Love and Other Hugs: Talking to your children about social-emotional learning

by Amanda Simmons M.S., OTR/L

Many school districts are beginning to employ social-emotional learning curriculums, but why? An increased focus on empathy and kindness promotes happier, more emotionally resilient children. Some topics can be difficult to discuss with children, and there are plenty of books, resources, and curriculums. Our emotions also impact our self-regulation and ability to maintain a calm, happy body throughout the day. When we are nervous, afraid, or angry, our bodies are tense. Our jaws clench, our shoulders hike, and daily activities become very tricky. When we are sad, we become distracted, we’re unable to focus, and we have temporary memory loss. Emotional resilience is closely tied to maintaining an appropriate level of arousal, and it is no different for our children.

Explicit Praise

One of the best ways to start building your child’s emotional vocabulary is by being explicit with praise. “I Love You” can be vague, but there are ways to convey the sense of love. For example, “I feel so happy when you ask me how my day was,” or “I appreciate you so much when you help me set the dinner table, it is a big help.”

The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a curriculum commonly used by Occupational Therapists and Behavior Support providers. There are four zones, and they are categorized by how the body feels. We can help children better understand manage regulation by encouraging them to use strategies that move themselves into the “green” zone. Read more about the Zones here!

Disney Shorts

Disney has beautiful, well-developed shorts that are full of rich and obvious emotional responses. Bonus: they are short enough to keep your child’s attention. Showing these Disney shorts to your children, can help build their awareness of nonverbal body language.

You can also ask them inferencing questions. How will this character feel? What do we expect to happen? How do we expect the character to feel after XYZ happens? What does their body and face look like in this moment?

Some of our favorite Disney short films are: Partly Cloudy, Loops, Piper, and Bao.

Emotions Uno

Emotions Uno can be purchased online from TeachersPayTeachers, but it can also be developed right in your home. Each of the cards are colored just like the Zones of Regulation. You can integrate learning about feelings and emotions into your already popular Uno game by asking questions about each of the zones when cards are played. Your Occupational Therapist can further help you develop language to talk about the Zones with your child.

Writing Exercises for Teens and Tweens

Children develop their sense of self-worth and ability to love by the reflection they see in their parents during interactions. Strengthening your bond with your child will make your child more likely to be empathetic and loving to others in the community. These popular journals can be purchased on Amazon, and they are meant to complete together. This also will set your child up for a healthy habit of writing about his/her/their feelings.

Just Between Us: Mother & Daughter: A No Stress, No-Rules Journal & Just Between Us: Mother & Son: A No stress, No-Rules Journal


Bazyk, S. (2011). Enduring challenges and situational stressors during the school years: Risk reduction and competence enhancement. In S. Bazyk (ed.), Mental Health Promotion, Prevention and Intervention for Children and Youth: A Guiding Framework for Occupational Therapy (pp.119–139), Bethesda, MD: AOTA Press.

Durlak, J.A., Weissber, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467- 8624.2010.01564.x