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Helping Staff Promote Children’s Social and Emotional Competence

Social and emotional competence of children is a protective factor in preventing child abuse and neglect. You can help staff members build their professional knowledge around social and emotional competence. In this lesson, you will learn strategies for helping staff members promote children’s social skills and emotional competence.

  • State why social and emotional competence is a protective factor that prevents abuse and neglect.
  • Describe strategies staff members should use to promote social and emotional health.
  • Observe and provide feedback on the ways staff respond to children’s social behaviors.



Recent reviews of research suggest that focusing on social and emotional competence (sometimes referred to as social and emotional health) in child development and school-age programs 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 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 healthy ways, parents began to see their children differently.

By promoting social and emotional competence, your programs have the potential to have a measurable impact on families. What does this have to do with preventing child abuse and neglect in center settings, though? The answer is simple: when staff members see each interaction as an opportunity to build a positive relationship, they are more likely to view children positively. They are more likely to see behaviors as communication:

  • The crying infant is saying, “Comfort me.”
  • The 9-month-old trying to climb the shelves is saying, “Help me explore.”
  • The toddler running around the room is saying, “Play with me.”
  • The 4 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.”

Although staff members facilitate social skills every day in your programs, it is not always easy. To do your best work supporting staff, you must be prepared to teach staff about social and emotional competence. This lesson will help you understand the foundations of social and emotional competence. Then it will provide ideas for supporting social and emotional competence in your programs.

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. These relationships influence how children 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. Of course, children develop different skills at different ages. You must be prepared to help staff members know what, when, and how to teach the skills that support social and emotional competence. 

Infants and Toddlers

Social and emotional competence begins to develop even in infancy. During the first six months of life, infants learn how caregivers (parents and other adults) will respond to their needs. This is known as attachment. Attachment relationships are those relationships that help an infant feel safe and protected—especially when they are ill or scared. All infants become attached to caregivers, but there are different qualities of attachment. The quality of attachment depends on how adults respond to the infant. Adults who respond quickly and lovingly to a crying infant build secure attachment relationships. Adults who ignore crying or respond negatively build insecure attachment relationships.

Secure attachment sets the stage for later social and emotional growth. A securely attached infant knows an adult will comfort her in times of distress. At one year of age, securely attached infants cry less, are better able to soothe themselves, and respond more quickly to a soothing caregiver (Benoit, 2004). As we respond to infants’ needs, they learn that they are effective communicators. They learn the back and forth of conversations and interactions. This has a large impact on a child’s social development from infancy through adolescence.

There are several key ways programs can promote social and emotional competence in infants and toddlers (Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning; CSEFEL, 2008) including: fostering nurturing and responsive relationships, creating supportive environments and routines, and providing targeted social and emotional supports.

Preschool & School-Age

There are three main ways your programs promote social and emotional competence as children move through the preschool and school-age years (CSEFEL, 2008; Crosson-Tower, 2021):

  • Teaching to recognize and deal with emotions
  • Teaching to recognize and solve social problems
  • 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 Guidance and Social 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’s also the ability to express and regulate emotions. Programs 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 and think” when they get angry 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 step away and take some deep breaths.”

It is also important to help older children continue developing empathy. Empathy is the ability to take on another person’s perspective. Staff members do this by describing their own and other children’s emotions. They also ask children to think about how they would feel in certain situations. Staff members encourage reflection, critical thinking, and compassion. Teaching empathy is a powerful way to prevent violence. People who understand the emotions of others are less likely to commit violence. This means that teaching children empathy can help prevent violence between children. Teaching empathy also refreshes staff members’ own mental and emotional health, which can prevent child abuse and neglect.

Problem-Solving and Conflict Mediation

All of us experience problems. Our success lies in how we deal with those problems. 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. Preschool and school-age children may learn to recognize they have a problem, think of solutions, think about 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 children learn to solve problems is a critical skill for life. It helps build resilience and mental flexibility. You and staff members can model these skills yourselves during your daily interactions with staff members and families. You can also help staff members directly teach these skills: introduce the problem-solving steps, create opportunities to practice the skills (e.g., provide too few cups for snack), and provide reminders when children encounter problems. You will learn more in the Guidance and Social courses.

Supporting Friendship Skills

Learning how to make and keep friends is a lifelong skill. In classrooms and programs that foster social and emotional competence, staff members look for opportunities to promote friendship skills. They encourage friendly behavior, model friendly behavior, and set up opportunities for children to practice friendship skills.

For preschool staff members, this means teaching children how to:

  • Ask to join others in play
  • Offer ideas and suggestions
  • Share
  • Take turns
  • Give compliments
  • Know how and when to apologize

Preschool staff members read books about friendship, set up Buddy or Friendship activities, and encourage friendly behaviors.

School-age staff members do this by:

  • Creating positive social norms: Social norms are the habits or ways of interacting that develop amongst a group of people. You can create positive social norms through your mission statement, expectations, and reactions to everyday events.
  • Ensuring children have opportunities to belong: This means school-age children feel respected. They have opportunities for leadership roles and have a voice in the program. They are able to continue developing their own identity in the program.
  • Providing supportive relationships: School-age children need to feel a connection with staff members and with their peers.
  • School-age direct care staff members also learned about bullying prevention in their coursework on preventing child abuse and neglect in center settings. You can download the attachment in the Apply section of this lesson to find additional training resources related to bullying.

Helping Staff Learn to Support Social and Emotional Competence?

You can take a variety of actions to help staff members support social and emotional competence. First, you must teach staff what social and emotional competence is and why it is important. This lesson and the previous lesson provided brief definitions. Share those with staff members in trainings, meetings, and other events. Second, you must teach staff members strategies they can use in their classrooms and programs. It is beyond the scope of this lesson to provide training materials on all the social emotional teaching strategies, but a training resource guide is provided in the Apply section. This guide provides websites for free, high-quality trainings you can use to supplement the Virtual Lab School materials. You can also refer to the Social and Guidance courses for more information. Finally, you must provide in-classroom or in-program support to staff members as they learn to support social and emotional competence. This means coaching staff members and providing feedback on their efforts.


There is a lot you can do to promote social and emotional competence. You should reflect on how well you and your program:

  • Provide staff training on fostering social and emotional development or on the impact of loss and trauma. There are excellent resources available to help you with this work. In the Apply section, you will learn about several of these.
  • Introduce parents to social and emotional development. Provide pamphlets, resources, and parent education events.
  • Provide opportunities for parents to observe their children interacting with other children and staff.
  • Coach parents about how to interact effectively with their children. Focus on positive interactions and noticing effort.
  • Model behavior to children that encourages social and emotional expressiveness.
  • Provide access to mental-health services.


Let’s explore a few situations you might encounter. Think about how you would respond to each.

Scenarios for Promoting Social Development


Social Transitions


Social Transitions:

Rosalita works in the young toddler room. When families drop their children off, she encourages them to sneak away when the children aren't watching. She tells them it makes the transition easier.

The Problem

The Problem:

Rosalita is missing an important opportunity to foster social connections with families and to model pro-social behaviors. Helping children feel that transitions are secure and predictable is an important stepping stone to self-regulation.

Say / Do

Take Action:

  • You might focus on an individual child. Think about how the transition is affecting that child.
  • You might say, "I noticed Felix had a really tough time at drop-off this morning. What do you think is happening?"
  • Alternatively, you might focus on a family member. Maybe you would say, "I wonder if Jamie's mom would like a big good-bye hug in the morning. She looked a little sad to leave him."

Valuable Social Connections


Valuable Social Connections:

Shawn works in an infant room. He seems to put more value on "floor time" than he does on "face time." He seems to always be shuffling children from one spot to another, but he rarely stops to hold or interact with an infant.

The Problem

The Problem:

Shawn might think he is providing lots of stimulation for the infants, but he is missing out on building strong attachment relationships with the infants. Infants learn to communicate through reciprocal interactions with caring adults. If babies are moved from spot to spot, they are missing out on valuable social time.

Say / Do

Take Action:

Model for Shawn. Spend time in the classroom holding the babies and talking about how important it is to connect with each infant. Talk about the importance of eye contact, singing songs, and talking. Give Shawn ideas to try. Set goals to increase the amount of time he spends holding infants.

Validating with Goodbye


Validating with Goodbye:

The school-age program is anticipating a great deal of staff turnover when the school year ends. Several of the children's favorite staffers have been offered other positions for the summer. The team decides that the children will barely notice the staffing change since there will be so much novelty in the summer program.

The Problem

The Problem:

The team hasn't realized that school-age children value relationships and predictability just like younger children do. The staff members have been an important part of the children's experience. That experience should be validated, and the children should have a chance to say goodbye.

Say / Do

Take Action:

Talk to the team about options for announcing staffing changes. Let the children come up with ideas to say goodbye to their program staff members.

Solving Conflicts Socially


Solving Conflicts Socially:

Blake is an exceptional teacher. He is engaged in conversations with children all the time, and he does a great job of expanding their thinking about concepts like math and science. However, you have noticed that he seems to jump in very quickly whenever there is a problem between two or more children (i.e., fighting over something). He declares a solution and makes the children apologize to each other.

The Problem

The Problem:

Blake is solving social problems for the children. He is preventing the children from working out their own solutions or exploring natural consequences of behavior.

Say / Do

Take Action:

Encourage Blake to delay his reaction to conflicts. Help him self-monitor his behavior by counting to 10 before getting involved. Together, you could take time to notice how children's interactions unfold without an adult. He might notice that the children actually have quite sophisticated ways of solving problems.



Not everyone feels confident teaching staff members how to promote social-emotional competence. Perhaps you do not have a strong education or training in this area, or perhaps there are new approaches you are not familiar with. Use the Promoting Social and Emotional Competence: Self-Reflection activity to reflect on your professional strengths and needs. This will help you do better work with staff members. Share what you have learned with someone who supports your professional development needs. Review the materials in the Apply section to find resources you can use to train and support staff members. 


It can be helpful to talk directly with staff members about the work your program does to promote social and emotional competence. Use the Promoting Social and Emotional Competence: Conversation Guide to learn more about how confident staff members in your program feel about promoting social and emotional competence. Use what you learn here to help create training programs and individualized support for staff members. 

Review the Promoting Social and Emotional Competence: Training Resources handout to identify training materials you can use to support staff members who work with children ages 0-12. Additionally, you can use the What, When, & How to Teach Social and Emotional Skills guide to help staff members think of ways to promote social and emotional skills across age groups. 


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 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


Why are social and emotional competence a protective factor that prevents child abuse and neglect?
True or False. Social and emotional competence cannot be developed until a child enters the preschool years.
Which of the following is NOT a way for your program to promote social and emotional competence in preschool and school-age classrooms?
Finish this statement: Emotional literacy is fostered when…
You observe in the toddler room and notice that 24-month-old Carmen is having difficulty disengaging from activities at pick-up time. The staff member you observe takes a toy from Carmen’s hands and says, “It’s time to go now.” Which of the following is an example of what you might say to this staff member?
References & Resources

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. (2022). Prevention strategies. Available at:

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.). Resources available from

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

Crosson-Tower, C. (2021). Understanding child abuse and neglect, 10th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (n.d.). Essentials for childhood: Creating safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments for all children.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Stop bullying on the spot. Retrieved from