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A Neuro-Developmental Approach to SEL: 5 Strategies to Help Kids Develop Social and Emotional Skills

In the wake of COVID, schools are working harder than ever and recognizing the importance of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). This is great, but we are often asked, how do we best support our youngest learners in acquiring these needed skills and abilities, and how do we incorporate the learning into the school day?

These are excellent questions because they remind us that SEL is closely connected to human development. To meaningfully support SEL, we must first understand neuro-development and then meet our children with experiences that support their developmental growth. To do this, our learning approaches may need to look different from how we teach academics.

Understanding Neurological Development

As human beings, our brains develop in a typical trajectory, beginning with the lower portions of our brains - first, the brain stem, where our survival instincts are found, followed by the limbic system, where our emotions and memory are held. The last portion to develop is our prefrontal cortex, which is ultimately used to take in information from all other parts of the brain, synthesize it, and make meaning from it. This allows us to set goals, make decisions, control our impulses, and cognitively shift from one task to another (Siegal, 2021).

Cognition (which includes social-emotional and academic knowledge and executive functions) develops alongside brain development. We need to understand how this development occurs to support and teach SEL effectively. Just as we would not teach a child to read before they can identify their letters, we would not teach them to self-regulate when they cannot identify their own emotions.

Social-emotional learning is a broad category, often defined in the field in various ways, but usually broken down into three main areas: cognitive, social, and emotional skills, abilities, and dispositions (EASEL Lab, 2022).

Through the lens of a developmental approach and research, we further delineate these areas into five sub-categories: Sense of Self, Reciprocal Engagement, Social Awareness, Social-Emotional Regulation, and Logical and Responsible Decision Making (Hulen, Lipsett, 2022). As educators and caregivers, we must remember that these competencies develop at different stages and depend on one another to form fully.

Although it may be tempting to teach the skills and concepts in each competency to all students regardless of where they are developmentally, that may be like teaching a child to add before they can count. The ultimate goal is to achieve competence in each sub-category, with the knowledge that these social-emotional skills and abilities take a developmental path that builds over time and throughout our lives.

Developmental Progression of SEL - The early stages

The first social-emotional skills and concepts we develop involve our sense of self and reciprocal engagement. These ideas develop from birth in our interactions with our caregivers and throughout early childhood. This involves the development of our self-esteem and personal identity - understanding who we are and what makes us unique, our likes and our dislikes, what we are proud of in ourselves, and things that may be challenging for us; as well as our personal, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. This foundational stage is also when a child begins to interpret their experiences through a positive or negative lens and develops their perspective on the world, where they belong in it, and their sense of safety.

Our sense of self develops along with our ability to interact and engage with others (reciprocal engagement) as we learn where our self ends and another begins (Gold, 2017; Nelson et al., 2014). From the time we are first born, we begin interacting with our caregivers to experience the world. We cry and are fed; we lock eyes with our mother, and we see a smile back at us. Our back-and-forth interactions with others allow us to recognize our own being.

Children need a strong sense of self to develop social awareness, where they begin to show empathy for others, take different perspectives, and develop healthy relationships with people different from themselves.

We want our children to be kind to their classmates and to share, and we often worry if a child resists sharing with peers or uses unkind words. Yet often, our younger learners are not ready to fully understand how their actions affect others. They cannot yet empathize with their peers or recognize that their mean words will hurt someone else’s feelings. To understand a peer’s perspective, they must first recognize it within themselves. Teaching isolated lessons on skills relating to one’s sense of self and social awareness doesn’t necessarily mean our youngest learners will magically build self-esteem, develop a growth mindset, or be able to build relationships with their peers. Therefore, we can skillfully use practices throughout the school day to help our youngest learners make authentic meaning of these ideas and gradually build these life-long skills over time.

SEL Practices to Support Sense of Self and Reciprocal Engagement

1. Provide the child with specific jobs. At home, these may be jobs that help the whole family, like setting the table, while at school, these may be jobs to help the classroom, like passing out papers, erasing the board, or picking up pencils that fell on the floor. This provides a sense of importance and belonging in the class community or family structure.

2. Make Connections Throughout the day:

  • Find opportunities throughout the day for the child to connect with their teachers or caregivers and peers. Be sure to start early in the day and begin each day on a positive note. A simple high-five, a smile, or saying, “I’m so glad to see you,” can go a long way in building a connection. Children who may resist a connection or not outwardly search for it often need it the most. Make a point to find ways to connect meaningfully with all students throughout the school day, knowing that some may need more of these frequent moments than others.

  • As you go about your day, at home or school, incorporate thoughtful SEL questions. These prompts can be used in school during morning meetings or when reflecting in a closure circle at the end of the day. Encourage families to use these questions during meals or while driving. These questions prompt children to reflect on their sense of self, practice reciprocal engagement (sever and return), and encourage a connection between the child and others which supports relationship building. Below are some prompts to spark reflective discussions:

Think of:

  • A time when you were very _________(excited, frustrated, nervous, happy, etc.)

  • Something you are very grateful for.

This or That:

  • Would you rather read a book to yourself or listen to a book be read to you by someone else?

  • At recess with friends, would you rather play: outside on the playground equipment (swings, slide, monkey bars), an active sport (basketball, soccer, hopscotch), or a board game?


  • Your favorite thing you like to do for fun

  • One thing you are really good at

  • Something challenging you want to work on and get better at

Turn and Talk with a Friend:

  • You and your friend were on opposite teams in gym class, your team won, and your friend's team lost. What could you do?

  • You worked a long time and really hard at building a tower during indoor recess, and it fell over when your friend walked by. What could you do?

3. Engage in shared reading activities: Read picture books where characters feel strong emotions and discuss what the characters are feeling and why. Encourage children to think about if they ever felt this way. You can also use SEL literature books that target specific SEL skills and concepts focused on identifying one’s feelings and emotions, understanding and celebrating one's identity and personal, cultural, and linguistic background (Title topics may include: being yourself, growth mindset, gratitude, openness, and positivity, etc.). The conversations you have around these books provide opportunities for reciprocal engagement while you support students in building a strong and positive sense of self.

4. Support SEL during play:

Play is essential for healthy learning and development in early childhood and is the perfect time to support social-emotional learning. As the adults in the child’s life, we can plan for and provide time for unstructured and guided play experiences within the classroom and during non-instructional periods of the school day (lunch, recess, etc.). In play, children can explore a wide range of emotions and practice cognitively shifting between one idea and another. During engaging play, children learn to be flexible when ideas do not turn out their way, how to problem solve, and how to manage someone else’s emotions. You can support play by joining into play with children to be the play partner or helping guide play as an observer.

5. Teach and model SEL in real-life situations and throughout the day:

Children are more likely to learn from the behavior they see around them than directly telling them or from the lessons we teach them. Our behavior throughout the day acts as an SEL lesson of its own. Keep this in mind as you choose your actions and the language you use with your students. Help them understand how you keep yourself regulated and flexible.

  • Role-play with another student or have students role-play with each other

  • Model SEL skills in real-time and with real-life situations: (i.e., Thinking aloud strategy)

  • Problem Solving situations (i.e., With whole class situations, peer-to-peer situations, or when supporting individual students)

We need to get this right! - Authentic SEL

Teaching and supporting authentic SEL in the classroom is essential to creating strong and resilient learners. More than ever, our children need SEL in the classroom to support their learning of academic skills and concepts and benefit their lives outside the classroom. When we are mindful of the developmental progression of these skills, we can provide even more meaningful opportunities to our children and support them in building life-long skills.

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