SEEC Speak Part 2: Social Emotional Language

Every community, whether it be a neighborhood, family, school, etc., has a unique culture with its own language. Schools typically have common phrases, as it is helpful for children to hear consistent messages from the adults around them. Here at SEEC we call the phrases that are unique to our school “SEEC Speak”, and in a previous post we detailed some of our most common phrases. We’re back with another installment, this time focusing on social emotional language. Developing social emotional skills is a huge undertaking and can often leave children feeling frustrated as they don’t have the language to express their big emotions during a conflict with a peer or adult. At SEEC, we use simple phrases from infancy that build upon one another to give children the skills to problem solve on their own.

Infants – “Space”

For preverbal children, adults narrate and explain the situation to all children. The adults talk about what each child each is doing and how those actions impact the other children. One-year-olds, who are starting to become mobile, often find themselves too close to other children, so we begin teaching them the concept of “space”. While we may use a variety of words to narrate and explain the situation, we will highlight short, simple phrases, such as “space” and often pair them with a physical sign like holding your hand up like a stop sign. One-year-olds soon begin to understand the power of these short, simple phrases and will begin to say and react to “space”, particularly when prompted by an adult.

Toddlers – “Me next”; “In hands”; “Check on body”

As toddlers’ ability to speak increases, new social-emotional phrases are introduced. Adults can empower toddlers to verbally state their own wants and needs. The phrase “me next” helps the child explain to another child that they would like a turn next. Some adults are bothered by the fact that “me next” is not grammatically correct, but these short phrases are the clearest to the children and are often all the toddler is capable of saying. A longer phrase may be too complicated and force the toddlers to resort to acting physically rather than using their newly acquired language.

Toddlers need a way to differentiate what objects are being used by others and what objects are free to be played with. For these young children, we keep things simple by teaching them “in hands”. If an object or toy is in a child’s hands that means that they are using it and another child cannot take it. This clear phrasing helps empower young children and decreases confusion.

One way that we build empathy in young children is by highlighting how a child is feeling and then working with other children to come up with ways that might make that child feel better. For example, if a child is hurt, another child might “check on their body” by gently patting the hurt child. “Checking on bodies” is a simple and effective way to help another child feel better.

Twos – “My hands”; “I don’t like that”; “Stop that”

Two-year-olds love saying and practicing our “SEEC Speak” phrases. They understand the power and usefulness of these phrases but struggle to say them in the moment when emotions are heightened. It is helpful for them to practice “SEEC Speak” phrases when pretending. Acting out scenarios helps them to learn and say our phrases. While practicing phrases like “in my hands”, “I don’t like that”, and “stop that”, two-year-olds will often add in nonverbal cues to help their peers understand them. They may shake their head to imply “no” or they may speak in a strong, authoritative voice, all of which helps to make their message clearer to their peers. While two-year-olds will often struggle to say these phrases without adult help in the heat of the moment, practicing these phrases helps them to develop their social-emotional skills.

Threes – “No, thank you”; “Stop”; “That hurts my body”

Sometimes adults underestimate a child’s ability to communicate when they are preverbal, and then overestimate a child’s ability to use words once they can talk, especially when experiencing big emotions such as frustration or anger.  While three-year-olds have many words, it is still useful to give them a specific prompt when they are upset, other than “use your words” as they might not know what words to use. Our threes often use “no, thank you” or “stop” when peers do something they do not like, or “that hurts my body” when play turns too rough.

Fours – “I don’t like it when…”, “That hurts my feelings”

In preschool, children are better able to articulate their feelings to peers and adults. When very upset, a child may only manage to say, “I don’t like that” or “stop”, however many will follow up that statement by explaining what it is they do not like. This is helpful for the other child, as sometimes children can be confused as to what behavior is bothering someone else.

Kindergarten – “What can I do to make you feel better?”

By the time children reach kindergarten, they’re able to effectively reflect on their actions that may have hurt a peer’s body or feelings, and help make the situation better. Our kindergartners often use the phrase, “How can I make you feel better?” when they apologize to a peer. This is more concrete than a simple, “I’m sorry” and allows both children to have a conversation about the situation resulting in action. I recently overheard the following conversation:

Child 1 was running on the playground and accidentally ran into child 2 who hit his head on the fence.

Child 2: Why did you do that?

Child 1: I’m sorry, it was an accident. What can I do to make you feel better?

Child 2: Don’t run so fast next time when we’re coming onto the playground.

Child 1: Okay.

They ended their exchange with a hug, and while child 2’s head still hurt, he clearly felt that he had been heard and an effort had been made to make him feel better.


What phrases do you use with young children to support their social emotional growth?