Georgina Grahame has had 8 years experience teaching both mainstream and special education. She has created her own website www.sensupport.com which makes learning resources to help children with Special Educational Needs. She explains how you can help teach the social and emotional skills which are essential to children's development in the early years. 

Despite having taught Reception for 8 years, I am always amazed at the start of the school year by the simple things that children don’t know. No matter how much I remind myself, there is always something that I am surprised at – something that I expect the children to understand that they don’t. In previous years I’ve had to remind myself that children don’t know how to line up. This year, I was pleasantly reminded that at 4 years old, some children don’t know that they are not supposed to speak when the teacher is speaking. These skills all need to be taught. Similarly, I often hear parents complain  that their child doesn’t tidy up. The trouble is, do they know how to tidy up?

It’s the same with social situations. Children are expected to naturally be able to play with others, to share, talk to their friends and solve problems but they might not inherently know how to do this. Likewise, they are expected to respect others and to not judge. These are all skills that we need to teach children to do. But how?

There are two main approaches to teaching this. The first approach is making it part of everyday life. The second approach  is to have a discrete time dedicated specifically to dealing with these situations, such as Circle Time.

Approach 1 - Everyday life

Children learn all the time, in everything that they do. You, as an adult, , play a massive part in helping them learn. You can set the example of how to deal with situations by modelling to the children the behaviour that you expect from them. Speak to children and other adults with respect and try to keep as calm as possible.

If a child has a problem with a friend, support them in sorting it out themselves. Suggest to the child what they could say to their friend and then go with them whilst they say it, so that they know they have your support. Hopefully, in time, the child will be able to sort it out without coming to you.

If a child becomes angry or upset, tell them how they are feeling. Most children don’t know what it is that they’re feeling. Emotions symbols are a great way to teach this visually. Teach children that it is ok to feel angry  - we all feel angry sometimes – but that it’s not ok to hurt someone because we’re feeling angry. Give them alternatives, such as spending some time away from the others until they calm down.

Puppets – puppets are an excellent way of communicating something to your children. Some children will find it much easier to talk to a puppet than to talk to an adult. Have puppets available in your setting for children to play with and then listen in – what is the child willing to share with a soft toy that they are not willing to share with you?

Teach skills – show children how to put things away, how to line up, how to walk safely when you go out etc. etc. Set your expectations and use visual reminders of expectations such as a ‘quiet’ symbol.

Approach 2 - Circle Time

Circle Time offers children a chance to be calm and  settled. It also gives them the chance to talk about what’s going on at home or something that they might be worried about. It teaches them about their own different emotions and about the importance of being proud of yourself. It builds self esteem and allows children to deal with life events such as death or the birth of a new sibling.

Begin by making it clear that this is a special, quiet time. You might have a song, dim the lights orput on fairy lights. Try the ‘Make a circle’ song to get children to sit in a circle:

(To the tune of Frère Jacques)

‘Make a circle, make a circle,

Big and round, big and round.

Now we’re sitting quietly, now we’re sitting quietly,

Not a sound, not a sound.'

Start  with a game to warm up e.g. rolling a ball to one another and saying the name of the person you are rolling it to. This encourages the children to feel at ease so that hopefully they will feel confident enough to speak later on.

Have rules e.g. it’s your time to speak when you are holding the toy.

Model situations – this is a great one for the main content of your Circle Time. Use another member of staff to improvise with and model falling out, but then sorting it out. As you go along, question the children – what could they do? What is good / bad about this situation? What should they have done? You might base this situation on a story, or on something that happened today.

Even better than using adults, use puppets – again, puppets are a great way to get children to communicate. Model a situation that has happened between two puppets, for example one of them wouldn’t share a toy with another. As you go, question the children. How is that puppet feeling? Why? What could they do? Children will empathise with the puppets and it’s clearer for them to see how to resolve the situation because they are not caught up in it.

Finish by asking the children how they can use what you have just talked about in their own play. When the children are playing, you can remind them of the Circle Time and what you talked about.

During circle time, you can also give children specific instructions (and if you can, make them visual) for dealing with a common situation. Give children the tools to deal with a situation themselves by giving  them clear, concise ways of how to handle it e.g. tell your friend that you don’t like what they are doing, then walk away.

Regular circle times help give children the skills they need to cope in a situation with other children and adults. There are some great books available on content for circle times should you want to know more. Remember – keep it short and focus on just one thing.

Teaching social and emotional skills are fundamental for a child to progress well in other areas of learning. Plus, having children that have a good understanding of expectations and how to deal with social situations makes for a happier, calmer childcare setting.

If you are looking for additional advice and support, you can follow @sen_support on Twitter and on Facebook or email Georgina on admin@sensupport.co.uk.

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