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Social Emotional Skills

Social emotional skills are what we all use in order to build strong relationships with others and to express and manage our emotions. They’re important for our daily interactions!


Where to start?

One of the basic emotional skills for kids is to be able to understand how they’re feeling. In order for kids to better manage and communicate their emotions, they first need to know what they are. Here are some tips for getting started:

  1. Label emotions: Describe how your child is feeling.

  • “I can see you’re sad because you’re crying…”
  • “You are feeling happy! I see a big smile on your face.”
  • “Did that scare you? Your heart is beating so fast.”
  • “Wow! You are so excited and you’re jumping up and down!”
  1. Describe others: This will help them be able to recognize these feelings in others, as well as themselves.

  • Look at an emotions chart or draw pictures
  • Identify emotions while reading a book or watching TV – “We can see she’s feeling angry because her face is scrunched like *this*”
  • See another child upset at the store? Is brother happy to play with Dad? Did Dad get scared when we jumped out to surprise him? Tell them about it! – “He’s feeling very sad. He’s crying and has tears rolling down his cheeks.”
  1. Sing songs: There are many songs you can find about emotions or even switch up the lyrics to a well-known song, like If You’re Happy and You Know It (Ex: angry – stomp your feet, excited – say hooray, sleepy – take a nap, etc.).


  2. Favorite toys: Children build partnerships with their favorite toys, so sometimes their stuffed animal is the best teacher for them.

  • “Oh no! Teddy fell off the couch. Did that make him feel sad?”
  • “I saw you give Teddy a hug. I bet he’s feeling so happy!”
  • “Did Teddy knock over your block tower? I wonder if he’s feeling angry…”

What’s next?

Along with teaching our kids how to identify their emotions, we can begin to teach them different strategies for calming themselves. Self-calming strategies are useful for all emotions, whether your child is feeling very excited, angry, sad, frustrated, silly, etc. At some point, they need to be able to become calm and regulated again. These strategies are best taught when your child is already calm and throughout everyday activities and play.

Here are the top calming strategies I use with young children:

  1. Deep breaths: You can use bubbles, candles, a pinwheel, dandelions, blowing a cotton ball across a table, pretending to be the Big Bad Wolf, etc.
  2. Counting: Using fingers for counting is very simple and works well for self-calming because their fingers are always available for counting when they need them.
  3. Deep Pressure: Deep pressure is naturally calming. Some deep pressure strategies are hugging, laying under a heavy blanket, back rub, being squished with a pillow, or snuggling on the couch. In order to teach kids about the benefits of deep pressure, I try to help them recognize the effects using one of these strategies has on their body (Ex: “When you’re scared, getting a hug makes you feel better and helps your heart beat slower”).

If your child is struggling with managing emotions, building relationships, and other social emotional skills, Occupational Therapy may be able to help!

Kati Earnheart, MS, OTR/L