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How to help children develop social-emotional intelligence and resilience

I am a psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health. Social-emotional intelligence and resilience in children is a topic close to my heart, not just because of my work, but also because of my three young children.

Resilience can be developed anytime, but it is better at a young age when the brain is more adaptable, says the author.

Resilience can be developed anytime, but it is better at a young age when the brain is more adaptable, says the author.

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I am a psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health.

Social-emotional intelligence and resilience in children is a topic close to my heart, not just because of my work, but also because of my three young children.

What is social-emotional well-being? It is defined as a child’s developing capacity to form close, secure and meaningful relationships where they not only know the emotions that they are experiencing but also how to regulate and express them well.

The foundations of social-emotional intelligence are usually laid during early childhood years.

Many studies around the world have shown that children with good social-emotional intelligence grow up to have better physical and mental health, are likely to see better outcomes in terms of education, employment and have a lesser likelihood of committing crimes or coming under negative influences.

Helping children develop resilience is also important. Simply put, resilience is the ability to bounce back when facing adversities.

Resilience can be developed anytime, but it is better at a young age when the brain is more adaptable.

I have seen children who suffered great losses — those who have lost their parents, suffered accidents and amputated limbs.

But with resilience and the support from family members, I have seen them bounce back and go on to do well in life. They do not let the adversity, disability or loss define them.

This is a testament of what resilience and social-emotional well-being can do.

How then can parents and educators help to build these in children?

Educators, especially in the early years of a child’s life, are caregivers that interact the most with the child besides his or her parents.

Educators can help with early identification of children at risk, or those displaying early symptoms of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety issues.  

Educators can also help children to identify, understand and express emotions — both good and bad. This can also help children build better friendships and relationships.

Parents too, can help identify and explain these feelings to the child.

For instance, every night, my wife and I would sit down in a circle with our children to talk about our feelings and the good and bad things that happened during the day.

Then, we get our children to tell us how they felt and what went through their minds when they were experiencing the emotions, especially the bad feelings.

After they have expressed their feelings, we teach them ways to manage the bad emotions using two key methods.

Labelling feelings

Children may find it challenging to vocalise or talk about certain feelings. That’s where we step in to help them label the feeling.

For example, if my daughter is disappointed about not getting something or facing a difficulty in school, we tell her that this is "disappointment".

So, in future when she goes through something similar, she will know and be able to tell us the emotion she is feeling so that, we, as parents or even her educators can talk to her about it.

Identifying (new) feelings

New feelings can come along when children experience new things or when they explore their surroundings.

Children should be able to talk about these feelings safely with adults like parents and educators.

Adults can also enhance a child’s vocabulary by introducing new words to them that describe various emotions.


Together with educators, parents can help to facilitate friendships and better interactions among children.

Simple ways like getting a child to involve another classmate to help him/her complete a task or assigning them to be the one to call another child to go next could help them interact better.

Sometimes children have the tendency to become bossy.

To manage this, teach them to be more mindful of their tone. For instance, instead of a child commanding a friend to wash their hands, adults can teach the child to gently encourage their friend to wash their hands instead using a milder tone.

Educators and parents can also play a part in managing children’s negative emotions and disappointments.

For instance, when they cry, help them identify their feelings and ours too — it is okay to identify our own feelings and be honest about them.

Sometimes, when children get angry, they go through difficult emotions that they may not know how to express properly which could make them aggressive or violent.

At such times, calm them down by taking them to a quieter spot and telling them to take deep breaths.

Parents can also help the child visualise a happy place, a place that is calming and peaceful. Ask them to close their eyes, think about the place and do deep breathing exercises together with them.

Involving other children is another way to help that child feel better.

For example, if one child is angry, you can get his/her friend or sibling to check on the child to see what is troubling him/her and to see what can be done to help the child.

It could be as simple as offering a drink or a cookie or chocolate. This would also teach the other child that sometimes, they are empowered to help another child.

For educators, they can incorporate social-emotional learning into lesson activities using dramatisation and role play to take on different perspectives or engaging children in small group activities that teach them the importance of teamwork and patience.

They could also use stories and songs to guide children. For example, changing the lyrics of songs to suggest alternative reactions. Songs can help children manage these challenging emotions.

Active involvement of parents is also key.

Valuable lessons taught in school should be replicated at home. As parents, we ought to consciously teach our child to interact well with adults and kids. We can take them on learning journeys to develop values like empathy.

Due to the pandemic, parents and children are spending a lot more time together, especially with many parents working from home. This is a big opportunity for them to develop their relationship.

The interactions should not only be about doing homework or preparing for assignments but also playing and spending quality time together.

Little things and examples shared above like visualising happy places, practising self-calming techniques should also be continued at home so that children can emerge stronger and more resilient from these challenging times.



Dr Jared Ng is a psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health where he oversees emergency services. This piece is adapted from his keynote speech at a recent Early Childhood Development Agency conference on developing social-emotional intelligence and resilience in children.

Related topics

early childhood resilience Education children mental health

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