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5 Stages of Social Emotional Learning Skills

social emotional learning

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social Emotional Learning (or SEL) is the process of developing the interpersonal skills we need for school, work, and independent living. With strong social emotional skills, students are better able to engage everyday challenges and become successful at school, at home, and eventually, at work.

I was recently interviewed by Mrs. D, edu-preneur extraordinaire, for an upcoming educational series. She asked me to talk about teaching social emotional learning skills to littles. I thought I'd share notes on what we talked about!

What are social emotional skills and why do they need to be taught at this age? Why are they important?

SEL is the building blocks of learning. It’s how we interact with each other and learn without explicit instruction. Typically-developing babies from birth observe and imitate which is the first step of developing these skills. As we grow, we learn to observe, imitate, and then modify our behaviors according to how they are responded to by others in our environment.

I’m a big Social Thinking™ fan, and the most basic tenet of what they teach is that “I think about you and you think about me, and I can change my behavior so that you continue to think good thoughts about me.”

As I thought about this interview and questions, I came up with what I see as the 5 stages of social emotional development AND 5 stages of play, because I think they important to have in mind as we think about students and how to meet their need and teach them SEL skills.

5 stages social emotional

And for the stages of play…

5 stages play
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What are your favorite social emotional skills to teach, and how do you teach them?

The most important thing to keep in mind in teaching SEL is where the student is. If they are only at the observation stage, having them simply in the area of where pro-social behavior happens is a great starting place! If they are in the play stage of parallel play, then targeted goals should surround parallel play and maybe sharing space, crossing boundaries. “Give this to your friend.” Then for other student, it may be working on that understanding of the “why.” That might mean observing recess and asking the student to identify who is showing “flexibility” when the rules change and how that works out for them; why it’s important to be flexible.

Goals can be written in the same way that academic goals are. Identify 1) what social emotional skill they need work on, then ask is it socially-significant? Will it help them access their general education environment and curriculum? Is it developmentally appropriate? Once a skill has been identified, then 2) gather baseline data, 3) think about where you want the student to be in a year (make sure it’s attainable but also forward-thinking), then 4) put it all together!

writing iep goal

How about some Social Emotional IEP goal samples?

Here are some ideas! You can find more in my popular Preschool IEP Goal bank.

Imitates peers

When given an opportunity to imitate a peer, STUDENT will attend to and imitate the physical and verbal behavior of the peer (e.g., making arm movements while singing) improving social interactions from BASELINE to imitating multiple-step sequences of motor and verbal behaviors exhibited by peers in 4 out of 5 opportunities on three consecutive data days as measured by staff observation, daily tasks, and data records.

Joins peers in activity

When given an opportunity to join an ongoing activity, STUDENT will approach peers and join activity improving social interactions from BASELINE to spontaneously joining peers without prompting at least 3 times in a school day on 3 data collection days as measured by staff observation, daily tasks, and data records.

Hypothetical social scenarios

When given a hypothetical peer situation or conflict (e.g., movie, book, or drawing), STUDENT will identify what the situation is, what the characters are doing, and what impact their actions will have on other characters improving social cognition from BASELINE to 4 out of 5 scenarios involving complex social conflicts across 3 data days as measured by staff observation, daily tasks, and data records.

Allows others to touch toys 

When given an opportunity to play with toys, STUDENT will allow adults and children to be near them while playing with toys and occasionally manipulate toys during the interaction improving play and leisure skills from BASELINE to 4 out of 5 consecutive opportunities on three consecutive data days as measured by staff observation, daily tasks, and data records.

Plays with toys AND talked with peers

When given an opportunity to play with a peer, STUDENT will ask for items and actions, label items and actions, and make other related comments while engaging in play activity improving social interactions from BASELINE to at least 10 verbal responses to the peer in a 10 minute period in 4 out of 5 opportunities across 3 data collections as measured by staff observation, daily tasks, and data records.

How can we help parents work on social emotional skills at home too? How do we get parent buy-in?

I like to have parents participate in the brain-storming before an IEP is written. I shoot them an email with ideas that I have for the next year, then ask what they think of those and if they have any other ones. I do this BEFORE I write up the IEP. With that input, I write the IEP, then send the draft to them well before the meeting so they can follow up with any additional questions or comments before we sit down. By the time we have the official meeting, it usually goes quickly and smoothly because we’ve already talked about just about everything in the document.

I know from being a parent, that sitting down in a meeting with up to 10 school professionals around the table all looking at your is daunting and scary. I couldn’t think of questions or comments and, if I did, I felt too raw and naked and emotional to be able to discuss them eloquently.

And, like you asked, bringing them into the discussion before the IEP is developed will give you a chance to explain why you think this goal or that one is important for the student in the environment, and you may be able to share strengths or weaknesses in a social setting that some parents are not able to see at home. They may not have a church or daycare where their child is in a group of children their age, so hearing from you on what they are working on at school is so helpful.

Do you have any favorite social emotional curriculums or anything that’s been a game changer for you that you can share with us?

I have only had two district-mandated SEL curriculums. Both were far too “high” for most of the students I serve. I had to do a LOT of modifying and accommodating, and I hear this is common among special education and early learning educators. 

What I usually do is, keeping in mind the developmental stage my students are in, I peruse that week’s curriculum and pull out concepts. If there are materials that are appropriate, I’ll use that piece, but usually, it means taking a CONCEPT and then creating developmentally-appropriate activities to go with it

For example, the puppets in one curriculum were great, but the conversations they were to have were WAY too high, so I would take the puppets and keep their language very simple and interactive with the students. Or if the focus of the week was Empathy, I would simplify it to the most basic emotions and do extra emotions activities that week.

Social Thinking’s We Thinkers was not mandated but highly encouraged as a supplemental curriculum in preschool, and that’s a great program. This program works well for typically-developing 3-5 year olds or students a little older but with social delays.

What is your best piece of advice for implementing and teaching social emotional skills to littles?

For the most part, if you’re working with students with disabilities of any age, the key is to meet them where they are and modify and accommodate to meet those needs and move forward from there.

And I think, especially for preschool teachers, give yourself some grace! Skills sets vary greatly, and sometimes, the best we can do is just provide a learning experience that is positive for them. There have been some students where my goal was only to create a soothing environment so that they wouldn’t cry the whole day! Provide love and a safe space and baby steps forward!

Check out some of these SEL activities in my store!

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