Parents and teachers agree, according to a study done by Sesame Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street: it’s more important for kids to be kind than to be academically successful. So how do we raise our kids to be kind, compassionate, and empathetic? Developing these qualities are all a part of “social emotional development,” which is the process through which we acquire the behaviors that help us navigate our emotions and our relationships. Without social emotional skills, kids struggle to cooperate, follow directions, demonstrate self control, and pay attention.

Here are 5 effective ways to foster healthy social emotional development in kids:

1. Prompt kids to think through different situations

One method is to make sure you’re talking about the importance of kindness and compassion, but it’s also important to give kids a space to practice the skills and to make sure kids have a plan for how to be kind, especially in difficult situations. Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, has some concrete suggestions for helping kids with these tricky situations. She writes at Parent Toolkit, “Prompt your kids to think through situations. Whether you are watching a movie, or visiting grandparents, ask them, ‘Do you hear the sound of her voice? Do you see his facial expression? What does that mean?’” This helps kids stop and think about how emotions can color our interactions, from our voices to our facial expressions and body language, so that they can apply that to their interactions with others.

2. Encourage kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes

Asking your kid to put themselves in that person or character’s shoes and looking at things from their perspective helps them develop empathy for how others are feeling. And because everything we learn builds on what we already know, you can remind your kid of a time they experienced something similar. By making connections back to their own experiences, kids start to think about how others might feel in different situations. (Want more? The Arthur Social, Emotional, and Character Development Curriculum games and comics were a big inspiration for this aspect of our stories!)

3. Incorporate role-playing into your discussions

Borba continues, “In addition, role-playing can help. Ask your kids, ‘What if someone was being picked on. What would you do?’” Role-playing is a safe way for kids to work through difficult situations where they can make mistakes and get feedback from you on different things to try. Plus, practice makes perfect! If they’ve rehearsed what to do with you, they’ll feel more confident if they encounter that situation in real life, whether it’s dealing with a bully or asserting themselves.

4. Lead by example

Another way to help your kid learn to be kind is to walk the walk yourself. Modeling kind behavior shows your kid that you really mean it when you tell them it’s important to be kind.  “Are you polite to servers? Do you keep your cool in the midst of disagreement?” says Dr. Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Human Development and Psychology program and the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Kids imitate behavior they see in adults–even when you think they aren’t paying attention, sometimes–as many parents learn when their little ones start repeating their words.

5. Think out loud

If you want your kid to imitate the good behaviors, you have to make sure they’re paying attention. It helps to “think out loud” when you’re modeling behavior, to show kids why you’re doing what you’re doing. Make sure to praise their kind behavior, as well, to show them that you’re noticing and valuing their efforts. The Making Caring Common Project also suggests ways for using your own mistakes (hey, nobody’s perfect!) as teaching moments: “it’s important for us, in fact, to model for children humility, self-awareness, and honesty by acknowledging and working on our mistakes and flaws. It’s also important for us to recognize what might be getting in the way of our own caring.”

So when’s a good time to start working with your kids? It’s never too early, but between the ages of 4 and 6, kids start to develop the ability to recognize their own emotions, the emotions of others, and the understanding that other people might react to the same situation differently than they do. Smart toys like Woobo are in a great position to help your kid learn and practice these valuable skills. (We love the PBS Parents Child Development Tracker for reading about child development.)

In Lily’s Sleepover, the child helps Woobo find the courage to try a new food, and can explore how different strategies play out.

Many of our interactive stories use one or more of these methods to help your kid build their skills in a way that’s developmentally appropriate. For instance, we provide kids with the option to explore different ways of  handling a particular situation. Kids make a choice for Woobo, and see the consequences of that choice. Kids have the option to explore all of the different options in a safe environment that won’t hurt them or those around them, unlike real life. This exploration helps kids connect the dots between their actions and subsequent outcomes..

Educational toys and smart companions such as Woobo are comprised of activities and games that are carefully curated to foster both emotional and academic intelligence in kids. In our next post, we talk about how social emotional development can help set your kid up for academic success.

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