Summer Learning: Social-Emotional Development

Over the summer it is important to maintain the skills that are learned during the school year.  I already wrote about the importance or maintaining literacy, math, and science skills, but other skills related to social-emotional development can also “slide” during the summer.

Think about the differences between the school year and summer:  During the school year your child is in a classroom for about 7 hours a day with a teacher and about 20 kids her own age. She has spent 9 months getting to know the children in her class (and sometimes they have known each other for years before).  Your child knows that Sarah has a short temper or that Billy tends to cry when he doesn’t get his way.  Similarly, your child has developed a relationship with her teacher.  She knows that Mrs. Smith will put up with whispering in the classroom during math but that she is strict about ensuring that each child has a chance to read aloud during story time.

In the summer, all of this changes.  Your child may be at home with a parent and an older or younger sibling, with a new summer nanny, or at various summer camps with new counselors and campers each day.  Your child may be going to the beach, the park, or the pool more regularly and thus meeting more new friends whom he will know for shorter periods of time. You and your family may take vacations which likely alter your child’s sleep and eating schedules, they may be slightly stressful or overwhelming, or they may be opportunities for your child to visit with cousins and other children he doesn’t seem as frequently. With all of this change your child might need to relearn and continue to work on social-emotional skills that are often a daily focus in early education classrooms.

Social-Emotional development is tough to define because it is quite broad, but basically it’s your child’s ability to control and express emotions in an appropriate and healthy manner.  This is something that is particularly hard for parents to  teach during the summer because there are no worksheets children can complete or assignments children can do to “practice” emotional development skills.  The best opportunity for children to work on social-emotional development is through play and experience.

For teachers, social-emotional development is slightly easier.  They generally work with the same age group/grade each year and know generally what to expect regarding emotional skills plus they have a classroom full of same-age students who will test each other’s ability to regulate and control their emotions.  At home during the summer, this can be more difficult.  A parent isn’t going to yank a toy away from a 5 -year-old just to “test” her ability to appropriately react and calm her emotions (meaning her ability to restrain herself from throwing a tantrum, grabbing the toy back, or hitting).

As a parent, you have the benefit of more one-on-one time with your child.  This provides more opportunities to sit down with your child and discuss emotions, feelings, and appropriate reactions to those feelings as they come up on a daily basis.  Also, given the new situations and people your child may be around during the summer you may have increased opportunity to see your child’s social-emotional skills “tested” in new ways.  While this can be challenging and frustrating as a parent, it’s also a great opportunity to continue to help your child develop these skills.

Some ideas of ways to discuss and work on social-emotional development skills with your child during the summer:

  • On your way to a park, pool, beach or anywhere where there will be lots of new kids around, remind your child that the toys you are bringing are toys that should be shared with other kids.  If there is a special toy that your child is very protective of, encourage your child to leave whatever toys he doesn’t want to share with his new friends in the car.  This will minimize the chances of a complete emotional breakdown.
  • Once your child is playing with other children, even before anything happens, remind your child to play nicely and share with her new friends.  Also remind her that if she needs or wants something that she should remember to ask for it.  By providing this prompt prior to any specific issue there is a better chance your child will ask rather than grab something out of someone’s hands (although depending on the age and personality of the child this prompt will have levels of effectiveness).
  • On your way home, talk to your child (even if they are pre-verbal toddlers) about the day’s events playing with their friends.  Talk about feelings that your child felt while playing with a new friend.  Was it frustrating to share a toy?  Did you like getting a chance to play with Timmy’s shovel, wasn’t that nice of him to share?  It was very kind of you to let Jill borrow your bucket, that was really good sharing.  Expressing and talking about emotions helps children begin to process the different feelings they experience and to understand the words for what they are feeling.
  • When there is an emotional meltdown (and yes there will be sometimes).  Try to remove your child from the situation.  Sit with your child on a bench preferably away from the other children so they don’t see what is going on without them there and give your child a moment to calm down.  Once your child is calm, immediately discuss what bothered your child and why he felt the need to react the way he did.  Sometimes with young children need help processing exactly what happened that set them off.  Sometimes their emotions come out before they cognitively have a chance to grasp what was going on.  Encourage your child to stop and take a deep breathe whenever they feel very frustrated or angry, this might give them a moment to process their emotions before actually reacting.

Social-emotional development skills are important skills for later school success and social experiences. Unlike other academic skills, social-emotional skills are often practiced and developed in summer camps or other social experiences that happen during the summer.  It’s not a skill that parents need to go out of their way to “practice” with their children, but it’s a skill parents should be thinking about when playing and spending time with their children during the summer months when they are less likely to be in large group settings with consistent teachers and peers.


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