Create the Perfect Environment for Social-Emotional Learning

by Jenna Sekerak | Lakeshore Professional Development Specialist 

Children need strong social-emotional skills to thrive in school—especially during critical early years.

However, many children enter kindergarten without essential social-emotional skills. In order to gain a better understanding of this problem, researchers Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta and Cox surveyed more than 3,500 kindergarten teachers. The findings were startling, with teachers citing that many students had difficulty following directions, struggled to work in groups, possessed poor social skills and experienced trouble communicating.

These skills, while nonacademic, impact a child’s school readiness. Children with challenging behaviors are more likely to struggle in school, while children who are emotionally adjusted have a greater chance of early school success.

What does all this mean? It’s important to foster the development of social-emotional skills to help students succeed not only in school, but also in life! These tips will help you embed social-emotional learning into your instruction.

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Tip 1: Create a calm, organized atmosphere.

According to teacher and education expert Megan Dredge, “Your classroom environment speaks to your students before you utter a single word. What is your classroom saying?”

Don’t underestimate the power of your classroom environment! Your space needs to welcome students, keep them engaged and get them excited to learn. If your classroom or schedule is disorganized and chaotic, your students will respond accordingly.

Create a classroom environment that is calm, organized and predictable by developing consistent routines and procedures that produce stability in the classroom. Doing this helps students know what to expect and how to prepare. I love using charts to establish routines. Some of my favorites are Lakeshore’s Daily Schedule Chart and Literacy Centers Management Chart.

It’s also important to organize materials where students can access them and put them away. Resources like the At-Your-Seat Storage Sack and Classroom Supply Caddies are perfect for ensuring that students’ supplies are always within reach.

Tip 2: Develop and model rules and expectations.

As you set clear rules and expectations, involve children in the process to help them better understand the rules and why they are important. Keep the rules simple, clear and positive. I recommend setting no more than five rules—sometimes less is more!

No one likes to be told what not to do! Instead of creating a list of don’t rules, find a positive directive that achieves the same result. Consider the difference between “Don’t talk out of turn” and “Raise your hand to talk.”

To help children master the rules, make sure they are clearly displayed on a bulletin board or chart, such as the News & Rules Charts.

Tip 3: Provide opportunities for children to build relationships.

Communication and collaboration are crucial 21st-century skills, but they don’t develop automatically. Help children strengthen these skills by modeling clear communication, demonstrating positive collaboration and providing opportunities for interaction. Get started by setting the tone for your students and providing examples for how they should behave.

After you’ve set clear expectations, give children the chance to practice their communication and collaboration skills! Pair children up and model proper greeting techniques and good listening skills—including making eye contact, smiling, nodding to show understanding and asking follow-up questions.

Sentence stems provide support for students starting a discussion or responding to a partner. Pick up some Accountable Talk Reading Discussion Starters and a Let’s Get Talking! Prompt Box to help students enjoy enriching conversations!

Tip 4: Teach students conflict resolution skills.

In many cases, students lack the skills to resolve conflicts with others. In fact, many student conflicts that could be solved independently end up requiring teacher intervention and interrupting valuable instruction time. Teaching students about conflict resolution enriches their social skills and saves time in the long run!

KidsHealth®, a top provider of physician-reviewed content on children’s health, recommends discussing potential conflicts in everyday events and allowing students to explain how different reactions can de-escalate the conflict or make it worse. This will help kids make better choices when real conflicts come up!

Plus, there are plenty of products that make it easy to teach social-emotional skills. Lakeshore’s Social-Emotional Learning Kit for Kindergarten-Grade 1 is a great way to help children understand emotions, relationships and conflicts. The Social Studies Leveled Readers help students learn about fairness and following rules. There are even Moods & Emotions Mirrors and a Moods & Emotions Poster Pack to help students understand what different emotions look like.

We hope you’re excited to set students up for future success by establishing a classroom focused on developing social-emotional and behavioral competence. Just remember to be explicit in your teaching, patient and positive—and continue to model, model, model!


  1. Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. J., “Teachers’ judgments of problems in the transition to school,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (2000): 15(2), 147-166.’_judgments_of_problems_in_the_transition_to_school
  2. “Facts About Young Children with Challenging Behaviors,” Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior (2003). Accessed June 2017,
  3. Raver, C., “Emotions Matter: Making the Case for the Role of Young Children’s Emotional Development for Early School Readiness,” Social Policy Report of the Society for Research in Child Development (2002): 16(3), 1-20.
  4. “Cool Teaching Quotes by Yours Truly,” last modified April 13, 2013,
  5. “PreK to Grade 2: Conflict Resolution,” KidsHealth® in the Classroom (2016). Accessed June 2017,

The Very Real Benefits of Pretend Play

by Patti Clark | Lakeshore VP of Research & Development

I am often amazed at the power of children’s imaginations. Leave a cardboard box unattended, and it’s soon being transformed into a rocket ship, puppet theater or baby doll crib. Give kids a few dress-up clothes, and they’re soon pretending to be Mom and Dad—or dashing off on their next superhero adventure. While such activities are traditionally thought of as play, acting out pretend situations is actually important work that children’s brains are wired to do—preparing for real-life roles and situations they’ll face in the future.

Pretend Play

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By encouraging pretend play at home, parents can help their children build essential skills that are key to their development, including:

Creativity – When we think of creativity, we often think of artistic pursuits, like painting a picture. But creativity is a tool that all of us use in our daily lives. As adults, we often use creative problem solving to tackle everyday challenges at work and at home. These can include complex tasks that involve months of planning and coordination, as well as simple tasks like inventing a great family dinner using only a few items left in the fridge. Children prepare for real-life problem solving by engaging in pretend play, which flexes their creative muscles in a big way.

Social-Emotional Skills – By acting out pretend situations with peers and with adults, children have many opportunities to develop valuable social skills like sharing and taking turns. They’ll also explore different ways to express their feelings and ideas—whether they’re speaking for an action figure or caring for a baby doll. And, when children pretend to be another person or animal, they practice seeing the world from a new perspective, which helps them develop empathy for others.

Language and Literacy – Pretend play fosters oral language development by encouraging children to talk, test out and even use new words as they take on different roles and characters. For example, during vehicle play, children might explore words such as “hitch,” “haul,” and “soar.” Children will also learn new words when playing with their peers, and they’ll begin to recognize words they see on pretend play props, such as menus and road signs. This is important because there is a direct correlation between the number of words young children know and their future reading success.

Cognitive and Math Skills – From sorting play money to building a castle by stacking up blocks, pretend play encourages children to use real-life props that promote early mathematical learning. As children play and explore, they begin comparing and sorting objects, counting, measuring and recognizing shapes—to name just a few of the skills that children are learning!

Children will naturally find their own ways to engage in pretend play, but here are a few simple ways that parents can guide kids along and help them make the most of these very special learning opportunities.

  1. Brainstorm pretend play ideas with your child. Grab a pencil and paper and work with your child to create a list of fun pretend play ideas. If your child needs help coming up with ideas, focus on a topic he or she is interested in. For example, if you just read a book about dinosaurs together, suggest acting out the life of a T. rex! Or, if your child likes other animals, your list might include making a jungle habitat, acting out an animal rescue or playing vet. Whenever your child is looking for something to do, pull out the list and encourage your child to pick an idea.
  2. Provide props. A few simple props can go a long way! Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
    • Create a grocery store by supplying shopping bags, play money and items to shop for, such as real or pretend food.
    • Open a vet’s office for your child’s stuffed animals by supplying bandages, a doctor’s coat and plenty of paper to make X-rays, charts and office forms.
    • Go on a pretend train ride by setting up chairs, pulling out a suitcase or two, and cutting tickets out of construction paper.
    • Turn a large box into a fire truck or police vehicle, leaving one end of the box open for children to enter and cutting a large hole out of the top for kids’ heads!
    • Get out children’s old Halloween costumes and let their imaginations run wild!
  3. Schedule play dates. Help your child build friendships and give them new opportunities for pretend play at the same time. Start the play date with a structured activity (such as a game or art project), allowing children time to break the ice and get comfortable with each other. Then pull out your list of pretend play adventures—or let the kids think of new ideas together!
  4. Join in the fun. Set aside a small block of time to join your child in pretend play. Your child will love having you as a customer in their store or as a character in an exciting adventure. Inspire your child’s imagination and encourage your child to lead the activity by asking questions like, Who should I be? or Where are we going?
  5. Make time for playtime. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure that open-ended pretend play is part of your child’s daily routine. For every hour that children spend watching a movie or playing games on the computer, encourage an hour or more of pretend play with the screen off. This will give children the freedom to invent their own mental images—and develop essential skills that will last a lifetime.