Kindergarten Transition: Social Emotional Skill Building

By Jen Lindbeck

Social emotional skills feel a little squishy, don’t they? These skills include a child’s ability to manage emotions, follow expectations and limits, take care of their own needs, make friends and build relationships with peers and adults, solve social problems and manage group dynamics. Despite their squishiness many teachers feel that social emotional skills are the most critical for kindergarten readiness. This makes sense given that social emotional skills are at the core of what makes classroom management possible, so all the other learning can take place.

Research shows having higher social-emotional skills in kindergarten is related to important outcomes at age 25 like:

  • Academic achievement, such as completing a college degree

  • Career success, such as an increased likelihood of being employed

  • Other key life outcomes, such as being less likely to have problems with the police

When I describe social emotional skills as “squishy” what I mean is that a child’s ability to write their name or identify letters is easy to assess, but how do you measure a child’s ability to identify and manage their emotions? It feels a bit subjective – I can imagine that my idea of a child managing their emotions might look different than yours. And how do you practice these skills? The good news is that these skills can be taught in much the same way that kids are taught to write their name and identify letters.

Here are simple things that you can do to help your child build social emotional skills.

Talk about emotions!

Talk to your kids about how they are feeling, encourage them to name those feelings, and think through strategies for dealing with intense emotions. There is a useful tool called the Zones of Regulation (created by Leah Kuypers) which classifies emotions in to blue, green, yellow and red zones and provides tools to help your child get to, and stay, in the green zone where they are calm, happy, and focused.

There are some great books to read with your child that can be used as a tool to talk about the spectrum of emotions. Reading also creates a connection between you and your child which helps them feel more secure and calm.

Researchers have found that in order for a child to feel empathy, they need to be able to identify emotions, not just their own emotions, but the emotions of others. This requires that they be able to read facial expressions and body language, and listen. Kids can practice this while watching their favorite movie or reading a book – pause and ask your child what they think the character feels? How do they know that person feels that way? With your guidance they will learn to read other’s emotions by observing facial expressions, body cues, and listening to tone of voice. Check out this video from Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, psychotherapist and the co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child” on how to help children develop emotional intelligence.

Opportunities for social interactions


Take advantage of local opportunities for your child to meet with and interact with other kids. When kids play together it is real life practice for your kid to regulate emotions and problem solve. He might need some help to navigate certain social situations. Step in when needed to provide guidance and model behavior. Talk to him about it afterward – reinforce positive behavior, talk about and validate the emotions that were involved during that challenging social interaction, and strategize what to do during difficult moments. For example:

“Thanks for sharing that toy with Tracy. (Reinforce positive behavior.)
When she didn’t share her toy with you, how did you feel? (Talk about emotions.)
What did you do when she wouldn’t share? I understand you were mad (validate emotions) and that is why you took the toy; how did it make Tracy feel? What do you think you could do next time, so Tracy doesn’t feel sad?” (Strategize for next time.)

So next time someone does not share with you, you are going to ask if you can have a turn when they are done and if you get really mad, you are going to walk away and try again when your body feels calm.” (Restate strategy)

You are your child’s first and most enduring teacher. Be a good emotional role model. Children model their behavior from people they admire. Provide your kiddo with choices. Providing children with choices and the independence to make them are linked to higher levels of social-emotional learning. Use positive discipline strategies by setting rules and expectations for behavior, giving warnings of potential consequences and following through with those consequences, offering praise and incentives for positive behaviors (Psychology Today). Practicing these skills, and providing your child with a good social emotional role model, will set your child up for success and make their kindergarten teacher very happy.

For more resources related to the transition to kindergarten, go here.


Jen Lindbeck has a M.Ed., Early Childhood Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator for United Way of Skagit County.


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