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Teacher Helping Develop Social and Emotional Skills


The process of learning has been generally understood as the process through which individuals go in acquiring their knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, beliefs, emotions, and senses. The process requires the existence of certain knowledge and skills to develop them in the course of studies and ensures this development. The success of the process depends on the effective collaboration of its participants and a number of external factors. Effective collaboration to a great extend depends on the role teachers perform in the classroom. The current paper is concerned with the exploration of one particular role that teacher performs, namely, the teacher’s role in helping children develop social and emotional skills with the focus made on an elementary school.

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The research is done through the following perspectives:

  • Defining social skills and teacher’s role in their development;
  • Defining emotional skills and their development;
  • Understanding the importance of strengthening the student’s self-esteem;
  • Understanding the importance of encouraging children to learn to empathize, understand and accept one another.

Children’s Social Skills and Teacher’s Role in their Development

Like many other, psychological or behavioral concepts social skills have acquired numerous definitions and none of them can be regarded as generally accepted. The variety of definitions of the construct can be explained by the diversity of the related traits, abilities, and behaviors that constitute it. Another aspect that contributes to a large number of existing definitions is the significant number of professionals interested in the problem of social skills. Psychology, psychiatry, education, psychiatric nursing investigate some particular aspects of the problem, therefore, many definitions of social skills have appeared. Regarding the difficulty of defining social skills, we suggest here an integrated view on social skills offered by Michelson, Sugai, Wood, and Kazdin. The definition embraces the following seven components:

  1. Social skills are primarily acquired through learning (especially social learning, including observation, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback).
  2. Social skills contain specific and distinct verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
  3. Social skills include both effective and appropriate initiations and responses.
  4. Social skills optimize social reinforcement (e.g., beneficial responses from the social environment).
  5. Social skills are interactive by nature and include both effective and appropriate responses (e.g., reciprocity and timing of specific behaviors).
  6. Social skill performance is influenced by the attributes of the participants and the environments in which it occurs (i.e., situational specificity). Influences such as age, gender, and prestige status of the recipient affect one’s social performance.
  7. Deficits and excesses in social performance can be designated and marked for intervention (Merrell and Gimpel 5).

Through the dimensions cited above it can be understood that social skills are learned, contain specific behaviors, include initiations and responses, are influenced by the environments in which they occur, and are open for intervention.

Historical developments in the sphere of social skills start in 1917 when Beery, a prominent educator of that time, published a series of books under the title Practical Child Training and offered a set of parental advice on childrearing. In particular, the educator stressed the importance of peer interaction and claimed that it was the mother’s duty to create opportunities for it. According to the author, such interaction should have helped mothers to provide their children with a good time and approached other children (Merrell and Gimpel 7).

Since the time this work appeared adults have made numerous efforts to understand and facilitate children’s social adjustment. Through the years of significant developments in this sphere, we are currently at the stage when the science explores sound classification taxonomy for children’s social skills and works out ecologically valid assessment tools directly linked to intervention, and an increase in the human ability to conduct social skills training is an effective and generalizable manner.

At the elementary school-age children are in the concrete operations stage of cognitive development. Children can use simple logic but abstract symbolic thinking is not developed yet. They acquire new operational skills like reversibility (the realization that an action can be reversible), decentration (focusing on objects or tasks as a whole rather than on their one part only), and conservation (observing that a change in appearance does not necessarily constitute a change in quality) (Merrell and Gimpel 9).

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As for social development, it is characterized by the children’s learning to function beyond the family in a broader social context. Children become increasingly capable of affective and cognitive perspective-taking, gradually they understand that “people’s personalities and identities are coherent and continuing and that others’ inner states go beyond the immediate, observable situation” (Eisenberg and Harris 269).

During elementary school years, children learn how to generate alternative solutions to potential social problems. The effectiveness of teachers’ help students to develop this social skill shapes the way children interact with peers. Mutual attention and providing feedback is another social skill that children develop at this stage. The quality of interpersonal communication depends on the use of positive, helpful, and cooperative communications. Children call friends those who can help and support, they demonstrate trust, loyalty, and admiration to them. Gradually, children begin to form a group that differs in social status and power. Within these groups, children care much about self-presentation and want to avoid rejection. Often the groups demonstrate negative social behavior such as gossiping, negative evaluation, etc. The teacher’s task is to smooth the relationships between the groups and strengthen friendships within them. The teacher is also responsible for the proper correlation between the use of specific forms of social communication and the complexity of children’s language and communication skills.

Children’s Social Skills and Teacher’s Role in their Development

In its most general sense the concept of emotional skills refers to a person’s ability to express and control one’s emotional states and to manage them. Emotional self-regulation becomes significantly important for children of elementary school age. At this young age, pupils learn how to deal with disappointments, losses, and other upsetting events that poison their lives. Managing positive emotion is important for social and academic success. When children are unable to regulate their emotions they demonstrate conduct disorder.

The teachers’ primary task during the elementary school period is to teach students to differentiate their emotional states. Different pictures and descriptions of human emotions will be of much help to explain to children what it means to feel sad, frightened, or angry. To name a feeling correctly means to make the first step towards being able to manage it. When a person knows in what state he or she is now, he/she has more chances to apply different strategies for dealing with this or that emotion. Without knowing the name for a feeling it will be more difficult for a child to decide on the course of it and deal with it appropriately. Moreover, the child who is aware of his/her state can easier seek help and support from other people.

It is evident that even adults resort to some competent help to identify what they are feeling. Needless to say that children need more help in tackling the problem. As at the stage of elementary education students just start their long journey through acquiring and developing the complex skills of understanding themselves and others, the teaching of effective vocabulary gets especial importance.

Teachers are expected to teach students the simplest emotional vocabulary that consists of four basic emotions: sad, mad, bad, and glad (Emotional Skills). Though there is no clear evidence that the four words cover all human emotions, at the early stage they are quite enough for young learners to understand and render their emotions. What is also important is that the children should learn that emotions can be mixed. Teachers should explain to children that one can feel sad and glad or mad and glad at the same time. When the children acquire this knowledge it will be easier for teachers to understand their states, as it will be enough to ask the child: “how much of the feeling is a glad one?” or “how much of it is mad?” (Emotional Skills)

The most widely recognized techniques for emotion recognition are following below:

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  • Using “emoticons” – the teacher uses little expressive faces which are common in internet communications. Even when children do not know the word that stands to denote the feeling expressed by the face they can point to a picture and express what they are feeling at the moment. Then they learn to associate the picture with the appropriate mode;
  • Teaching that all emotions are ok, teaching emotional self-acceptance – teachers and adults surrounding the child should be able to accept the right of the child for this or that emotion and patiently teach children to regulate it, mere surpassing of emotions will not do any good for the child as it will not even become aware of the nature of this emotion;
  • Managing anger techniques – though the problem of managing anger appears to be burning at the age of three to five, when children enter elementary school they often keep suffering this problem as well. Therefore, the teacher’s task is to empower the student with adequate techniques of how to manage anger. The teacher might draw an anger thermometer to illustrate graphically the essence of anger that comes to the surface. Thus the children will get involved at once in the problem discussed (Emotional Skills).

The first step to manage anger is to recognize it. The teacher explains that there are certain changes in the physical state of a person who gets angry, such as feeling hot in the face or tummy, clenched jaw, feeling hot in the face or tummy, shaking, seeing red (Emotional Skills). When children recognize the warning signs of getting angry they are encouraged to learn the techniques that help to reduce anger. There exist several of them, to name a few, these are taking a break from the situation, deep breathing, seeking adult support, relaxation, switching channels, the “turtle technique” (Emotional Skills).

One more thing that teachers should pay attention to while teaching children to understand the emotions and emotions of others is to explain to them that sadness and depression are quite different things. While sadness is a normal response to disappointing events or negative experiences, depression is an emotional disorder and requires professional treatment. To explain this difference the teacher can choose a form of discussion wherein he/she talks of these feelings with the children. Other techniques to teach children how to deal with sadness and depression are to apply to children’ creativity, to remind children that sadness is quite a normal state and it will go away one day, to do physical exercises with the students and to teach them that exercise is a natural anti-depressant, to explain to the children that one should not forget to keep doing things he/she enjoys even feeling disheartened (Emotional Skills).

Also, there exist certain techniques to help children overcome normal fears and develop courage:

  • Explanation of the meaning of courage;
  • Praising children for being brave;
  • Use of self-talk;
  • Acting according to the principle “get back on the horse that threw you (Emotional Skills).

The natural degree of people’s extraversion varies. If naturally shy children are not taught to handle this state appropriately they may suffer from it in the future. When the teacher explains what shyness and social anxiety are and how not to become a prisoner of these states he/she should stress that children should learn how to set goals and how to achieve them as it will help them to fight their natural shyness. At the same time the teacher should not be over-protective, should avoid labeling and judging the children, the teacher should not be too hard with them, and should teach them social skills at the same time (Emotional Skills).

Stress, anxiety, and anger are rather common among children of elementary school age and teachers should take maximum efforts to teach children how to manage them. The relaxation that can be achieved through breath awareness, progressive muscle relaxation, and calming imagery seems to be the most effective technique that can be applied to elementary school.

Strengthening Students’ Self-Esteem

Modern educators have become more and more aware of the fact that there is a close interconnection between the student’s self-esteem and his or her academic progress. The essence of self-esteem “comes from a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that you’ve done your personal best.” (Colvin 28) Schools throughout the United States and Europe adopt packaged programs that enhance the student’s feeling of self-esteem and emphasize the role high self-esteem plays in the healthy development of students.

For example, Rib Mountain School in Wausau, Wisconsin, the United States, headed by F. Robert Pellant practices boosting the self-esteem of students. The principal admits: “We want kids to enjoy coming to school and feel good about themselves so that they have an opportunity to learn.” (Colvin 28) Boosting the self-esteem of students is regarded by some teachers and academicians as faddish, unproductive, and even potentially damaging, the school under consideration aims at debunking this assumption.

The practical outcome of the theoretical doctrine of boosting the self-esteem of students is the two assemblies of self-esteem a year that the school organizes: one with the participation of professional musicians who glorify the importance of feeling good about yourself and one in which students themselves take an active part and perform their own musical celebration of self-esteem.

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At the school, the same teaching staff works with children for several years so that the students confide in them and feel free to talk about their feelings. Class meetings focusing on the students’ feelings are commonly held at the school. The teachers do their best to establish an atmosphere that allows the students to feel comfortable. Negativity is avoided by all possible means: “We hardly ever use the word ‘don’t,”‘ Pellant says.”What works, you use, and I’ve seen some great things out of it.” (Colvin 28).

Certain skeptical attitudes exist concerning the strategy that the schools of the type implement. The debate over self-esteem is nurtured by the concerns about the influence that self-esteem might have on the self-expression and individualism of the students. Some parents fear lest the propaganda of self-esteem does not sharpen their children’s feelings of individualism and self-expression. Other questions that fuel the debate are whether the strengthening of student’s feelings of self-esteem will have positive impacts on their discipline, responsibility, and a sense of community or not. Moreover, some parents don’t like the idea that schools overstep their bounds and go far beyond the problem of academic success worrying about the psychological state of students. Also, certain concerns exist because of the parents’ fear that schools praise children for the least significant accomplishment thus coddling them. Besides, many educational psychologists do not believe that schools actually can influence children’s feelings about themselves, and, even if they could “there’s little scientific evidence of a payoff in terms of behavior, academic achievement or much of anything else.” (Colvin 29).

Despite the existing debate over self-esteem, most educators agree that being supportive of children, making them feel comfortable about themselves positively influences achieving the high goals for academic achievement and citizenship set for the students. Students with high self-esteem feel good about themselves and appear to be less likely to strike against others that decrease the level of violent outbursts among children. Children with high self-esteem do not resort to drugs, delay sexual activity and work harder to succeed in learning.

To encourage students’ feelings of self-esteem relationship between teachers and students should be based on trust and respect. When children see that the quality of their work is encouraged and acknowledged they tend to show better results in their studies. Psychological research has indicated that such children are interested in learning, optimistic, goal-directed, willing to face different challenges, respectful of others, and capable to work in teams showing the results expected (Colvin 29).

Richard Colvin (2000) in his article Losing Faith in Self-Esteem suggests that schools should adopt a comprehensive plan that addresses the following issues:

  • Enhances staff self-esteem;
  • Builds self-awareness and self-acceptance;
  • Fosters feelings of significance, responsibility, and personal power;
  • Expects students to interact respectfully with others;
  • Provides opportunities for recognition for all students;
  • Encourages cooperation and support of others;
  • Develops social skills and reduces isolates;
  • Encourages students to set short-term and long-term goals;
  • Builds academic competencies (29).

Further, the author states that the elements of self-esteem should be incorporated as a critical element of any prevention program. Implementation of programs aimed at strengthening children’s self-esteem is especially important for elementary schools as at this time the students’ behavior and learning patterns are formed, in the future they will shape the course of their entire school career. In terms of the rise in student depression, aggression, anger, and emotional needs, it is very important what role schools will take. Will it be a passive role of filling children’s heads with the existing knowledge or a proactive role addressing their social and emotional needs while being their cognitive skills? Practice shows that the latter perspective is much more promising than the former. This happens, of course, when high self-esteem is not regarded as a synonym of narcissism, egotism, self-centeredness, and other issues that prevent students from effective learning.

Encouraging Children to learn to Empathize, Understand and Accept One Another

One of the basic principles of the Swedish school system states:

“The inviolability of human life, individual freedom, and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable are all values that the school shall represent and impart…. It shall also actively resist any tendency towards bullying or persecution. Xenophobia and intolerance must be actively confronted with knowledge, open discussion, and effective measures.” (Education for Students of non-Swedish Background and Recognized Minorities).

Among numerous outcomes that this principle presupposes there is teachers’ important role in teaching children to emphasize, understand and accept one another despite any individual differences.

In the Swedish school system, today over 100 different first languages are spoken. Speakers of one of the officially recognized minority languages of Sweden: Sami, Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani-chib, and Yiddish attend Sweden schools (Education). The variety of languages spoken in schools often serves as a basis for misunderstanding between children and causes various problems in their communication.

Thus, the teacher’s task is to encourage children to develop the ability to see the outside world from the perspective of another person. This ability has profound implications for empathy, prejudice, aggression, and interpersonal relations in general. Children should understand that feeling another person’s pain helps to realize what he or she is going through and it increases the probability that one’s heart will open to another person. Once the heart opens to another person, the possibility to bully that person, to taunt or humiliate him/her decreases.

Elliot Aronson in the study Nobody Left to Hate (2000) suggests using jigsaw classrooms to develop empathy with the children. Jigsaw is a specific type of group learning experience that requires students’ cooperative effort to produce the final product. Each student participates in the production of the final product and thus gets its full understanding. The experiment that the author conducted has proved that working in jigsaw groups leads to a sharpening of children’s general empathic ability, as to succeed in the tasks that the groups are offered children need to practice feeling what their groupmates feel (17).

Other techniques of empathy training include:

  • Training interpersonal perception and empathetic responding. Students learn what empathy is, how it develops, what emotive states exist, how to recognize them and respond to them positively. This cognitive approach enhances students’ empathetic perceptions and skills;
  • Initial focus on one’s own feelings. Children are encouraged to focus on different kinds of feelings they have;
  • Focus on similarities between oneself and others. Effective and cognitive empathy is increased through activities that focus children’s attention on similarities between themselves and other people;
  • Role-taking or role-playing. Implies activities that call for children to assume the role of some fictional character and to imagine or act out that character’s feelings and behavior;
  • Ongoing practice in imagining/perceiving another’s perspective. Repeated practice at taking someone else’s perspective is more effective than infrequent efforts of role-taking or role-playing;
  • Exposure to emotionally arousing stimuli. Portrayals of misfortune, deprivation, or distress on the part of others encourage children to think about others and stimulate the same feelings and responses;
  • Positive trait attribution. The practice that emphasizes that children exhibit prosocial behavior because it is in their nature to do so;
  • Modeling empathetic behavior. Teachers model desired values and children are more likely to them;
  • Studying famous empathetic people. Famous empathetic persons may serve as examples to follow. Children get the desire to be like these people, to understand their feelings and emotions, and to take on attitudes and behaviors associated with them (Cotton).

A teacher who understands children’s needs encourages their personal and academic growth. In the current paper, we observed how important teacher’s help in developing social and emotional skills at the elementary school level might be. Both theoretical conceptions and pieces of practical advice were presented. The paper addressed the importance of proper development of social-emotional skills and outlined practical activities to help children of elementary school age develop them. Further research that would offer new effective techniques in the development of these skills is needed.

Works Cited

Aronson, Elliot. “Nobody Left to Hate.” The Humanist May 2000: 17.

Colvin, Richard. “Losing Faith in Self-Esteem.” School Administrator. 2000: 28.

Cotton, Kathleen. “Developing Empathy in Children and Youth.”2001. School Improvement Research Series. 2008. Web.

“Education for Students of non-Swedish Background and Recognized Minorities.” Slowerket. 2005. Web.

“Emotional Skills.” Resiliency Resource Centre. 2005. Mental Health Foundation of Australia. 2008. Web.

Eisenberg N., & Harris J. D. “Social competence: A developmental perspective.” School Psychology Review, 13. 1(1984): 267-277.

Merrell, Kenneth W., and Gretchen A. Gimpel. Social Skills of Children and Adolescents: Conceptualization, Assessment, Treatment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.

Schickedanz, Judith A. “Helping Children Develop Self-Control.” Childhood Education 70.5 (1994): 274.

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