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Mendo Lake Family Life

How to Teach Empathy and Self Control

By Pam Moore

“More Goldfish!” my five-year-old demands.

I summon all my patience. “Can you try that again?”

“I’m hungry!”

I take a long blink. “Honey? Can you—”

Her face is still beet red, but her body has relaxed. She takes a deep breath, then slowly blows the air through her pursed lips. This is the “birthday cake” breathing she learned in kindergarten.

“Mom, can I please have more Goldfish?”

My daughter attends public school, in Boulder, Colorado, where her teacher is one of a handful of educators integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom. SEL is based on five core competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Gaining these skills can make children and parents happier while improving academic performance.

With a growing body of research supporting SEL as a driver of academic performance, emotional well-being, and positive school culture, its rising popularity is not surprising.

While school districts are starting to adopt SEL, it’s not the norm. If your child’s school has yet to embrace it, Jennifer Miller, SEL expert, offers tips for parents.

Create a Plan Miller recommends creating a “Family Emotional Safety Plan,” so when emotional disaster strikes, you’re ready. It can be as simple as “When mom is angry, she’ll say ‘I need five minutes’ and then she’ll go in her room and shut the door while she cools down.” Explaining the plan in advance precludes your child from anxiously wondering, “Why is she leaving me?”, says Miller. Additionally, it highlights the importance of self-awareness for both children and parents.

Make a Pledge While family arguments are natural, they’re not always healthy. According to Miller, data support specific types of fighting. While particular words, attitudes, and actions can leave emotional scars, others strengthen relationships. Miller’s “Fighting Fair Family Pledge” sets boundaries on language and actions to avoid (e.g., criticizing, blaming, name-calling), while offering effective alternatives (like taking responsibility and focusing on solutions). She says even if you only adopt this pledge within your marriage, your kids will still benefit. “Children learn most and best from modeling so even if we only adopt boundaries for fighting with our partner, we can watch the ripple effect throughout our family as children begin to use similar strategies.”

Use Challenges as Learning Opportunities Miller says when faced with parenting challenges, it’s crucial to ask, “What skill does my child need to learn?” While being clear on what behaviors are unacceptable, we must teach our kids how to engage in the practices we do want to see. For example, if your child continually takes her younger sister’s doll, instead of repeatedly telling her not to, Miller encourages parents to use this situation as a teachable moment. “You might say, ‘You really want to play with your sister’s doll. Let’s see if there are ways we can play that keep everyone happy and also give you a chance with the doll. Hmmm, what could we do?!’ Get your child involved.” You can also have your child teach the behavior to a toy to make the lesson more fun. Miller recommends giving positive reinforcement when your child approaches a challenging situation in a constructive way. “Your specific recognition can go a long way toward promoting new positive choices.”

As a parent, I see the benefits of SEL daily. I see it when my daughter chooses deep breaths over screaming when I brush her hair, when she asks her little sister to take turns, and when she tells herself, “I can do it” before attempting the monkey bars. I see it when she says, “Oops. I made a mistake. I’ll take a deep breath and try again.”

In my daughter’s class, SEL isn’t a separate lesson. Her teacher, Donna Young, infuses it into the classroom culture, which emphasizes relationships. “We are first and foremost, a school family,” says Young. Every morning, she crouches to make eye contact while greeting each child by name. Intermittently throughout the day, the class does calming breathing exercises together. Young strives to model self-regulation; strategically placed sticky notes serve as reminders. When she falls short, she tells her students what she was feeling, what she did, and what she’ll do differently next time. “This just reinforces that everyone makes mistakes, all the time, every day, and it’s okay.”

SEL skills like self-regulation and empathy aren’t just beneficial for kids. Young wishes she knew about SEL when her kids were growing up. “If I had had the knowledge and self-awareness that I have now, I would have parented in a different way. I believe I would have had more compassion for myself and my mistakes as a parent of young children.” 

Pam Moore is an award-winning freelance writer, intuitive eating coach, and host of the Real Fit podcast. Get her free guide to improving your body image at