Social-Emotional Skills and Challenging Behavior

Many students, young and old, struggle with the social aspects of school.  This may mean:

  • Interacting with other students, teachers, and other staff members
  • Understanding non-verbal interactions and social cues
  • Managing their emotions and expressing them appropriately
  • Controlling their behavior

While these are not strictly academic concerns, they affect a student’s ability to access their education.  It is incredibly difficult to learn when you are concerned about your social world or even worse, when you are asked to leave the class for not understanding or reacting poorly to an instruction.

Here’s the thing: students with these challenges lack a set of skills.  It is our job as educators to teach them these skills so they can be successful.  As Dr. Ross Greene proclaims: kids do well if they can.

I am a great believer of this credo because I have seen results time and again when we approach social-emotional and behavioral challenges as skill deficits, just as we approach reading or math difficulties.  To put it another way:

  • When a child can’t read, we teach.
  • When a child can’t do math, we teach.
  • When a child can’t ride their bicycle, we teach.
  • When a child can’t behave we…punish?

That does not make a lick of sense.  Some children need extra help learning the skills to interact with others, regulate their emotions, and to communicate their needs in a positive, pro-social way.

This is hard work.  I hope this page will guide you towards some support for you and your child.  Through our work together, we will develop a specific plan for you and your family to teach these incredibly important life skills.  You may also find some additional goodies to help your child on the Executive Functioning page.

STOP! Before you go any further, read these two books:

  • The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD:  This book includes practical tips for helping children learn emotional regulation and interpersonal skills.  This book is a must read for parents, caregivers, and teachers.  I love this book because it offers easy ways to talk about the brain science behind difficult emotions and difficult behaviors.
  • The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, PhD: This book presents a parenting and teaching strategy based on the concept that “kids do well if they can”, and that when children are not doing well, we can help them learn the skills they need.  This book is not only for parents of “explosive” children, but for any child who struggles with strong emotions, including anger, anxiety, sadness or even hyperactivity.  Also check out: for videos and short articles about Dr. Green’s methods.

Internalizing Behavior: Anxiety, Depression, and Withdrawal

Internalizing challenges include those obstacles that block us from the inside.  For example, the student who becomes paralyzed by anxiety during a test, or the student who’s self-esteem is so low that they struggle to make friends.  Internalizing behaviors can lead to difficulties engaging in school – both academically and socially, negative experiences, and even school refusal.  Here are some strategies that may help your internalizing child:

  • Mindfulness: When you suffer from anxiety, it is like your brain is stuck in “emergency” mode.  Learning mindfulness skills helps you signal to your body that there is no danger, sit with your feelings instead of worrying how to act on them, and – most importantly – become aware, or mindful, of your response to the world around you.  StopBreatheThink has a great app for increasing mindfulness skills.
  • The Breakdown: When something feels too big or overwhelming, our system may shut down.  Breaking a difficult task down in to manageable parts can help overcome that initial anxiety.  Start with the “definitely-doable” and give yourself a boost of confidence before moving on.
  • Connect: Students with school refusal may benefit from having a specific, enjoyable routine to start each school day – especially if this routine is with a preferred adult.  This adult may be a special teacher, a coach, or the school custodian: any positive adult presence. For more information on school refusal interventions, please contact me directly.
  • Talk to Yourself: Self-talk is one of the most important skills for any of us to learn.  It can help us keep control of our emotional reactions, help us plan a response, and acts a rehearsal for difficult interactions.  Having some “mantras” or “sayings” can be helpful for this skill.

Externalizing Behaviors: Anger Control, Impulsive Actions, and Hyperactivity

Externalizing behaviors are often the first identified: they are external, observable, and often disruptive to the classroom or activity at hand.  While they are bigger, louder, and more destructive, externalizing behaviors often stem from the same anxiety, low self-esteem and difficulty regulating strong emotions as internalizing behaviors.

Here are two things that are very important to remember when working with these students: kids do well if they can and all behavior is a form of communication.

This means we have two questions: What skills does this child lack? and What are they trying to tell us?

When a child is screaming, hitting, or destroying property, it can be very difficult to remember these principles.  But I promise, they are true.

Here are some recommendations for teaching those missing skills and helping students to communicate more effectively.

  • Lead the Way: Students with externalizing behaviors often want to do their own thing: they are looking for a sense of control.  Putting them in a leadership role can help them feel “in control” but also give a reason for them to learn to listen to the needs of others and stay part of the group.
  • Create a Plan: A behavior plan is a key tool for teaching needed skills – but only if it’s done right.  Behavior plans that simply reward children for “being good” or “giving their best effort” won’t work.  Create specific, measurable goals that build a skill.  Picking a goal collaboratively with the student is likely to have the most success.  For example, a student who often gets angry and yells at other students may be trying to say that he needs “more space”, but doesn’t know how.  A behavior plan for this child might include some specific phrases he can use to ask for “more space” in a positive way, and record how many times he uses these positive phrases instead of yelling.
  • Talk to Yourself: Just as mentioned above for internalizing students, having a helpful internal dialogue can be extremely useful for these students.
  • Breathe: It’s cliche but no joke.  Taking 3 deep breaths will change the way your body and brain process what’s going on around you.  Children with difficulty controlling their anger may be “stuck” in fight-flight mode.  Taking some deep breaths tells your body there is no danger, that it can relax, and that there is time to think through the best thing to do next.

Social Skills

Interacting with others is challenging.  Each human being is unique and many situations seem unpredictable.  Even a known person may act differently in different situations, which requires a different response from you.  Students who struggle with social skills may not be reading the many non-verbal, environmental and context clues we must observe and interpret in any social interaction.  Luckily, social interactions are more predictable than we think.  That means these skills can be taught.

  • Social Skills Groups: The best way to learn social skills is in a supported social environment.  1-1 therapy is less likely to do the trick. Here are a few resources for social skill groups and camps in the Bay Area:
  • Do What you Love: Many students will not find their social life in school.  Students with specific interests, those with special talents, and those who don’t seem to “fit in” may not be lacking any skills: they may just need to look elsewhere for their community.  There is no reason to teach a child to be something other than themselves.  Here are some places where my clients have found their social “home”:

Question or comment about this page?  Let me know!