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Promoting School-Age Children's Social Skills and Emotional Competence

Social and emotional competence of children is a protective factor in preventing child abuse and neglect. You can help children develop their social and emotional competence throughout the school-age years. In this lesson, you will learn strategies for promoting children’s social skills and emotional competence.

  • State why social and emotional competence is a protective factor that prevents abuse and neglect.
  • Identify strategies to promote social and emotional competence in school-age children.
  • Use strategies that promote social and emotional competence in all school-age children.



As a school-age staff member, supporting social and emotional competence is a major part of your job. Appropriately, we spend the bulk of our time with children promoting positive interactions, helping solve problems, and responding to intense emotions. We are promoting positive social and emotional skills in every interaction we have with a child. Recent reviews of research suggest that focusing on social and emotional competence in school-age programs (i.e., out-of-school time) increases children’s self-perceptions, positive social behaviors, and academic achievement. It also results in a significant reduction in problem behavior. Researchers at the Center for the Study of Social Policy found an additional benefit of such an emphasis on social and emotional competence: It decreased the amount of child abuse and neglect in families. Parents with children in exemplary programs reported that the skills their children learned related to anger management and violence prevention directly affected the way parents and children interacted. When children expressed their emotions appropriately, parents began to see their children differently.

What is Social and Emotional Competence?

Social and emotional competence is the ability to interact with others, regulate one’s own emotions and behavior, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Children who are socially and emotionally competent have (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2013):

  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-efficacy
  • Self-control
  • Personal agency
  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Communication skills
  • Empathy
  • Social skills
  • Morality

Children who have these characteristics are not just successful in classrooms. They are successful in life. There is strong research evidence that social and emotional development contributes to development across domains: cognitive, physical, communication. In many ways, social and emotional development opens the door to richer and deeper learning. Furthermore, supportive relationships are the foundation of positive youth development. These relationships influence how children and youth engage with you and with the program, so they have a direct effect on your program’s impact. Helping children develop the skills necessary to form these types of relationships makes sense.

What does this have to do with preventing child abuse and neglect in center settings? The answer is simple: when you see each interaction as an opportunity to build a positive relationship, you are more likely to view children positively. You are more likely to see behaviors as communication:

  • The 6-year-old who is “tattling” on another child is saying, “We need your help.”
  • The 9-year-old who tells you long stories about his favorite video game is saying, “Please pay attention to me.”
  • The 11-year-old who throws a soccer ball over the fence after missing a goal is saying, “I’m frustrated.”

This makes you less likely to become frustrated or overwhelmed. You are more likely to make good decisions about responding to behaviors that challenge you. These decisions help strengthen your relationships with children, and these relationships prevent child abuse and neglect in your program.

There are three main ways school-age programs promote social and emotional competence (Crosson-Tower, 2003):

  • By teaching children to recognize and deal with emotions
  • By teaching children to recognize and solve social problems
  • By supporting children as they make and keep friends

You can learn a great deal about these concepts by exploring the links in the References and Resources section. You will also learn more in the Positive Guidance and Social & Emotional Development courses. Below is a brief introduction to these three concepts.

Emotional Literacy

Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others. It is also the ability to express and regulate emotions. Classrooms that promote emotional literacy use natural opportunities to talk about emotions throughout the program day, every day. Adults label their own emotions and children’s emotions. They help children recognize emotions in themselves and others. Adults also provide concrete strategies to help children address and express their emotions appropriately. For example, programs may teach children to “stop, consider what goal they’re trying to accomplish, and proceed cautiously” when frustrated instead of lashing out.

Read the following statements from staff members that help build emotional literacy:

  • “Clarence, I can tell you are really frustrated that all of the computers are taken. What could you do until one is available?”
  • “I wonder how it would feel if someone said that to you….”
  • “I’m really excited about going bowling with you guys tomorrow.”
  • “When I get angry, I try to step away from the situation and take some deep breaths. Then I’ll return when my thoughts begin to slow down and I can use my words without raising my voice.”

Another way staff members can support emotional literacy is to help children continue to develop empathy. Empathy is the ability to take on another person’s perspective. You can do this by describing your own emotions and the emotions of children in your classroom. Begin by asking children to think about how they would feel in certain situations. Encourage opportunities for reflection, critical thinking, and compassion. While younger school-age children may not fully understand the concept, teaching empathy can begin early. People who understand the emotions of others are less likely to act aggressively toward one another. This means that teaching children empathy can help prevent aggressive behavior in your classroom. Teaching empathy also brings awareness to your own mental and emotional health, which can help prevent child abuse and neglect in your program. Through repeated exposure at young ages children can begin to develop skill in empathetic perspective taking and strengthen emotional literacy. Learn more about the difference between empathy and sympathy here:

Problem-Solving and Conflict Mediation

All of us experience challenges. Our success lies in how we handle those challenges. The skill of successfully navigating complex social situations does not necessarily come naturally. In programs that foster social and emotional competence, children are taught specific strategies for solving social problems. They may learn to recognize they have a problem, think of solutions, consider what would happen, and give it a try. Adults may also help children generate solutions to try. In many programs, problem-solving steps are posted on the walls so children can refer to them. The four steps often include:

  1. Define the problem (What is my problem?)
  2. Generate alternative solutions (What could I try?)
  3. Choose the best solution, make a plan, and execute it. (What will I do? Is it fair? Does it solve the problem?)
  4. Evaluate the outcome (Is my problem solved?)

Helping school-age children learn to solve problems is a critical skill for life. It helps build resilience and encourages mental flexibility. Make sure you model these skills yourself during your daily interactions with co-workers and families.

Supporting Friendship Skills

Learning how to make and keep friends is a lifelong skill. Once children reach the school-age years, most have several close friends, and their social networks can become quite sophisticated. This does not mean that our work is done though. During the school-age years we can continue to promote friendships by:

  • Creating positive social norms. Social norms are the habits, rules, and ways of interacting that develop through social connection within groups of people. You can create positive social norms through statements of acceptance and gratitude, developmentally appropriate expectations, and everyday interactions with others.
  • Ensuring children have opportunities to belong: This means school-age children feel respected. They have opportunities for leadership roles and a voice in the program. And they're able to continue developing their own personal identity in the program.
  • Providing supportive relationships: school-age children need to feel a connection both with staff members and with their peers.

In programs that foster social and emotional competence, staff members look for opportunities to promote friendship skills. They encourage and model friendly behavior. Successful school-age programs also actively prevent bullying. According to, successful programs:

  • Talk about bullying: Define what it is and what to do if you see it. Create a safe space where students can come to an adult and ask for help or talk about bullying.
  • Model how to interact with respect and kindness: Children do what they see adults do.
  • Encourage children to do what they love: Children feel reassured when they can explore their interests without fear of being bullied. If children love art, drama, music, building, or any other hobby, they’re able to explore their interests safely.
  • Talk to children about their day: Who did you sit with on the bus? What was lunch like? What are you good at? Tell me more about that? Opening up lines of communication can help children feel safe and valued.
  • Set clear policies and rules: Programs make sure there is a clear code of conduct and that all children and youth have a right to be safe and treated with respect, and there are clear policies on what adults should do if bullying is suspected.

Responding when Children Struggle

What do you think happens when children do not have the social-emotional skills described above? If you’re not sure, imagine a child who doesn’t know how to handle anger. What does that child do instead? If you guessed act out, you’re probably correct. That child might yell at others, destroy property, or become aggressive. Alternatively, a child who does not know how to handle anger may become withdrawn, keeping their anger inside and becoming quiet. Not knowing how to handle an emotion can cause a great deal of tension and stress for a child. The next lesson focuses on responding to behavior that challenges, but for now know that you’ll need to help develop individualized supports for children who need them. Your Training & Curriculum Specialist administrator and teaching team will help you (a) know who these children are and (b) how to support them. Here are a few strategies you might use in these situations:

  • Social Skills Groups: You may have some children in your classroom who would benefit from similar support with their social skills. For example, there may be several children that have a hard time handling anger. You might group these children to teach specific strategies on calming down, expressing their feelings appropriately, and thinking about next steps. These small groups can be developed to support a variety of social skills like conflict resolution with peers and ways to appropriately get peers’ attention.
  • Check-In /Check-Out Procedures: You might help support a child’s social skills through the development of an accountability routine. Check-in and check-out procedures can help children when it comes to following appropriate expectations consistently. Typically, a child has a list of the program’s expectations (e.g., Be Respectful, Finish Your Homework, etc.) that an adult reviews with them each day at check-in. The adult then provides support by monitoring whether the list of daily expectations has been met during check-out. Consistent and positive interactions between the adult and child can help develop a child’s social skills on accountability and expectations.
  • Book Clubs: You may have children in your program who are interested in forming a book club. It just so happens, that most pre-teen literature involves an aspect of social- emotional challenges or scenarios. You can use these books to help facilitate conversations that strengthen children's social and emotional competency by discussing a character’s social and emotional connections and dilemmas.

You will learn more about providing guidance and supporting children’s social and emotional skills in the Social & Emotional Development and Positive Guidance courses.


What do programs that promote social and emotional competence look like? Watch this video to find out.

Facilitating Social Development for School-Age Children

Learn about the importance of social development


To foster emotional literacy you can:

  • Encourage and reinforce children for talking about their feelings.
  • Notice children’s feelings and provide an opportunity for children to describe how they are feeling.
  • Label your own feelings.
  • Promote empathy by helping children notice each other’s feelings.

To promote problem-solving you can:

  • Specifically teach the steps to solving problems.
  • Engage children in generating solutions to common challenges.
  • Post visual reminders about problem-solving.
  • Recognize and give specific feedback to children who have solved problems.
  • Help children reflect on their own problem-solving skills.
  • Change your own approach to meet individual children’s needs.

To promote friendships you can:

  • Provide a program in which school-age children have many opportunities to make choices about what they do and who they interact with.
  • Develop clear rules and expectations for interpersonal behavior. Emphasize respect and safety.
  • Talk about bullying. Help children understand why it happens and what they can do to stop it.
  • Respond consistently when issues arise between children.
  • Develop systems for introducing new children to the program and to their peers.
  • Be thoughtful about competitive sports and games. Provide many opportunities for cooperative sports and games, as well.
  • Build a strong relationship with each child.


In the next lesson, you will learn about responding to challenging behavior. In the What Do I Say Now activity below, you will begin thinking about challenging behavior in terms of social and emotional competence. Challenging behaviors are often signs that a child could use support around social and emotional competence. As you read the scenarios, think about how you could encourage the child to use social skills instead. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator to learn more about supporting children’s social and emotional competence.


There are a variety of tools available to help you apply what you have learned. Review the Promoting Social and Emotional Competence Checklist below. Use it to make sure you are doing all you can to promote social and emotional competence in your classroom or program. If you have any questions regarding any of the items you can follow up with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Communication Skills:
The ability to share information with others and receive information from others
Conflict Resolution Skills:
The ability to settle disputes peacefully
The ability to understand and share the feelings of others
Healthy Self-Esteem:
A feeling of pride in yourself
The ability to distinguish between right and wrong
The ability to accept or tolerate delay or trouble without getting upset
Continuing in a course of action despite difficulty
Personal Agency:
The extent to which individuals believe they can control the events that affect them
Belief in yourself and your abilities
Regulating your own emotions, desires, or actions
Belief in your ability to succeed or perform appropriately
Social Skills:
The skills that make it easier to interact and communicate with others


Carly is crying and sitting alone. Which of the following responses from a staff member best promotes social and emotional competence?
Malone and Jacob both want to work on the same model airplane, but it is designed to be used alone. Which of the following responses from their teacher best promotes social and emotional competence?
Why is social and emotional competence important? Choose the best answer.
True or false? School-age children already know all the social skills they need.
Where can you learn more about promoting children’s social and emotional development? Choose the best answer.
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from 

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (n.d.). Retrieved from 

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Materials available from

Crosson-Tower, C. (2003). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau.

Durlak, J. P., Weissberg, R. P., & Pachan, M. (2010). A Meta-Analysis of After-School Programs that Seek to Promote Personal and Social Skills in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 294-309.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Stop Bullying. Retrieved from