Everyday Ideas for Increasing Children's Opportunities to Practice Social Skills and Emotional Competencies

The ideas and strategies outlined below are available in a variety of formats. They include Twitter postings ("tweets"), classroom activities, and supplemental materials that can be sent home for families to do at home.

The strategies are organized by the type of skill targeted: emotions, friendship skills, problem-solving, and handling anger and other difficult emotions.

For each set of strategies, there are daily ideas which require relatively little planning, weekly ideas that require training and materials, and ideas that can be sent home with families.

Select the tabs below to start exploring.

Ideas for Teaching Children about Emotions

Daily Ideas

  • Make faces expressing different emotions and have children guess what you might be feeling.
  • Throughout the day, help children learn to label their own emotions (e.g., "It looks like you are feeling mad that we can't go outside; what can we do to help you feel better?")
  • While reading stories to children, have children guess how the characters in the story are feeling. Ask questions like, "How can you tell that the character is feeling that way? Can you make a face that shows that feeling?"
  • During mealtime, tell children about a situation that makes you feel a particular emotion (e.g., happy, sad, frustrated, angry, jealous, etc.). Then ask children to share the things that make them feel that same emotion.
  • Make up silly songs about different emotions, using any tune. For example, to Row, Row, Row Your Boat: "I feel happy when I play outside. Let me show you my happy face (everyone makes a happy face together). I feel angry when someone takes my toy. Let me show you my angry face (everyone make an angry face together). I feel scared when I hear a loud noise. Let me show my scared face (everyone make a scared face together)."
  • Use puppets to act out different situations; for example, one puppet takes a toy from another puppet. Ask the children what emotion(s) the puppets might be feeling and have them choose from pictures of children making different emotions. After labeling the emotions, have children practice making the emotion with their own faces. Then ask what the puppet should do next to help when feeling the emotion. Have the puppet model coping with the emotion.
  • Play an emotion walking game while outside. Ring a bell and have everyone walk around the playground like they are sad. Ring the bell again and have the children walk like they are mad. Repeat the activity until you have practiced several emotions.
  • Sing an emotion hello song to start the day. Start with "Hello, Hello, Hello, and how are you? I'm fine, I'm fine, and I hope that you are too." Ask the children to volunteer other ways they could feel or have pictures of feeling faces to choose from. Sing the song with that emotion in your expressions, voice, and actions.
  • In any storybook you are reading, ask children to identify how the characters are feeling. They don't have to be "emotion books." Even familiar stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears has lots of opportunities to talk about emotions, like being disappointed they have to wait for the porridge to cool, curious what the beds feel like, and surprised to see Goldilocks, scared to see the bears.
  • Frequently direct children to look at each other's faces and think about how they are feeling. This should happen not only when children are expressing sad or angry emotions, but also happy, excited, etc. "Desiree, look at your friend Grayson's face! He is so happy that you gave him some play dough!" Share your own emotions. At meal times, talk about something that happened in your life that made you feel frustrated, sad, happy, or scared. Talk about what you did to feel better. "I was at the store yesterday and somebody got in front of me in line! I was so frustrated. Have you ever felt that way?"
  • Play an emotion guessing game. Take a piece of paper or small blanket and hold it in front of your face. Slowly lower it down to reveal your face showing an emotion. Children guess the emotion you are feeling, and then show everyone their face with that same emotion. Then, talk about what might make you feel this way.
  • Change familiar songs (Twinkle, Twinkle, your classroom weather song, or Happy Birthday work great) by singing it with a different emotion. Have a child pick which way they want to sing the song (in a sad voice, in a silly voice, in a frustrated voice, in a bored voice). It takes some creativity, but is really fun!
  • Model the silliest face you can make and have the children participate as well.
  • As children come in for the day, have them say how they are feeling. Ask the rest of the class for appropriate ways to respond to their feelings. For example, if a child says they are happy, a friend could give them a high five. If a child says they are shy, a friend could hold their hand during circle.
  • While reading books, have the children raise their hands when they can tell how the characters are feeling. Then have them act out those feelings or make faces that correspond with the feelings as you read the book. For example, maybe the mom in the story is feeling frustrated; all the kids can make frustrated faces until she lightens her mood and is happy, and then they will change their faces as well. This is a neat activity because we kind of do this naturally with wrinkling of the brow and laughter. If you have kids do this every day as a part of the story routine, it will become more and more natural.
  • Have a "feeling face" snack time! Pull a feeling face and ask kids to eat snack while showing the matching emotion. For example, during "sad snack" kids might eat while frowning and pretending to cry. This can facilitate some great conversations about how our friends look when feeling these emotions and what might make them feel that way.
  • At recess, play feelings Ring around the Rosie. Have each child take a turn choosing an emotion and the sing the song and act it out using those emotions. Change the end action to match the emotion. Instead of "all fall down," for angry say, "take a deep breath," or for excited say, "all shout HOORAY!"
  • At the end of the day, have a debriefing session when each child gets to express an emotion they had during the day. Give them a prompted sentence to work with such as, "Today, I felt ________ when ________ happened." As kids get onto the bus or into cars with their parents, encourage them to tell the caregiver their emotion sentence, which will hopefully encourage discussion on the way home. Give the child a picture of a feeling face to help them remember.
  • Join in pretend area play and start conversations about how the imaginary characters they are acting out feel. Help them to make their characters even more real by giving them emotions and acting those out.
  • Communicate on eye level with all children and show them how your face looks when you feel different emotions. For example, you might say, "I'm feeling sad because my friends weren't listening to me when it was my turn to talk. See how my mouth and eyes turn down and I got really quiet?"
  • Praise children specifically when they use emotion words to talk to their friends or teachers. Explain to them and nearby peers how using emotions words helps those around them to know exactly how they are feeling, which is why you are so proud of them.
  • Always use emotion words when talking to other teachers and children. Use any examples of what is going on in your life to teach the kids how you are responding to emotions. Have children look in mirror and practice making mad, sad, and happy faces. Provide small individual mirrors for each child to use at large or small group.
  • Say the silliest sentence you can think of without laughing. Have the children do the same and see who can say the longest sentence without laughing.
  • Make an excited face and explain to the children the facial features that would indicate you are excited. Have the children make an excited face after you have modeled the expression.
  • Sing If You're Happy and You Know It with verses using emotions like happy, mad, sad, excited, and scared. Include the actions you might do when you are feeling each emotion. For example, "If you're mad and you know it, scrunch your face, give a growl, cross your arms, etc." Have children generate different ideas. Have each child look in the mirror when they arrive. Label what emotion you think they are feeling by describing the facial features of that emotion.
  • At lunch, tell the children what is your favorite food and why. They ask them what their favorite food is and why.
  • Mirror faces by having children line up in pairs that face each other. One child pretends he is looking in the mirror and makes an emotion face. The other child acts like the reflection and copies the emotion with his or her own face.
  • Include emotion words in your discussion of letters and letter sounds. For example, "What emotion words start with an 's'? Sad, Sulky, Surprised, Silly, etc."
  • Visit the home living center and talk about how the children's characters feel. For example, "Dinner fell on the floor. I bet you are so frustrated! Let me help you." Or, "You look so excited about being a waitress." "My food is cold. I'm getting a little angry."
  • Look in the mirror together. Help the child describe him or herself and you.
  • Transition children out of a large-group activity by asking them to make an emotion face. "Carmen, show me a sad face. Great! You may walk to the door."
  • During mealtime, tell children about a situation that makes you feel a particular emotion, like happy, sad, frustrated, angry, or jealous. Ask children to share the things that make them feel that same emotion.
  • Share your own emotions. At mealtimes, talk about something that happened in your life that made you feel frustrated, sad, happy, or scared. Talk about what you did to feel better. "I was at the store yesterday and somebody got in front of me in line! I was so frustrated. Have you ever felt that way?"
  • Call out emotions and have the children show you the emotion. Adapt songs like If You're Happy and You Know It to include a variety of emotions—surprised, tired, shy, angry—to help children practice the faces and vocabulary.
  • While children wait on the carpet for the rest of the class to finish cleaning up, play a game like charades. The teacher will whisper an emotion in the child's ear, who will then act out something that makes him or her feel that way. The rest of the children should guess what the emotion is.
  • When discussing new seasons, discuss certain things that occur in that particular season that make the children feel a certain way. For example, "Summer makes me excited because it is warm outside and I get to go to the pool. But summer also makes me sad because I miss my friends from school during the summer."
  • Pretend play is a great place to talk about emotions. Jump into their play and use emotions to talk about the stories they are creating! "It's time for a birthday party. I'm so excited, are you excited?" Or, "Daddy has to go to work; I'm so sad!"
  • During circle time, make a list of who feels happy, sad, lonely, etc., and ask the child to share why they feel that way.
  • During art time, have children draw faces and label the people's emotions.
  • Tell children to choose a feeling such as happy, mad, sad, or surprised and let the them draw picture of a time they felt that way.
  • Use different colors for different feelings. For example, use red for a mad feeling. Let the children draw something that makes them feel mad.
  • Make different emotion faces and have children guess what you might be feeling.
  • Listen to different types of music during music and movement. Talk about what kind of things the music reminds them of or how it makes them feel.
  • Throughout the day, model labeling your own emotions. "I feel frustrated because I cannot open this jar of paint."
  • Throughout the day, help children learn to label their own emotions. For example, "It looks like you are feeling mad that we can't go outside; what can we do to help you feel better?"
  • While reading stories to children, have children guess how the characters in the story are feeling. How can children tell that the characters are feeling that way? Can the children make a face that shows that feeling?

Weekly Ideas

  • During sensory play (e.g., sand, shaving cream), have children draw what a happy, sad, or frustrated face looks like.
  • Have children identify how they are feeling by putting their name tag on or pointing to picture of emotion face that describes how they feel when they arrive at school.
  • Children can make their own puppets out of paper bags, making different emotion faces on each puppet. The puppets can be used during dramatic play or during a circle time activity to talk about or act out different emotions.
  • Draw or take pictures of happy and sad faces; let the children match or sort the faces.
  • During art, make paper plate feeling faces. Use skin tone paint and lots of collage materials so children can create different feeling faces. Hang all of the emotion faces the children make on the wall and pair with real photographs of the children in your class expressing the same emotions.
  • If you write a newsletter or notes to parents, incorporate the emotion words the children have been practicing or have identified during the day into the note. This may help to encourage discussion of emotion words in the home setting as well.
  • Make the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundation for Early Learning (CSEFEL) feeling faces (or your own paper plate creations) into masks by cutting out eyes and placing them on a popsicle stick. Keep them in the book center for children to act out stories. Be sure to have a mirror there so children can see how they look!
  • Take pictures of the children making different emotion faces and make different posters for each emotion.
  • Take pictures of the children making an emotion face of their choice and make a fun class book. Each page has a child's picture with the top half of the face covered by a paper flap. The text says, "Who is this scared boy?" Under the flap, write "It's Greg! He is showing us his scared face."
  • For a math activity, create happy and sad faces. Let the children create patterns with those faces
  • Listen to some different types of music, such as rock or classical, and let the children dance to the music. Ask children how the song made the children feel
  • Let children cut out people from magazine showing different emotions. Have the children sort them based on the emotions
  • Create an emotion password by hang an emotion face card on the door jam. In order to pass through, children have to make that face.
  • Play a "Mystery Emotion" game. Put an emotion face card in an envelope without showing the children. Act out that emotion and encourage children to guess what mystery emotion is hiding in the envelope
  • Build excitement for a special snack or a meal. Talk about how excited you are about a special treat at lunch today. Act surprised when you see the treat and talk about your feelings.
  • When eating small snacks like raisins or Cheerios, let children arrange the raisins or Cheerios so they look like emotion faces before eating it. Happy, sad, and surprised are all easy faces to try.
  • Use emotion faces for patterning on your calendar. Draw a face on each number card and help children identify the pattern.
  • During art, have children use glue to draw a face displaying a particular emotion. Pour sand or glitter on the drawing.

Home Ideas

  • Throughout your routines, model labeling your own emotions. For example, "I feel frustrated because I cannot open this jar of pickles!"
  • Use meals and routines at the end of the day as a time to discuss the day with your children. Talk about events that made you happy, times when you were frustrated, and work you did that made you proud of yourself. Ask the children to share their experiences.
  • Throughout the day, help children learn to label their own emotions. "It looks like you are feeling mad that we can't go outside; what can we do to help you feel better?"
  • While reading stories to children, have children guess how the characters in the story are feeling. How can children tell that the characters are feeling that way? Can the children make a face that shows that feeling?
  • During bathroom routines, have children look in mirror and practice making mad, sad, and happy faces.
  • When children are doing art activities, ask them to draw people displaying certain emotions. Have them come up with a reason why those people could be feeling that particular way.
  • In the morning, discuss things you are excited about for the upcoming day.
  • During mealtime, tell children about a situation that makes you feel a particular emotion (e.g., happy, sad, frustrated, angry, jealous, etc.). Then ask children to share the things that make them feel that same emotion.
  • Add more complicated emotion words to daily talk as children start to understand the basic emotions. Some appropriate examples include "proud," "disappointed," "embarrassed," and "surprised."
  • Have a special snack where you give children raisins or Cheerios and have them make as many emotion faces as they can with the food. After, they get to eat a fun, nutritious snack.

Ideas for Teaching Children about Friendship

Daily Ideas

  • Model asking others for help. If you have a task to do in the classroom, involve another child. For example, if you need to move a stack of magazines to the shelf, ask a child to help you take a stack, even if you could get it all yourself! Take the opportunity to model how to ask a friend for help.
  • Whenever children have to take turns, have the child who just finished call someone to go next. This helps bridge children's interactions with each other rather than always being focused on the adult.
  • During toileting, assign each child a partner to make sure they are flushing and washing their hands. This keeps kids from being tattlers and teaches accountability. Also, teach them to give high fives and say things like, "I'm proud of you," when their partner remembers all by themselves.
  • When in transition, have the children pair up and hold a friend's hand while walking down the hall.
  • Whisper a sentence to the line leader about something that makes you happy, like the game Telephone. The line leader will whisper to the next person and on down the line until your sentence reaches the last person. The last person will repeat the teacher's sentence, or whatever he or she heard, out loud.
  • Let several children help pass out plates, napkins, and utensils. Encourage them to say, "Here, Carlos," and make eye contact as they pass out the supplies. The recipient should say, "Thanks, Jane."
  • Assign one child to be the "friendship foreman" for the day. Walk with a child to a center he or she does not usually play in and help them ask, "Can I play here?" Stay to help them enter play.
  • Sit down and have a conversation with at least three children on the playground about whatever they are playing with or creating. Chalk drawings, sensory tables, and outdoor dramatic play give lots of opportunities.
  • Have "Buddy Time" during outdoor play. Assign each child a buddy and encourage them to play together for at least the first 10 minutes.
  • Have children help during routines such as putting out cots or mats for naptime. Two children will need to work together to carry big or heavy items, and you can point out how they are being friends and working together.
  • When transitioning in the classroom or to the playground, choose helpers to carry your clipboard, first aid backpack, etc.
  • Talk about your own social behaviors. You can say things like, "I said 'thank you' to Ms. Tanya because she passed me the milk," or "I think I'll hold the door open for Jamal because his hands are full."
  • Identify certain items in centers that require children to help each other, like taking a dollhouse off a shelf, moving the car garage, or feeding the class pet. Explain to children that it takes two friends to do these things
  • Throughout the day or during a walk through the building, talk about the different ways the people you see help at school (cafeteria workers, crossing guard, director, nurse) and in the community (firefighter, teacher, police officer, doctor). Emphasize the helping nature of these jobs.
  • When assigning classroom jobs, give two children each job so that they have to work together to inspect centers, pass a snack, or do whatever the duty is.
  • Teach children how to greet visitors when they visit the classroom. Practice shaking hands and welcoming each other.
  • In certain table activities, assign a child to be in charge of that activity for the day. When other children come to the activity, that child in charge must explain the activity to their friend and help them complete the activity
  • During art, let two children draw a picture on one side of the easel together
  • Put a pair of telephones in home living so the children can pretend to talk on the phone to each other.
  • Pair children up in art. Give each child a different color and have them paint together on the same paper. Discuss what color they made when their colors mixed together.
  • Use animals from the books that you are reading to discuss how animals live and work in groups. For example, when reading a book about lions, discuss how they live together in prides. When the children work together, point out to the whole class that they are acting like lions and that the whole class is like a pride.

Weekly Ideas

  • Play "There's Somebody in the Box" to help children learn each other's names. Take a large box and cut out the back for easy in and out. Hide one child in the box while the others have their eyes closed. Sing this song to the tune of Farmer in the Dell: "There's somebody in the box, oh who do you think it could be? We'll take a guess, we'll try our best, and then we'll peek and see." Have the children see if they know who is missing. Great for the beginning of the year!
  • Start morning meeting time by having children move around the carpet greeting each other as if they are princes and princesses. Make sure they make eye contact and speak to each other. Help them get creative. They can give each other a hug, use a "royal" accent, bow and curtsy, etc. Vary the character to match your theme. The children can act like the president, a grandma or grandpa, a superhero, a cowboy, a firefighter, and more.
  • Have a friendship spotter. Make several pairs of binoculars with toilet paper tubes. Ask a child go around during center time and look for children being friends and report back to you. Share the observations in large group after center time is over.
  • Give children Bingo boards with children's names or pictures. Make a game of playing with at least three different people during center time.
  • Bring toys that require two or more people, like a wagon or toss and catch game.
  • Make a "Friendship Board" on a bulletin board in your classroom. Take pictures when children a working together on something or playing together and put them on the wall.
  • Practice partner dancing during music and movement at least once a week. This helps the children work on the different rhythms expressed by other children and synchronize their bodies. It also helps them tune into another child's body, which is imperative for children to be able to do when noticing emotions in other people.

Home Ideas

  • When you sit down for meals, discuss how family-style eating and passing food is like sharing and taking turns with toys.
  • Use puppets to act out different situations. Have one puppet take a toy from another puppet. Ask the child what happened and why that was not a good way for the puppets to play together. Come up nicer ways that the puppets could have played, including ideas like sharing and taking turns.
  • When leaving the house, ask the child to help you carry things. Afterward, thank them for helping.
  • Talk about your own social behaviors. You can say things like, "I said 'thank you' to Rachel because she passed me the milk," or "I think I'll help Uncle Larry put away the groceries."
  • Throughout daily routines outside of the house, talk about the different ways the people you see help (police officers, bus drivers, cashiers). Emphasize the helping nature of these jobs.
  • Use meal preparation as a chance to practice and talk about social skills. Have children get out ingredients, set the table, or stir food. Discuss how important it is to help and how much the help is appreciated.
  • At any point during routines, talk about how families are like a special group of friends. Mention how you use kind words, share, and help each other just like with friends at school.
  • Teach children how to act when they are meeting new people. Practice shaking hands and manners that go with introductions.
  • Use animals from the books that you are reading to discuss how animals live and work in groups. For example, when reading a book about lions, discuss how they live together in prides. When working together, point out that they are acting like lions and that the family is like a pride.

Ideas for Teaching Children about Problem-Solving

Daily Ideas

  • Use naturally occurring opportunities to work problem-solving words into the classroom vocabulary. When there aren't enough glue sticks or too many people wanting to go in a certain center, say things like, "We have a problem. What can we do to fix it?"
  • Use naturally occurring problems in small groups to brainstorm possible solutions. Talk about that problem and come up with some ideas that could work to solve the problem.
  • Use puppets to act out problem situations during group time. Ask the children come up with a solution for the problem.
  • When a child asks for help, take the opportunity to involve another child in solving the problem. You can say, "Let's look and see if one of your friends can help you. Marne, Sheila needs a glue stick and there are no more. Can you help her solve her problem?"
  • Include a note about a situation that arose at school and how it was solved when reporting to parents. Encourage the parents to ask the children about the problems and offer praise for solving them.
  • Encourage the children while they are working through a problem and praise them when they solve it. You can use a situation that ended well as an example to discuss in large group.
  • Discuss the problems that characters are having in the books you are reading. Brainstorm some possible solutions and guess what they are going to do.
  • Model problem-solving with others adults in the classroom. You can make small things into problems large enough to require additional help. For example, if you are preparing for an art activity and the assistant is using your scissors, make it into a problem that needs help. Discuss with the adult and the children in the area what you can do. Try their solutions and discuss the outcome.
  • Make up a song about what to do when children have a problem. For example, to the Row, Row, Row Your Boat tune: "Problem, problem, problem, oh what can we do? Stop and think of something new. I'll try it out with you."

Weekly Ideas

  • If similar solutions keep coming up during discussions of problem-solving, start a "Solution Board" that shows the different solutions with an image to represent it. Children can use it to help think of solutions as problems arise, and the teacher can prompt a child to go look at it.
  • Create a problem-solving area of the room where you post the visual steps to solving a problem. You can find problem-solving steps on the CSEFEL website. Make the solution visuals removable with Velcro or magnets so children can bring the solution to where they are having a problem.
  • Create an "I have been a great problem solver" badge. When you notice a child that has been a good problem solver, call attention to the child and what they did to solve the problem. Then give the child the badge to wear for the day.

Home Ideas

  • When driving in your car or waiting in line, create stories of times your child has a problem at home. Talk through or act out what the child could do at home to solve the problem.
  • Create a solution kit that can be used at home when your child has a problem. Add solutions such as asking a sibling or parent for help, choosing a different toy, or going outside to play. Post them on the fridge for easy access!

Ideas for Teaching Children about Handling Disappointment and Difficult Emotions

Daily Ideas

  • Throughout the day, model labeling your own emotions. For example, "I feel frustrated because I cannot open this jar of paint."
  • Help children learn to label their emotions when they have conflict with other children: "Bobby, it looks like you are feeling angry because Terrence took away your toy. Can you tell Terrence how it makes you feel when he takes your toy away?"
  • When children cry, identify their feelings, and yours too. "I know that was really scary falling off the slide. I was worried about you. I am glad you are okay. Let me rub your back until you feel better." Or, "It's okay to be sad when mommy leaves. I am glad you are here today. Let's find something to play with that might make you feel better."
  • Help children learn how to take deep breaths by "smelling the flowers" and "blowing out the birthday candles." Knowing how to breathe deeply is an important part of learning how to calm down when angry or upset.
  • Give children materials to use to get out their anger. They can use a toy hammer, squeeze playdough, or run laps at recess. Let them know that it is okay to be angry and that there are safe ways to express anger.
  • Act out the difference between feeling tense (like a robot or statue) and relaxed (like a rag doll or stuffed animal). Have children act it out, too, so they begin to learn to identify when they are becoming wound up.
  • Help children learn to label their own emotions. You can say, "It looks like you are really frustrated over here. What is the problem?" Or, "I can see that you are sad. Do you need a hug?"
  • When a child is upset, choose another child to send over to help that child feel better. Give them some words or materials to use that might help.
  • Have children who are exhibiting problem behavior draw pictures of two or three emotions they are feeling. Leave a chart with line drawings in front of them to help. A lot of times they are exhibiting problem behavior because they don't know how to express their emotions. Praise them for their drawing and talk to them about how they can respond to themselves and others when they start feeling emotional.
  • Give children different situations, such as "A child is very sad because he misses his mom," and let them act it out. Talk about the emotion and some things the child might do to feel better.
  • Children's storybooks have lots of opportunities to talk about dealing with certain emotions. Point out characters' simple emotions like happy, sad, mad, and excited, and look for opportunities to label more complex ones like disappointed, frustrated, surprised, and embarrassed. See what the characters do to deal with those emotions and whether or not the children think it was a good way. Brainstorm other things that could have been done when the characters were feeling that way.

Weekly Ideas

  • Have areas of the classroom labeled for different emotions and instruct the kids to go to those areas when they are feeling a certain way. When a kid is feeling lonely, they can go to an area where kids usually congregate and find prompts available for engaging with friends. When a child is feeling proud, they can go to an area with a platform, ring a bell, and announce to the class their accomplishment.
  • If children are feeling sad at drop-off, have them "write" a letter or draw a picture to show their caregivers at pick-up time. Talk about how it is ok to feel sad, but that mommy will come back at the end of the day.

Home Ideas

  • Have children who are exhibiting problem behavior draw pictures of two or three emotions they are feeling. Leave a chart with line drawings in front of them to help. A lot of times they are exhibiting problem behavior because they don't know how to express their emotions. Praise them for their drawing and talk to them about how they can respond to themselves and others when they start feeling emotional.
  • Model techniques to use when dealing with anger and frustration. Show breathing techniques, counting, or whatever works to calm you down.

Last Updated: October 27, 2014