Social Emotional Development: Taking an Active Role

By Michal Agus Fox, Psy.D.

There are many things in life that we as individuals have little control over. Rockets are flying in Israel, friends are getting sick, we fear antisemitism, school shootings seem to be more common. Mental Illness is on the rise, anxiety and depression are rampant in our children. Academic pressure placed on children is escalating. Many of our children are juuling or experimenting with alcohol and other drugs. Social media is everywhere and exacerbates feelings of loneliness and anxiety in our children. The list goes on. Raising children in this world can be overwhelming. However, this is our new norm. The world is moving at a rapid speed and we as educators and parents are having a hard time keeping up.

As a School Psychologist, I am constantly reflecting – and losing sleep – over what we can do to slow it down? What can we do that could have short-term and long-term positive impact on our children? As I mentioned above, there are many things in life that we cannot control. However, the real question is: what is in our control? What can we do as educators and parents to help children grow, learn independence and resilience, gain self-confidence, develop morals, and be kind and thoughtful children and adults?

We need to be honest with ourselves: As educators, are we truly rooting for each child, or are we rooting simply for the school, the academics and the system? As parents, do we truly consider the school our partner, or do we just consider it a place our kids spend time, or worse, our adversary? It is essential that educators and parents find that healthy partnership with a common goal that each child succeed and thrive.

As educators, we must create an environment that allows and encourages children to feel confident, ask questions, and take risks. We need to ask ourselves what skills will this generation need to be successful students and ultimately successful in life. These are likely not the same skills that we needed when we were in school. When we were children it was all about memorizing math facts, shorashim and what SRA groups you were placed in. Success was measured by tests results and production. There was no technology so we were forced to speak to each other, make eye contact, write letters, make phone calls and wait to resolve conflicts in person the next day. While kids (myself included) at times were mean to each other, we had to face the person and resolve it. There was no escaping that human face-to-face interaction.

Now, we are in a world where children are staring at their devices and not naturally learning social norms of behavior. We need to actively teach children how to greet people, speak with others, answer emails or texts, navigate and resolve conflicts that inevitably arise. And by “we” I mean both parents and educators. Parents can speak with their children about a dilemma they had at work and how they resolved it. They can model kindness by helping others, teach gratitude by saying please and thank you. Importantly, let your children know you are doing something kind for others – not to brag but simply to teach by example. What was subtly taught to us growing up must now be explicitly taught to our children.

As educators, we need to give children more time to directly learn prosocial behaviors. We cannot simply expect children to behave if we do not teach them how. This requires daily conversations with the class, modeling, teaching empathy, teaching conflict resolution, and teaching vocabulary to express feelings. Strategies like mindfulness, more play and recess, and time to unwind after recess are amazing tools that should be incorporated into all schools. Children need to move to reset their brains so they can have a chance to focus more throughout the day. They also need time to interact with other children in a supervised space, to balance the learning of social skills on their own with us helping them. Fortunately, most research on prosocial learning indicates that creating a community of common language, respect and kindness, will lead to better academic performance.

So, what is my point? We need to slow down. Let’s stop running around from subject to subject and stop teaching to just hit curricular expectations. We should be thoughtful and reflective and model by example. We should show children that we value how we treat each other just as much as we value how much effort we put into schoolwork. Value the process, not the product. By slowing down, we might lose an academic period but we will gain lifetime skills of communication, respect, and creating a community of kindness. I would argue that this is the most important educational value system we can teach our children.

These are the things that are in our control. We can choose to make this a priority. As parents, we can choose to put down our phones and pay attention and listen to our children. As educators, we can choose to recognize the strengths of every child and root for each individual child. We can choose to embrace our students and we can choose to applaud their successes. We can choose to be educators and parents that can make a difference, be impactful, and show kindness. In a world where so much going on is out of our control, let us actively choose to take control of how we teach children.

Michal is a school psychologist in a private Jewish day school in Manhattan. She is married to Dr. Natie Fox and has four children.