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Promoting Healthy Social-Emotional Development - Hatch Webinar Recap

Written By: Hatch Experts Team

Publish Date: Jun 8, 2017

We had a great webinar in April about promoting healthy social-emotional development in young children. It was so good that we had a lot of teachers as some questions so we took some time and asked our presenters Kara Dukakis and Nicole Kreller to take a moment and respond to the questions we couldn’t get to live. Here are some of the insightful questions from the Q&A portion of the webinar, and the presenter’s answers:

I’m very curious about co-regulation.

Co-regulation is the interactive process in which two people, such as an infant and a parent, respond to and shape each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Frequent interactions between an adult and child establish this process of co-regulation, with benefits to both individuals: it helps children and their caregivers better manage their responses to one another, and bolsters their emotional and social stability. For example, when babies smile, parents may reinforce it by smiling; when children become distressed, caregivers may become anxious, which may similarly reinforce the children’s distress. Co-regulation helps both parents and children recognize and understand the other’s reactions. Co-regulation also develops a crucial cycle of stimulation and rest that contributes to children’s healthy social-emotional development. For more information, see Emily Butler and Ashley Randall, “Emotional Co-regulation in Close Relationships,” Emotion Review 0(0) (2012): 1-9.

I see this all the time: Parents think their child “misbehaves” or is being “bad", but they are expressing anxiety, fear or stress.

It’s important to remember that, as adults in a child’s life, we perceive, interpret or make meaning about that child’s behaviors based on a variety of factors: the culture of our family of origin and how we were raised, our personal and/or professional values as a caregiver, formal education we might have had or how well we’re regulating our own emotions or responses to stressors on any given day. When you are working with parents or colleagues who have a different perspective or interpretation of a child’s behavior, it’s important to first accept and acknowledge their perspective. Note that this does not mean you’re agreeing with them, simply that you accept they feel and think the way they do. Then, try to understand their perspective by being curious and asking open-ended questions to get a sense of what’s informing their interpretation of the behavior. As appropriate, share with the parent or colleague what you’ve noticed and are wondering about with respect to the behavior. It can also be helpful to frame the behavior from a developmental perspective, by describing what is “typical” for the child’s age and potentially normalizing it. Together, you want to come to a shared understanding of the child and their behaviors so that you can develop joint strategies for supporting the child’s social emotional development.

Can they way a teacher treats other staff in the room affect how a child acts?

It can! The types of interactions between teachers in a classroom contribute to the overall climate and environment of the classroom and serve as relationship models for children. When teachers engage in a lot of positive communication with back and forth dialogue and questions, or smile at one another and laugh, they are demonstrating respect, curiosity, open communication and collaboration. Children observe the interactions between their teachers and can begin to develop an understanding of how they are expected to interact with others, both peers and adults. This can not only influence the child’s interactions and behavior in the classroom, but also their broader understanding of what interactions and relationships are supposed to look like in general and throughout their life.

What steps can I take to understand the social emotional development of special needs children?

It’s important to first have a solid foundational knowledge of what social emotional development looks like in typically developing children. You can use that to start to observe how the SED behaviors and needs might be similar or different for children with special needs in your classroom. This will also help to build a relationship between you and the child, and help you begin to identify what might be typical for them as an individual. If a child has a specific diagnosis, you might locate some resources and information about how that diagnosis impacts development as a whole and social emotional development in particular. Another important strategy to support the social emotional development of children with special needs is to build a partnership with the child’s parents and any service providers that work with the child and family, collaborating to ensure you all understand the child’s overall development, what social emotional skills they have and what skills you will want to scaffold for them and focus on. Make sure you know about and obtain the consent documentation you’ll need from parents or family members to be able to share information with any other service providers.

What's a next step tip when the child having the tantrum doesn't want a hug? Can these strategies be used for toddlers as well?

When a child is having a tantrum, the key responsibilities of caregivers are keeping the child physically safe, acknowledging the child’s feelings and letting the child know you’re available to help them calm down when they’re ready. This is true for children of all ages and can be challenging to do in a classroom setting when there are other children and responsibilities that might need your attention. Too often these circumstances lead us to focus on making the tantrum stop instead of giving the child space to have it. It’s important for teaching teams to think together and with their school or center leaders about what they can do in these situations to support both the child having the tantrum and the rest of the class. See, too, below, in “debriefing” tantrums.

Some strategies that may help to avoid tantrums include:

  • Give the child control and choice whenever possible, especially about little things. Offer minor choices like, “Do you want to use the bathroom right now or in two minutes?” making sure to phrase it as a choice rather than a question with a yes or no answer.
  • Observe and build your relationship with the child so that you understand their limits and what typically triggers tantrum behaviors for them. If you know that a particular child typically tantrums when they are tired and also doesn’t like brushing their teeth, maybe you can ask them to brush their teeth before lunch or after p.m snack instead of right before nap time.
  • Choose your battles. This is somewhat illustrated in the tip above, but also consider children’s requests carefully when they want something. If you have to say no, try to offer them an alternative, and be accommodating when you can.
  • Give the child lots of positive attention. Make sure that you make a habit of praising the child when they make good choices and manage their feelings well and be specific. Instead of simply saying, “Great job!” tell them exactly what they did that you thought was great, “I really liked the way you told me you were feeling frustrated and then asked me to help!”

The above strategies tend to work well or can be easily adapted with all age groups and developmental levels. It can also be helpful to “debrief” the tantrum with the child once they have calmed down and have been able to regulate their emotions and behavior. In the debrief, focus on giving a lot of positive attention and support, highlighting anything that seemed to help the child calm down and reassuring them that they are loved and cared for, no matter what. While it will be helpful for you to think back through a play-by-play of the tantrum so you can reflect on any possible triggers or new behaviors, I wouldn’t recommend involving the child in that process as it might evoke further stress or feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment.

What do you do when parents refuse to actively participate in their child's educational process?

It can feel very frustrating for teachers when parents don’t seem to want to participate in or be involved with their child’s education or school. Parents have a lot of demands on their time and may view the early childhood experience or services being provided differently than school staff or other parents. Consider shifting your focus toward building authentic relationship with parents and away from trying to get them to do something or participate. Be genuinely curious about who they are as people and parents. Share successes and celebrations of their child’s day with them. Approach all of this in a way that respects and acknowledges that all parents are doing their best and want the best for their kids.

The more invested a parent is in their relationship with you, the more invested they’ll be in finding ways to participate in their child’s education and the school.

I have a few children in my class with PCA’S who change from month to month because they move staff around, and they don’t keep it consistent with these children. Then, the staff wonder why the children act out. What can we do as teachers to ensure those children can adapt to different staff in and out of the room all the time?

Secure, trusting relationships are critical to positive social emotional development and learning in early childhood and throughout the lifespan. Unfortunately, many early childhood programs struggle with classroom coverage, not enough substitute staff and staff turnover. The strategies below can help minimize the negative impact of these challenges, but please also consider some advocacy on behalf of children, families and early childhood professionals. Think about how you might engage in some brainstorming with your colleagues to minimize staff being moved around. How might you approach your supervisor with those ideas? Would your school’s leaders be open to inviting staff, parents or other program leaders to be part of a committee that studies the impact of moving staff around frequently and could propose ways to avoid it? And, in the meantime…

  • Keep as much as possible consistent in the classroom (e.g. routines, schedule, rules and expectations, responses to challenging behavior).
  • Develop a clear set of expectations for the adults in the classroom so they can all be on the same page about the need for consistency and what it looks like in your classroom.
  • Communicate with staff that are new in the room so they know what is expected of them. If possible, try to have them observe the classroom, routines and roles teachers play before they replace another staff member. It might be helpful to put together some materials for new staff, such as the schedule and descriptions of routines, the classroom rules or expectations and what the response is when those are broken or unmet and pertinent information on specific children they’ll be responsible for, including strategies for responding to challenging behaviors.
  • Consider how all staff in the classrooms can build secure, trusting relationships with all children

How can you help SED when a child is non-verbal, or does not understand your language (English)?

If you are in a program serving primarily children and families whose native language is not English and different from that of staff, there are a multitude of research studies and resources that can better address this from a programmatic level.

Teachers can support the social emotional development of non-verbal children or children who do not understand the primary language spoken in the classroom by having a solid foundational knowledge of social emotional development and by focusing on building relationship with that child.

  • Observe the child often and in a variety of contexts. When are they the most calm? When do they demonstrate the most social or emotional skills and with whom?
  • Pay close attention to what and how you communicate non-verbally as well as the child’s non-verbal communication. As you become more aware of your non-verbal communication, you can be more intentional and consistent in how you use it with the child. Consider incorporating some basic sign language into your repertoire.
  • If you speak the same language or a translator is available to you, talk with the parents to brainstorm or develop ways for you to communicate with their child.
  • Keep your classroom routine, schedule and environment consistent and think about developing a picture schedule that is kept in a place where the child always has access to it. You could also have a feelings wall that uses pictures and images instead of words to describe feelings.
  • Give the child plenty of warmth and reassurance throughout the day.
  • Keep in mind that most children (both dual-language learners and those with special needs) typically understand more language than they can speak.

Any thoughts on helping a child who is dealing with the loss of a parent?

There are great resources out there on this specific topic for those interested in learning more or encounter this on a regular basis in their work. From a more general standpoint, teachers can support a child who has lost a parent by offering the consistency of a classroom routine, schedule and environment; and partnering with the child’s family and other caregivers to determine how best to offer stability and support to the child, share observations of how the child might be reacting to the loss; come to consensus on how to respond to difficult questions the child might have or challenging behaviors that might come up; and explore options for resources like grief counselors or social workers.

When there are behaviors like hitting, I have always given positive attention to the hurt child before disciplining the child who hit. Do you feel like that is appropriate? And do you feel that the child who hit is being disciplined for the action if I wait to discipline them?

It is appropriate for your first response to be to the injured child, but the response to the child who hit needs to happen ‘in the moment’ as well. That is, the child who hit should stay present, if possible, while you address the injured child and make sure they’re ok. If that’s not possible - for example, if the injured child will require first aid or a lot of support to process the injury or calm down - it might be best if the first teacher on the scene responds to the injured child and asks another teacher to respond to the child who hit. If the children are toddlers, young preschoolers or non-verbal, keep in mind that things like hitting or biting might be their way of expressing frustration, anger, sadness or some combination of emotions. In this instance, the child who hit or bit might need emotional support instead of or before discipline. For older preschoolers and if the injury is not serious, this could be an opportunity to engage both children in helping them empathize with one another and problem solving what to do about it and how to avoid the same conflict in the future.

We have two children in our room that use inappropriate language on a daily basis. We have tried to redirect them often but before the end of the day, those words appear again. What else can we do?

Inappropriate language can be a frustrating behavior for teachers to respond to for many reasons. Often it is an attention-seeking behavior, and one that is really difficult to ignore because the language causes an emotional reaction in ourselves or we worry about other children picking up the language and parents of those other children being upset or angry. Some strategies to try include:

  • Clear, but not emotionally charged, communication to the child that the language is not appropriate and why.
  • Ask the child to think with you about other words they might use instead. If they come up with something that works, go ahead and give that a big emotional reaction like a surprised gasp or an, “Oh! Good one!” Have some ideas for funny or silly words to offer if the child is having a hard time coming up with something (Rumpelstiltskin! Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!).
  • Books with silly exclamations or catchphrases can be helpful, too.
  • Be sure to give positive attention and praise when the children start making better word choices!

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