Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

Supporting Friendships: Building Social Skills October 8, 2014

Filed under: Friendships — Heidi Emberling @ 7:51 pm

Making friends is an important life skill. Studies have shown that our happiness as adults is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our relationships with others. Building friendships begins early, as children learn how to become social members of the family, classroom, and community. Through these connections with others, children give and receive emotional support, learn conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, play cooperatively, and develop empathy. These pro-social behaviors lay the foundation for all future relationships.

And it starts early. Infants begin social relationships with parents and caregivers through loving, responsive care. Toddlers explore peer-to-peer and peer-adult interactions through turn-taking, social scripts, and simple group rules and routines. Preschoolers then build on what they’ve learned to develop more complex relationships through cooperative and dramatic play.

Parents, teachers and caregivers can promote these social skills by providing play opportunities with peers and by participating in children’s play activities. As the child plays, take turns following and leading the play. When she directs the play, it builds her self-confidence. When she follows, adults can extend the play to include new ideas and strategies for solving challenges. Through these give and take play scenarios, adults are given the opportunity to observe and learn about the child. Can this child persist at a task like a puzzle? Or does she require more interactive play? Does she prefer to be outside, or is she happier drawing at the table?

One of the best ways to encourage development of social skills is by providing social opportunities. Here are five tips for successful playdates:

  • Create environments for success—use open-ended materials such as legos, blocks, trains, or a basket of crayons. Avoid single items like the “cash register,” unless you really want to practice turn-taking.
  • Adjust your expectations to the age and stage of the children. If you are gathering a group of two-year olds, expect very little impulse control. Make sure there is plenty of room for each individual child and be ready to intervene when the inevitable hair pulling, pushing, grabbing, biting behaviors begin.
  • Provide a variety of social experiences. The park provides an opportunity to practice meeting new kids, initiating play, or joining play already in motion. A playdate at home provides an opportunity for bonding, dramatic play, and learning games with rules.
  • Model problem-solving techniques (like turn-taking) and allow the child to practice these new social skills. Intervene when the conflict is greater than the child’s skill level.
  • Provide meaningful “helper” jobs around the house. These build self-confidence and allow a child to feel good about her contributions to the family.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist


Learning to Cope with Strong Emotions August 21, 2014

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 5:36 pm

Young children are experts at expressing a wide range of powerful emotions daily. From gleeful excitement to enraged anger, children’s emotions can surprise even a seasoned parent. These emotions can bubble up at any time, and may become problematic when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, in a doctor’s office waiting room, or visiting a new friend’s home. When children are flooded with a strong emotional response, they may not be able to cope and that’s when a tantrum occurs.

Learning coping skills is an integral part of every person’s social and emotional development. How we deal with our strong emotions directly impacts our success in the world. If you’ve ever been cut off in traffic, you know how important it is to take a deep breath and let go of any anger in the interest of a safe driving experience. Otherwise, the anger could become “road rage,” a counter-productive response. This ability to “self-regulate,” or manage our own behavior, is a learned skill. Actually, it’s a set of six essential social and emotional skills that we begin teaching young children from birth.*

The first two skills are to recognize and understand one’s own feelings, and accurately read and comprehend the feelings of others.  During this early learning phase, it’s important to validate and verbalize a child’s emotional experiences: happy, excited, confused, frustrated, mad, sad, angry, etc. Read books about “feelings.” Look in a mirror and make expressive faces. Describe what a feeling looks like on someone else’s face. Children are naturally empathetic. If one baby cries, they may all begin crying. As they learn about feelings, children begin to attach verbal labels such as “sadness.”

The second two skills are to manage and express strong emotions constructively and to regulate one’s own behavior. Once children learn how to label a feeling, they begin to learn how to manage or cope with that feeling. Teach self-soothing techniques, model how to calm down, and allow children to feel disappointed so they can become more resilient. As children learn to manage emotions, they learn to delay gratification in order to achieve a goal. In other words, they regulate their behavior to resist initial impulses, maintain focus, and undertake tasks even if there are other enticing diversions available.

The third set of skills is to establish and sustain relationships and develop empathy for others. As children learn about feelings in themselves and others, they begin to form friendships. Within these relationships, children may experience positive and negative emotions that lead to pro-social or aggressive behavioral responses. Over time, these interactions deepen a child’s understanding of their own needs while also developing empathy for the experience of others.

The early years provide critical opportunities to nurture the development of emotional health and social competence in children. As they mature, children learn to become productive members of a family, classroom, and larger community.   The coping skills they learn will serve them well throughout their lifetime.

* Social and Emotional Development Skill Set, National Institute for Early Education Research,

Heidi Emberling, MA


Selective Mutism in Preschool Children March 5, 2014

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 4:16 am

A few years ago, I was asked to observe a child who never spoke to her preschool teachers, although she had no trouble talking at home with her parents.  She actively participated in all the preschool activities, including art, science, reading, writing–even dancing during music time–but she never spoke or responded to either of her teachers.  Her parents and teachers were confused.  She was quite chatty at home, but completely quiet at school.  Parents and teachers assumed it was a power struggle; that she was being willfully defiant.  But more often than not, the child is simply “stuck” and has retreated into a pattern of silence in the classroom.  Over the past few years, I’ve observed a handful of children who exhibit similar symptoms.  If symptoms persist for more than a month, children might develop Selective Mutism.

Selective Mutism is characterized by a child’s inability to speak in certain settings and with certain people.  The child may have no problem talking at home or with close relatives or friends, but may not speak at all, or may only speak in whispers, in other social settings such as school, out in public, or at extended family gatherings.  In most cases, Selective Mutism is diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 8 years old.  More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social anxiety.  This can cause severe distress in the child and may prevent her from participating in school or making new friends.  It can also prohibit the child from asking for help, even if she has a basic need, such as using the bathroom.

The inability to speak in a school setting should not be confused with a child learning a new language or a child who has a naturally shy temperament.  If a child speaks another language fluently at home, she may be reluctant to try out the new language at school.  But eventually, bilingual children find friends and begin the socialization process; first non-verbally, then with a few key words in the new language.   A slow-to-warm child also needs time to adjust to a new preschool setting.  However, once the child understands the rules and structure of the school, she, too, finds friends and begins to integrate into the classroom routines.  The child with Selective Mutism, however, always “freezes” when presented with a social interaction, even months after school has begun.

To support a child with Selective Mutism, it is important to remove all pressure to talk.  If a child is severely inhibited and unable to speak in school, putting pressure on them to speak will negatively reinforce the behavior.   With all social anxieties, it is critical to build social skills and communication strategies using small, manageable steps.  Create non-verbal communication strategies, such as pointing or using picture cards.  Increase a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence by making them a helper in the classroom.  Any steps towards communication (verbal or non-verbal) should be reinforced and praised.  Allow the child to share their artwork or help another child during play.  Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to partner with one friend on a particular task or activity.

With patience and persistence, a child can be given every opportunity to fully participate in the preschool setting, even without verbal communication.  Create a plan of small steps towards the goal of speaking to the teacher and allow the child time and space to reach that goal.

Resources on Selective Mutism:

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist


Successful Summer Transitions June 6, 2013

Filed under: Transition Troubles — Heidi Emberling @ 11:18 pm

Summer is approaching and that means plenty of transitions, including summer camps, travel plans, and out-of-town visitors.  These experiences can be a welcome change from the daily rituals of the school year.  For young children, however, this change can bring uncertainty, unpredictability, and unfamiliar people into their regular routines.

With some advanced preparation, parents can ease the challenges presented during these and other summer transitions.  By thinking about the variety of potential reactions to change, parents can anticipate, prepare, and intervene in a positive way to ensure a more pleasant experience for everyone in the family.

Summer Camps:

Choose carefully.  The best camp for the child next door may not be the best camp for your child.  Some children prefer structured camps, while others enjoy learning a variety of new activities.  Some children prefer to be outdoors most of the time, while others crave inventing a robotics vehicle.  Keep in mind that even if your child prefers the routines of his/her current preschool, the teaching staff may change over the summer.  Come up with a separation plan for the first day of camp.  Bring a familiar item from home, a photo of the family and a special treat in the lunchbox.  Visit the camp beforehand if possible.  This is also an opportunity for your child to learn some resiliency, bond with a new caregiver, cope with change, and try out something new.

Travel Plans:

Car trips, plane trips, and train adventures might provide excitement, anxiety, boredom, and the ongoing search for the nearest bathroom.  Common challenges include motion sickness, picky eating or unhealthy food options, and the constant whine for entertainment.  Once you get to your destination, there are additional challenges of sleeping in a new place, eating new foods, and unfamiliarity of new surroundings.  Some children thrive in this environment, while others will be very sensitive to these changes.  If your child hasn’t done a long car trip, plan for regular rest stops to run around, bring familiar food from home, and plan some car games like travel bingo.  Electronic items can add to motion sickness, so beware of relying solely on these for entertainment.  For plane travel, parents might want to spend the afternoon at a local airport to watch the planes land and take off.


Summertime brings family and friends to your home for a visit.  Think about where your visitors will sleep and how much disruption there will be to your child’s schedule and routine.  If you need to move your child to another room, make the change in advance, so your child can begin to adjust before people arrive.  Think about how you will squeeze in a few more people to your dining room table or if you’ll decide to have more picnics in the backyard.  If you need to move some toys out of the family room, do it a few days in advance so your child can adjust.  If you can, you might want to call or skype family members or friends a few days before the visit so your child can reconnect before their arrival.

Summer transitions can be managed with some advanced planning and a thoughtful approach.  Particularly if your child is spirited or sensitive, a proactive approach may save you the tantrum or meltdown brought about by unexpected change.  Expect some disruptions to sleep, eating, and consistent potty use, knowing that your child will bounce back after returning to a more typical schedule and routine.  Once you’ve anticipated some potential transition troubles and planned accordingly, you will be much more ready to enjoy your summer plans!

Heidi Emberling, MA
Connect for Children


Why is my child so BOSSY? May 16, 2013

Filed under: Challenging Behaviors — Heidi Emberling @ 11:05 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Bossy behaviors appear as children begin to explore power in a social context with peers, and within the parent-child relationship.  These behaviors originate from wanting to organize and direct the behavior of others.  Bossiness may be rooted in the following motivations:

  • A child has a “great idea” in mind and they need others to bring it to life. (“Put the castle over HERE.,” “YOU play the baby and I’LL play the mommy.”)
  • A child feels strongly about controlling the outcome of a situation. (“DON’T put the peas next to the mashed potatoes.,” “I’M going first.”)
  • A child is insecure and unsure who makes the final decisions in the household, so they assert their own power. (“GIMME the cookie before dinner.  I want it RIGHT NOW.  In this case, a parent may have given in to this demand in the past, but is now deciding to hold the limit.  That confusion and inconsistency may bring out bossy behaviors.)

Using a positive discipline framework, our goal as parent educators is to guide parents to teach children the important social skill of how to express their needs in appropriate ways.  With friends, you can remind your child: “You have some big ideas about how you want to play.  Your friend may have an idea too.  Let’s ask.”  Within the parent-child dynamic, remind the child to ask politely for what they want.  Teach them that their words have an effect on others: “When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel angry or upset.” Reframe the request by teaching them the exact words you’d like them to use next time: “Please say, ‘I’d like a few more minutes to play before getting ready for bed.’”  Set the timer, and praise the child for using respectful language.

One of our jobs as parents is to teach our children social skills, so they can become productive members of a family unit and a classroom community.  This process continues throughout the early years of childhood; it doesn’t happen overnight.  Teaching children to become more cooperative, helpful, and considerate of others is an ongoing pursuit.  Some strategies include:

  • Model respectful requests.  Are you bossy with your child?  How do you communicate your ideas with your partner, your co-workers, or your friends?  Remember that children learn best from watching those around them.
  • Talk about friendship skills.  If there’s a bossy child at school, your child may be experimenting with those behaviors at home.  Ask your child how they feel when they hear bossy comments among friends.  Over time, children learn that actions have consequences and that being bossy can be detrimental to building friendships.
  • Compromise when possible.  When you allow your child to participate in the decision-making process throughout the day, you model the value of sharing power.  Also, reinforce compromise, sharing, and other cooperative behaviors during playdates.  Point out listening skills and how to incorporate several different ideas during play.

Over time, your children will learn that both friendship and leadership involves following their own creative ideas AND listening and learning from others.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education




“You can’t come to my birthday party!” and Other Explorations of Girl* Power April 1, 2013

Filed under: Boys/Girls — Heidi Emberling @ 8:52 pm

Girls explore power through relationships, beginning in the older preschool years.  New friendships blossom during this time through imaginative play and common interests.  Bonds between friends deepen, even influencing the mood and emotion of a child if her friend is absent from school.  Many girls are verbal and social, preferring imaginative games that mirror real experiences such as playing “house,” “grocery store,” or “doctor’s office.”  Often, girls will take on the powerful roles they see around them: “mom,” “doctor,” or “teacher.”

As friendships form and grow, girls may begin to explore power within this new bond.  They may begin excluding others from play, to protect this deep new two-person relationship.  When common interests change, girls may find they are best friends one day, and enemies the next.  This is very confusing for us as parents and caregivers.  These new friend/enemy, or “frenemy,” relationships are hard to predict, can be hurtful, and can involve gossip and mean girl exploration.  Phrases like, “I don’t want to play with you today,” “You can’t come to my birthday party,” or “I’m not your friend anymore,” are common ways of expressing relational power.

Here are five ways to support girl play:

1) Teach acceptable ways of speaking to friends and adults.  Note the difference between disrespectful language, “I’m not playing with YOU today,” and respectful language, “Not now, maybe later.”

2) Build skills for allowing others to join in the play, rather than be excluded.  “It looks like you are playing house.  You may need a sibling, aunt, visitor, or even a pet to add to the play.  Any ideas?”

3) Discuss qualities of being a good friend. How do we show others that we are their friend?

4) Address hurtful comments through induction strategies: “How would you feel if your best friend excluded you?”  Talk about “secrets” and other socially harmful behaviors.

5) Encourage expanding the social sphere of girls.  Invite a new playmate over, join a new activity with other friends outside of school, and encourage development of new interests.

It’s important to keep social problems in perspective.  Children are exploring relational power between friends, and these dynamics may shift from week to week or even from day to day.  If your child is excluding others, it doesn’t mean she will become a bully later on.  If your child is sensitive, it doesn’t mean she will become a target in later years.  All children explore power in their own way.  For some adults, these friendship struggles may elicit painful peer memories from childhood.  If possible, remember that children are more resilient than we think and this exploration of relational power is a typical developmental process.  Our role is to listen, validate the experience, and guide them to resolve conflicts and express themselves in respectful ways.  As we teach children social skills and support their emotional resiliency, we lay a strong foundation for creating healthy relationships now and in the future.

*I use the conventional term “girl” to describe children who are exploring relational power, but boys may experience this as well.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist



The Energy and Enthusiasm of Preschool Boys* December 11, 2012

Filed under: Boys/Girls — Heidi Emberling @ 6:34 pm

Boy play is noisy, boisterous, physical, aggressive, and spontaneous in nature.   Dads** understand this play and may intuitively provide these outlets for their rough and tumble kids.  Research (Lamb, 2000) shows that moms are associated with food, comfort, security, and love, while dads are associated with fun, excitement, and play.  Children need exposure to both types of adult interactions.  However, most preschool environments favor women’s interaction styles, verbal and literacy activities, and socio-dramatic play.

Around 3 ½ years old, boys begin to gravitate towards superhero play.  They explore power, both external (I can fly like Superman, I am super strong like Batman), and within social relationships (good guy/bad guy scenarios).  This morality play between “good” guys and the “bad” guys is certainly not a new phenomenon.  Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and war play are all an integral part of typical boy development.  The challenge for parents and teachers is when these games include gun play.   Boys love “shooting” games.  They build shooters out of legos, blocks, pencils, or even with their fingers.  It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate this type of play, even with all the “no gun play” rules at home or in preschool.

Life and death are still very abstract concepts for preschoolers.  As boys grapple with the role of “good guy” and “bad guy,” gun play allows for a sense of power and control within that play.  One strategy is to extend the play by adding multi-player rescue or hero themes.  If two boys are shooting each other, direct them to shoot water out of the “fire hose” to save the house or building.   If the “bad guys” are going to jail, encourage them to come up with ways to get out of jail, or repair the “bad” behavior.  If there are two boys playing firefighter, add a third child who can be the ambulance driver or doctor/nurse at the hospital.

Here are five ways to support the active play of young boys:

1) Provide space and time for big, outdoor physical activity

2) Boys need more space!  Let them spread out on the floor.

3) Provide outdoor projects, building, gardening, and outdoor games

4) Provide hands-on learning, rather than verbal instruction

5) Create safe indoor spaces for rough and tumble play (gym mats, nerf balls)

Boys bring spontaneous, wild fun into any environment.  As parents and teachers, we need to find ways to respect and honor boys’ play ideas and contributions.  In this way, we can support boys as they build social skills, increase their self-confidence, and become active contributors to their own learning.

*I use the conventional term “boys” to describe high energy, rough and tumble play, but there are girls who may also share these qualities.

**I use the conventional term “dads” to describe more physical, exciting play, but there are moms who may also play this way with their child.

Additional Reading:

The War Play Dilemma, by Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Heidi Emberling, MA