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Emotional Awareness: An Essential Tool for Back to School

by Eve Sullivan

Getting kids ready to start school may have been simple in the past, but not today. Ads scream “Order this…buy that…and your child will be safer, smarter, happier!” And young people, like retailers, play all too well on our hopes and fears as parents and caregivers.

An essential tool for your child’s back-to-school toolkit, however, is one that money can’t buy, and one only caring adults can provide: emotional awareness. The things our children have—backpacks, lunchboxes, sneakers—and the things they know—which bus to take, the new teacher’s name, where to wait for dad to pick them up—all these are easier to track than what our children feel. Yet feelings may be the most important part of their experience, both in school and out.

Children learn to recognize and manage feelings through interactions with parents and other family members starting from birth. Schools can support this process through educational programs in social-emotional learning, or SEL. Their value is well-documented. As the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts explains, SEL programs increase adults’ and children’s ability not only to recognize and manage emotions, but also to:

  • develop care and concern for others,
  • establish positive relationships,
  • make responsible decisions, and
  • handle challenging situations constructively and ethically.

Research shows that effective social-emotional learning promotes the “good stuff” as it increases:

  • academic achievement by 11 percent,
  • positive attitudes about self and others by 9 percent, and
  • positive social interactions and social behavior by 10 percent.

And SEL discourages the “bad stuff” as it reduces:

  • behavior problems by 9 percent and
  • emotional distress by 10 percent.

While some schools have initiated SEL programs after cases of bullying (a few with tragic outcomes), the reasons can just as well be positive: “We have a great school and a caring community, and let’s make it even better!”

If you are a parent group leader, ask the principal—perhaps at your first one-on-one meeting—what the school doing in the area of social-emotional learning. Don’t stop, even if the answer you get is that the school is taking care of it. Parents as well as teachers need support in this area as much as (and sometimes more than) students. Parenting education is something schools can and should make a normal part of the menu of parent activities, right along with math night and the annual playground carnival.

It is essential, too, to practice your own emotional awareness. Empathy, like a muscle, may lose strength if it isn’t used. If the back-to-school craziness starts getting to you, give yourself a little time out. Ask for help. Remember to breathe.


Eve Sullivan is the founder of Parents Forum in Cambridge, Mass. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is another great resource for information on SEL, as is The Parent Toolkit, with a social and emotional development section launching in October.

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