Emotional skills tap into areas that are associated with the identification, awareness, and expression of feelings. Specifically, they refer to a person’s ability to:

  • Identify and label feelings
  • Manage and regulate emotions
  • Cope with stress
  • Be mindful and present
  • Be empathic, grateful, and compassionate

Why are social-emotional skills important for children to learn?

Social-emotional skills penetrate the daily lives of our children and are highly relevant for their overall well-being. Think about the last time your daughter had an argument with her best friend and felt so upset that she could not focus on anything for the rest of the day. Or perhaps your son got frustrated over a game and refused to continue because he didn’t want to deal with the possibility of losing. Or maybe a friend’s child constantly gets picked on because she does not know how to assert herself when boundaries are crossed. These are all common situations that many children face.

Children who have stronger social skills can find effective ways to navigate interpersonal situations. They are also more likely to build and maintain meaningful friendships, which will in turn improve their self-esteem and boost their self-confidence. In a world that places heavy emphasis on connections and relationships, social competence can go a long way. Because social scenes increase in complexity as children grow, kids can benefit from learning skills that will enhance their ability to make social judgments, communicate, and resolve interpersonal conflicts effectively.

Emotional health is considered a cornerstone of one’s overall well-being. When children become aware of their emotions, they will have more language to describe and decode an internal process that is otherwise unidentified. Being in touch with positive and negative emotions the moment they emerge can help children develop tangible ways to better manage and regulate them. It is important to note that the absence of mental health problems is not equivalent to the presence of emotional wellness. With the acquisition of targeted skills, children can bolster their psychological strength and resilience so they can be ready to cope with challenging situations in the future.

Furthermore, there is a wealth of research that demonstrates the positive impact of social-emotional skills on long-term outcomes in children. Results from studies suggest that children who received social-emotional interventions had better long-term academic outcomes and fewer instances of emotional distress, conduct problems, and drug use compared to those who did not receive social-emotional instruction, according to a 2017 study published in Child Development by Rebecca Taylor, Eva Oberle, Joseph Durlak, and Roger Weissberg. These children also demonstrated improved self-attitudes, behaviors, and ability to manage stress, according to a 2011 study published in Child Development by Joseph Durlak, Roger Weissberg, Allison Dymnicki, Rebecca Taylor, and Kriston Schellinger. What is noteworthy about these findings is such improvements appear to be long-term and remain significant even after accounting for race and socioeconomic background.

How can I help my child build social-emotional skills?

You do not need to be a trained professional to support your child. Many social-emotional skills can be incorporated into your day-to-day interactions with your child at home. While it may be instinctual for you to fix your child’s problems or provide immediate suggestions, it is important to approach the situation with an open mind and allow him to tell you what he thinks and feels before jumping to any conclusion. Listen to what your child has to say without judgment or asking loaded questions. The key is to provide a welcoming atmosphere for your child to safely explore and examine the problem at hand. Remember, every attempt of yours to listen, empathize, and reflect is an opportunity for you to model positive skills that will directly impact your child’s growth.

There are programs in the community that promote these skills using structured and empirically supported methods to promote the competencies needed for children to thrive. Books are also available to teach parents and laypersons ways to support social and emotional development at home.

The following table highlights a few sample problems, skills parents can teach their children, and specific steps for intervention:

Identified Problem Skills to Be Taught Steps to Intervene
Child gets frustrated immediately when she cannot solve her problem.
  • Emotion Regulation
  • Problem-Solving
  1. Explore and label child’s emotion
  2. Validate her frustration
  3. Teach child to take a deep breath when negative feelings arise
  4. Ask her state the problem
  5. Invite child to come up with ways to approach the problem
  6. Test the method(s) one at a time and evaluate outcome  
Child is very upset when his best friend sits with someone else during lunch and decides to stop talking to friend.
  • Emotion Awareness
  • Empathy
  • Conflict Resolution
  1. Explore, label, and validate his emotion
  2. Identify the problem and desired outcome with child
  3. Encourage respect and empathy to see the other person’s perspective
  4. Brainstorm solutions according to outcome desired by child
  5. Evaluate pros and cons of solution
Child gets pressured by peers to exclude a classmate in group activities and feels uncomfortable.
  • Boundary Setting
  • Empathy
  • Assertiveness
  • Social Communication
  1. Explore, label, and validate child’s emotion
  2. Encourage respect and empathy to see the other person’s perspective
  3. Explain personal boundaries and ways to respectfully say “No”
  4. Conduct role play to practice effective communication skills