Five Ways Parents Can Support Children’s Social and Emotional Development

Arry James, 3, left, a Lytton Head Start student, plays with her mother, Meleaine James (Yes, that's how she spells her first name), right, in their home in Santa Rosa, CA on November 30, 2016.
Photograph by Erin Lubin

Scrolling through photos from before COVID-19 is like peeking into a different world: Weekends at birthday parties and playgrounds. Group hugs with friends. Playdates without a thought about the health, travel, and vaccination histories of other kids. It will take years for me, as a parent, to grasp COVID’s impact on my own kids. It might take a generation for researchers to understand the national and global impact of the pandemic on children and families.

Early indications show this time will leave a lasting impression, especially on children’s social and emotional development and wellness.

​​”I’m deeply concerned, as a parent and as a doctor, that the obstacles this generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate and the impact that’s having on their mental health is devastating,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy testified recently.

A few facts to consider:

  • Many schools and preschools have been closed on and off for two years and some families decided to delay enrolling their children in school (Brookings, NPR)
  • Parents are concerned about their children’s social and emotional development and academic progress (New America, Pew)
  • Some children born during the pandemic are lagging developmentally (JAMA Pediatrics) and many students are falling behind academically (McKinsey)
  • COVID-19 is affecting children’s mental health (UNICEF, U.S. Surgeon General)
  • Parents are stressed out (Frontiers in Psychiatry, New York Times, Dr. Dana Suskind)
  • More than 167,000 children have lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID (WBUR)
  • The pandemic-related challenges are amplified for racial and ethnic minorities and other vulnerable children (CDC)

Parents Can Support Children’s Social and Emotional Wellness

There’s a lot early educators and parents can support in our children’s social and emotional learning and wellness. Here are five suggestions from me-writing both as the mother of two young children and the leader of Sparkler Learning, a nonprofit focused on family engagement and strength.

1. Know your child’s social and emotional needs.

As a parent, you know your child better than anybody else on the planet. This knowledge of your child gives you unique power to inspire and support them. Ask yourself a few questions: How have the last two years affected my child and family? What are some positive effects? What are some negative effects? If your children are old enough, ask them these questions-and really listen to what you hear.

Sparkler is producing a social and emotional learning initiative called Big Heart World in collaboration with Noggin, NHSA, and more than 30 amazing partners. On the Big Heart World podcast, Little Kids, Big Hearts, some kid guests have told us they’ve loved every minute of remote school. For others, it was the opposite. It’s important to reflect on who each child is as a learner and a person.

2. Once you know, you can grow!

Once you’ve thought through your children’s social strengths and needs, it’s time to get on their level, figuratively and literally! Through Big Heart World, we worked with the Housman Institute to develop a 10-question quiz that identifies children’s social and emotional learning needs and then creates a custom digital packet of playful activities you can do together to address those needs.

In my family, we are big fans of the “friendship cookie” activity-making a giant cookie to share with friends. This helps us to practice social skills and math while sneaking chocolate chips! We love it because it works for us. What works for you? Use the quiz to get your personalized activity suggestions.

3. Remember the basics.

Today, I often wonder if the disruptions of recent years will interfere with children’s long-term ability to practice preschool basics. I think a lot about the key skills that are enforced and reinforced during the preschool years:

  • Identity (Who am I? How do I fit into my family, community, world?)
  • Feelings (What am I feeling? Is that okay?)
  • Self-regulation (How do I pause and manage my big feelings?)
  • Problem-solving (How do I work with others to share or work out differences?)

Kids don’t necessarily pick up basic social and emotional skills on their own. They learn them over time, through practice and through interactions with others. Take time to get back to basics. Practice breathing and calm-down exercises. Work on sharing. Talk about identity and belonging. If you’re looking for beautiful, culturally diverse picture books to help reinforce basic social and emotional skills, explore First Book and School Library Journal‘s booklists.

4. Take time to listen.

A lot of families had A LOT of extra “screen time” in the last couple of years. Don’t feel bad about this-you’re doing great! If you want to think of ways to diversify your children’s media diet, now is a great time to remember that using our ears is a great way to learn.

As part of Big Heart World, we worked with Noggin to share an album of songs called the Big Heart Beats album. Have a listen. (And don’t be surprised if the songs get stuck in your head or cause an impromptu kitchen dance party.) Our Little Kids, Big Hearts podcast also aims to help parents and educators introduce big topics in social and emotional learning to their children. Listen together at bedtime or in the car to help start a meaningful family conversation. My four year old and I re-listened to the “upstanding” episode recently and had a good chat about ways he could stand up for his friends.

5. Find safe ways to get together.

Parents said extra family time was a hidden perk of the pandemic, but COVID interrupted many regular social interactions. Mother and psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Dr. Kavita Tahilani shared some handy tips to help children transition back to play and peer interactions. Her tips really helped me and my family ease back into safe play and engagement with peers.

Most importantly, we must remember to be flexible and forgiving to our children and to ourselves. This has been a multi-year disruption to our lives. Parents can support their children. But it will take time and focus, new resources, and new approaches to address the impact moving forward.


This resource was written by Julia Levy, executive director of Sparkler Learning, the nonprofit family engagement organization producing Big Heart World with Noggin and NHSA. Julia is also the mother of two children.

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