Social Emotional Learning

Occupational therapists and parents can use these social emotional learning activities to help children develop positive relationships, behaving ethically, and handling challenging situations effectively.

Social emotional learning is defined as a process for helping children gain critical social skills for life effectiveness, such as developing positive relationships, behaving ethically, and handling challenging situations effectively. The specific skills that allow kids to function and complete daily occupations (such as play, learning, participating in social situations, rest, dressing, writing, riding a bike, interacting with others…) are those social emotional skills that help children to recognize and manage emotions, interact with others, think about their feelings and how they should act, and regulate behavior based on thoughtful decision making.

One piece of addressing underlying social emotional learning needs in kids is the fact that the behaviors that we see have an underlying cause that can be found as a result of regulation of emotions, making decisions, and acting on impulses. Social emotional skills are not always a cut and dry aspect of development.

Social emotional learning is an important part of child development and an essential skill that kids need to accomplish daily tasks.

Social Emotional Learning

Today, I wanted to expand on that idea. So many times, we run into children on our therapy caseloads or in our classroom (or hey, even in our own homes!) who struggle with one area…or several. Remembering that beneath the behaviors, troubles with transitions, acting out, irritability, sleep issues, inflexible thoughts, frustrations, etc…can be emotional regulation components.

Let’s consider some of the ways our kids may struggle with social and emotional competencies. We might see kids with difficulty in some of these occupational performance areas (occupational performance = the things we do…the tasks we perform):

  • Academics/learning
  • Management of stress in learning/chores/daily tasks
  • Creating of personal goals in school work or personal interests and following through
  • Making decisions based on ethical and social norms in play, learning, or work
  • Understanding/Engaging in social expectations (social norms) in dressing, bathing, grooming, etc.
  • Social participation
  • Conflict resolution with friends
  • Empathizing with others
  • Responding to feedback in school, home, or work tasks
  • Making good judgement and safety decisions in the community
  • Showing manners
  • Understanding subtle social norms in the community or play
  • Transitions in tasks in school or at home
  • Ability to screen out input during tasks
  • Cooperation in play and in group learning
  • Considering context in communication
  • Emotional control during games

Wow! That list puts into perspective how our kids with regulation concerns really may be struggling. And, when you look at it from the flip-side, perhaps some of our children who struggle with, say, fine motor issues may have sensory concerns in the mix too.

Occupational therapists and parents can use these social emotional learning activities to help children develop positive relationships, behaving ethically, and handling challenging situations effectively.

Social Emotional Learning Activities

When we equip our students with tools to identify their emotions and self-regulate, we are giving them tools for life and promoting a positive environment for learning. We can foster social emotional development through play and interactions.

What might this look like at home, in online schooling, or in a classroom setting?

1. Connect emotions to behavior- Children may not have the language knowledge or understand how to explain what they are feeling. They may need concrete examples or scenarios to help them understand how their emotions are tied to their behavior. Does a storm make them feel nervous or scared? How do they react when they feel anxious about a test or quiz? When they argue with a sibling, how do they react? Once they are able to understand their emotions and how they are feeling, they can start using emotional regulation tools and strategies.

Use this social emotional learning worksheet to help kids match emotions to behaviors and coping strategies.

2. Be flexible and patient- Flexibility is something we have all been thrown into more than usual lately. But working with children on emotional regulation and understanding their emotions takes patience and being flexible. You may need to change up how you introduce emotions, or maybe a strategy you thought would work isn’t.

3. Set the tone and share your own feelings- This may feel uncomfortable for some of us, but sharing our own feelings with our students and clients and modeling the responses and strategies we are encouraging them to use will have a huge impact.

4. Try specific social skills activities- Social skills activities are those that help kids build underlying emotional and regulation strategies so that making friends, emotions, kindness, empathy, self-awareness, self-management, and other socio emotional tools are built at the foundation.

A recent post here on The OT Toolbox has more ideas to develop social emotional learning by engaging in activities that foster emotional regulation and executive functioning skills.

…it’s ALL connected!

Another fantastic resource that can help develop social and emotional skills is the activity book, Exploring Books Through Play.

This digital, E-BOOK download is an amazing resource for anyone helping kids learn about acceptance, empathy, compassion, and friendship. In Exploring Books through Play, you’ll find therapist-approved resources, activities, crafts, projects, and play ideas based on 10 popular children’s books. Each book covered contains activities designed to develop fine motor skills, gross motor skills, sensory exploration, handwriting, and more. Help kids understand complex topics of social/emotional skills, empathy, compassion, and friendship through books and hands-on play.

The book Exploring Books Through Play, has 50 different activities based on popular children’s books. Each book is used for 5 different activities that cover a variety of areas: sensory play, crafts, gross motor activities, fine motor activities, handwriting, scissor skills, and so much more.

This book is designed to address emotional regulation and connecting with kids.

social emotional activities for kids

What’s Inside Exploring Books through Play?

We have handpicked these easy and hands-on activities to help kids develop essential social emotional learning skills.

As classroom curriculum becomes more focused on academics, social and emotional development can get lost in the shuffle. This book focuses on abstract concepts of friendship, acceptance and empathy. By using children’s books that foster understanding of these concepts through pictures and stories, we can help children understand and see these emotions in action. What if you could use books and interactive activities to teach friendship? What if you could read a book that centers on accepting differences and create or make an activity or craft that helps children see acceptance in action. What if you could explore emotions through story and interactive play? In this book, you will find books that cover abstract concepts and use play to build social and developmental skills.  The 10 books covered include:

  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee
  • Boy + Bot
  • Little Blue and Little Yellow
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story
  • Chrysanthemum
  • The Day the Crayons Quit
  • Leonardo the Terrible Monster
  • The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
  • Whoever You Are and Penguin and Pinecone

Want to help kids learn more about complex concepts such emotions, empathy, compassion, and differences?

Creative book activities that help kids develop fine motor skills and gross motor skills, while exploring books.

Exploring Books Through Play uses children’s literature as a theme to engage in fun, hands-on activities that help children and adults delve deeper into the characters and lessons, bringing the stories to life and falling further in love with literature. Read a story and then bring the characters to life while learning and building skills. Each story offers unique activities designed around central themes of friendship, empathy, and compassion.

Each chapter includes 5 activities for each of the 10 children’s books. The activities are perfect for children ages 3-8, can be used in small groups or as a whole class, and are easily adapted to a home or classroom setting.

Click here to get the Exploring Books Through Play resource.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

emotional regulation and executive functioning skills are connected.

Emotional regulation and executive function are connected in more ways than one. Development of social emotional skills includes an awareness of self and self-monitoring skills, among other areas. The regulation of those emotions is critical for executive functioning cognitive tasks. When we regulate behavior, the frontal lobe is at work with it’s impulse control, initiation, self-monitoring, and other cognitive skills. Furthermore, emotional skill development includes the ability to self-regulate. These skills mature and develop throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Emotional regulation and executive functioning are deeply connected and critical of each other in completion of most every task and childhood occupation.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

In a previous blog post, shared a little background information on social emotional learning and regulation. We’ll go more into this relationship below. We’ll also cover social emotional learning and occupations that our kids participate in each day…and how executive functioning skills and regulation impacts functioning at home, work, and school. You will also want to check out these social skills activities for interventions to build areas related to social-emotional skills.

Here is a social emotional learning worksheet that can help kids identify emotions and begin to address emotional regulation needs.

Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with.

For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, ASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging.

Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships. 

Sometimes, emotions become intense and out of control. They become dysregulated and impact the ability to manage behaviors and cognitive thought processes, or the executive functioning skills. Emotional dysregulation requires mental skills like focusing, following directions extremely difficult. When the emotions take over, our brain has trouble communicating between the limbic system and the frontal lobe.

Executive Function and Emotions

Let’s break this down even further. There is a connection between social emotional skills and executive functioning skills. Critical thinking is a huge part of this. When you consider the daily occupations of kids, many of the areas of struggle have a component related to impulse control, working memory, attention, focus, metacognition, and persistence, etc. Big emotions can impact task performance in each of these areas in different ways.

  • Play
  • Cleaning up after oneself
  • Social/family relationships
  • Learning
  • Chores
  • Homework
  • Schooling at home
  • Reading
  • Grooming/Hygiene
  • Dressing/Bathing
  • Caring for materials

And, that is just some of the daily jobs that occupy a child or teen’s day. When we consider the connection of social/emotional skills and executive functioning skills in activities of daily living, social participation, learning, play, or chores, there is a lot going on!

Self-regulation skills of both sensory regulation and emotional regulation depends on various subcategories of executive functioning skills, including inhibition/impulse control, task initiation, working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. We know that all of these mental skills are deeply inter-connected and that executive functioning is like the air traffic control center of the brain…it keeps us operating as we should.

Impulse Control– Attention and impulses are another set of executive functioning skills that are very closely related.  When the distracted child can not focus on a specific task or conversation, or situation, then the tendency to impulsively respond is quite likely.  A great tool for assessing and monitoring impulses in the child with attention struggles is the impulse control journal.

Working memory– This executive functioning skill is the ability to act on past memories and manipulating the information in a new situation. Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations. 

Attention– Executive functions are heavily dependent on attention. Distractions can come in many forms. The child who is overly sensitive to sensory input may over respond to the slightest sounds, textures, sights, scents, tastes, or motions.  Children who are excessively distracted by their sensory needs will struggle to attend to simple commands. Other children are able to “keep it together” in a classroom or home setting yet their concentration is challenged. 

Self-Monitoring– This executive functioning skill goes hand in hand with attention and focus. Self monitoring allows us to keep ourselves in check in a situation.  We need to stay on task and focus on that a person is saying and respond in appropriate ways.  If the child with attention issues can not focus on what a person is saying for more than a few minutes, than the ability to respond appropriately can be a real issue.

Emotional Control- Kids with attention issues may not be able to attend for extended periods of time on a situation that enables them to control their emotions.  They can perseverate on the emotions of a specific situation or may not be “up to speed” on the situation at hand or be able to process their emotions as they attend to a different situation.  Issues with emotional control can then lead to behavioral responses as they struggle to keep their emotions in check.

Prioritizing- Planning out and picking the most important tasks of a project can be a struggle for the child with attention issues.  It can be easy to become overwhelmed and distracted by the options for importance.

Processing Speed- Processing speed refers to the ability to receive, understand, and process information in order to make a decision or response.  It also involves using working memory in a situation or experience.  Children who experience attention struggles may experience difficulty in retrieval of information (using working memory) and responding using that information (initiation). This carries over to missed information, difficulty keeping up with a conversation or lesson in school, or a fast-moving game or activity. 

Task Initiation– Children with attention difficulties can be challenged to start tasks.  It can be difficult to pull out the starting point or the most important parts of a multi-step project so that just starting is a real struggle.

Task Completion- Similar to the initiation of specific tasks, completing a task or project can be a real challenge for the child who is limited in attention.  Reading a multiple chapter book can seem overwhelming and quite difficult and just never is finished.  Cleaning a room can be a big challenge when there are visual, auditory, or other sensory-related distractions that make up the project.

Emotional regulation is a topic that can get hairy, and fast. Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with. For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, FASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging. Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships.

>>When you’re a parent or teacher watching a child you care about struggle, it can be a helpless feeling. Some kids just don’t know what to do with their big emotions.

>>Perhaps you’ve tried everything you can think of and you’re still being held hostage by your child’s emotional outbursts.

>>Or, maybe you are a therapist working with dysregulated children having emotional meltdowns and a fixed mindset who really need the tools to manage overwhelming emotions.

What we do know is that more and more research is showing that emotional regulation and learning are linked.

  • In 2007, researchers stated, “Our findings suggest that children who have difficulty regulating their emotions have trouble learning in the classroom and are less productive and accurate when completing assignments,” (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).
  • “The ability to regulate emotions is an essential prerequisite for adaptive development and behavior” (Sousa Machado & Pardal, 2013).
Executive function and emotional regulation activities for kids

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function Strategies

Having a toolkit of ideas to pull from so you can change things as needed is why we created the Creating Connections Toolkit.

Creating connections emotional regulation tools

This collection of products is a huge resource of printable activities, movement cards, breathing information sheets, games, play mats, journals, and so much more. It’s a resource that covers all of the areas listed above…the areas that our kids struggle in!

Myself along with other professionals have created this bundle of social emotional products. The Creating Connections Toolkit includes over 20 incredible social emotional and emotional regulation products that you can use every day in your therapy practice, in the classroom, and at home…for $19.

The guides in this bundle will help to teach your child breathing exercises and help you tame tantrums. You’ll get a routine planner and visual chore chart. The resources will help you understand sensory in a whole new way, and have a wealth of sensory play ideas right at your fingertips!

Get the Creating Connections social-emotional skills bundle here.

P.S. This sale only goes through Friday the 10th!

Further development of executive functioning and emotional regulation can be fostered by the methods described here, as well as by some basic strategies:

Routines

Modeling behavior

Establishing a support system

Creative play

Opportunities for movement and motor skill developmnt

Social networks and interactive play

Coping tools for worries, stress, or changes to routines

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.