As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher, important long before their peers, and a crucial role model for the development of their social and emotional skills.

From a very early age, children observe interactions around them and mimic those interaction styles and attitudes for themselves. For example, if parents show respect to each other, the child expects people in the world to show respect to one another.

In addition to observation, children also learn from parents through behavior reinforcement. Positive reinforcement of a behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. For example, if you praise your child for asking for something politely, he’s more likely to be polite when asking the next time. Through these many small interactions over time, children begin to decipher the rules that dictate social interaction.

By using the following strategies, you can help your kids develop a “compass” to understand and navigate social situations and improve social and emotional skills.

Coaching

We tend to think of coaches only in terms of sports, but, in fact, coaching can be an effective way of improving many types of life skills. Using positive reinforcement, you can praise, support and encourage your child as he or she builds social and emotional skills and learns new concepts. With this method of skills development, you act as a coach or mentor and emphasize positive change while identifying areas of improvement with constructive feedback.

As an example, let’s say you’ve noticed your child has poor self-esteem and displays a negative self-image during challenges. To help coach your child, pay attention to what your child does well and actively praise his efforts. Reinforce his attempts to practice new skills and remember that trying out new things can be frightening when you are unsure of your abilities.

Think of something your child is proud to know or do. Do you have a math whiz, a soccer star, a musician, or a video game expert? Ask her to teach you this skill. Spend time on this task to show your interest. In the end, let her know how impressed you are and show your gratitude to her for teaching you something new.

Modeling

You are always modeling a skill or concept for your child through your actions, responses, and how you communicate with your child and others. Use this influence intentionally to help your child develop his or her skills.

For example, some children have a harder time understanding that their actions lead to positive or negative consequences. How can you help your child connect the dots to think through possible actions and their likely outcomes?

When you are faced with a decision, talk it through with your child. Share what could happen with each choice. Explain step by step how you made your decision. Model making good choices so your child will see the positive consequences that come from your actions and words.

Role Playing

Role plays helps your child practice newly learned skills by acting out behaviors in a particular situation. This provides children with hands-on practice in a safe environment and allows you to give feedback as they perfect their skills. Role-playing can be especially effective for children who learn by doing rather than by listening or writing.

Impulse control is an area of concern in children. To practice this skill, role-play a real-life scenario. Here’s an example: “A big project is due tomorrow and you haven’t started yet. Your friend wants to come over after school to play video games. What should you do?” Remember to ask questions about both negative and positive outcomes. You can address the results of not finishing the project on time, getting a bad grade, or having to stay up late to get everything finished.

Environment

Your child’s environment or surroundings can have a significant impact on his emotions. Simply changing part of the environment may help. For starters, try to remove TV background noise while having a conversation. Take it a step further by moving conversations from the yard to a quiet room to avoid distractions.

Let’s say your child is struggling to build new friendships. To promote positive relationships, set up play dates with STRUCTURED activities. Start with one child and increase the number of children as your child’s skills improve. Observe and reinforce her progress. Go to places where other kids socialize and encourage your child to initiate conversations. On the ride home, let your child share their thoughts on building friendships in a new setting.

Talking

Make time to talk with your child. And keep in mind that it’s also important to listen. Discuss a topic without interruption or correction. Giving your child your full attention as you listen and respond helps him learn to be a good communicator. Allow your child to express thoughts and feelings so you can fully understand his point of view.

As you talk to your child and better understand his strengths and weaknesses, remember that every child learns at their own pace. Most importantly, as your child practices social skills, point out areas where you’ve noticed a positive change in your child’s social attitudes or behaviors, and congratulate them on their progress.