How to Enhance Social & Emotional Development in Children

Jill Kuzma Blog Title Picture

Welcome to another installment of Interviews with Experts. This segment was previously called Lightening Round Interviews. I changed the name in fear that readers would think these interviews were related to Jim Cramer and Fast Money; sorry, no stock tips here. In these interviews, I ask 5 questions to experts in various professions related to speech language pathology and early childhood development.

I’m so happy to welcome Jill Kuzma, a speech language pathologist with expertise in assessing and treating elementary-age students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, attention deficit challenges, receptive/expressive language needs, and executive function challenges. Jill is particularly focused on integrating social/emotional instruction within the framework of balanced literacy instruction in a collaborative co-teaching manner with other general and special educators.

Jill Kuzma Picture

Jill will answer questions on the importance of understanding and appropriately addressing the social and emotional needs of young children during speech therapy.

The first question is always personal and related to how the interviewee became interested in working in a particular area or with a special population. For the last question, I ask for recommended resources.

1. In your biography you describe your passion for providing “engaging, relevant direct instruction supporting social/emotional skills as an added layer to the existing materials and frameworks used in classrooms that target literacy learning standards in reading, written language and speaking/listening domains.” Can you please further explain this specialized niche and tell us how this wonderful and much needed interest emerged?

Answer: As a school-based SLP with a unique caseload consisting mostly of elementary learners on the autism spectrum, I found myself needing to meet the social communication targets on IEPs, as well as support literacy goals established school-wide. That is a reality of being a school-based SLP – we support individual speech and language needs but within the context of being a literacy learner.

In the past few years as SLPs have sought out a clearer view of our role with Rti, I have begun to explore how my work with receptive and expressive language skills can be woven into aligning with the general education curriculum.   I participated in more and more professional development surrounding literacy instruction with my school district. I began to develop in interest in finding an efficient way to support social communication needs, yet in a way that added a layer of literacy. I am really excited about all of the literacy professional development opportunities I have had over the past few years. I realized that as my excitement grew for literacy support, I did not want to lose my interest in social/emotional teaching. So, as the expectation is defined to align more with the common core learning standards, I wanted to find a way to continue a unique focus on social/emotional learning as well as literacy.

2. Can you please explain why it’s necessary to interlace social emotional learning into pre-literacy activities? Can you share a few ways how you do this during group instruction and or individual sessions?

Answer: Early social/emotional learning is focused on helping young children understand that there are multiple perspectives in their world. Other people have different feelings, intentions and background experiences than the child does. As children move through preschool, kindergarten and 1st grade, they are developing more advanced theory of mind (perspective taking) skills simultaneously with early reading and writing skills.

Young children learn about emotions and facial expressions while interacting with peers. When a young child experiences text as a listener, or a reader themselves – they need to be aware of character’s emotions and intentions in order to fully comprehend the story.They need to use the text structure and punctuation to figure out who is “talking.” The child uses the pictures to support their comprehension of the plot. In order to successfully develop these comprehension skills, children draw upon their skills of perspective taking and understanding of emotions.

Many of the students that I work with at school struggle to develop these social/emotional skills in the same implicit way as their agemates. Thus, this lagging skill may also impact this young reader’s comprehension.   Further, many of the kids I teach on the autism spectrum struggle with social interaction with their classmates. They are not wired to be natural “social observers” in a group, thus they may miss out on learning about cues that indicate emotions or intentions. I found that by using carefully selected children’s read aloud texts, and familiarizing myself with the leveled guided reading books that the classroom teachers use, I could add a layer of social learning to reading instruction that can fill in the social/emotional gaps for my caseload students.

3. I, too, love reading books to help children explore their emotions. Depending on the child’s needs, sometimes I will start with a basic concept book to teach feelings and emotions (e.g. The Way I Feel by Janan Cain) and then progress to a more complex narrative (e.g. Big Al by Andrew Clements Yoshi). While it is very easy to find basic concept books to teach the names of emotions, I find that preschoolers and elementary children really learn how to identify emotions in themselves when they can relate to the feeling either in the moment or in an event in a story. What are some of your favorite narrative picture books to help children explore emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, compassion, kindness, etc.

Answer: I have so many favorites!!! One of my favorite children’s authors is Kevin Henkes. I especially find his “mouse” character books to be a fabulous platform to explore more complex personality traits of characters   Henkes has developed characters in this series that are very relatable to children with a variety of personality characteristics – from the carefree and creative “Lily”, to a shy and cautious little mouse “Wemberly” to the sensible and perhaps somewhat rigid “Chester”, there is a character that all children can relate to.

I also am a tremendously huge fan of the children’s author, Julia Cook.  She is a former school counselor, so I really appreciate this component she brings to her books – she creates a story structure within her books that describe various social/emotional lagging skills as well as provides tools for the child reader to use to improve those skills. Julia Cook has also developed characters that appear in sets of books. For example, her character “RJ” is very relatable to outgoing, creative and well-intended children who are may find themselves getting in trouble, yet not understand why.   Her character, “Louis” is a character relatable to children that have an immense amount of energy, yet perhaps lack the ability to read social cues and understand concepts like personal space and blurting out. Finally, the characters in her executive function books, “Cletus” and “Bocephus” exemplify children who have unique ways of approaching organization or working on larger projects. Cletus represents the random, spontaneous, last-minute type of child when approaching a project – he has his own “method” or organizing and planning.   Many of my students relate to the characters Julia Cook creates and can see themselves in her stories.

Younger children really respond to Mo Willems “Elephant and Piggie” books   These books are one of my “go-to” resources to introduce basic perspective taking skills, and the use of “talking” and “thinking” bubbles to children and connecting them to text. The illustrations are expressive, yet uncluttered. The thought bubbles Willems uses for the text are a concrete, visually salient way to help young readers understand the social cognitive notion that when characters/people interact and communicate – they do so based on an original intention. They are fabulous resources and widely accessible to teachers and parents in school and public libraries.

4. Since the birth of my adorable but feisty 3 year-old daughter, my interest in social/emotional development has greatly grown. Impulse control, behavior regulation, and anger management can be challenging for many young children, especially preschoolers. I have read many books to learn more strategies so I can incorporate them at home as well as during my sessions. Two strategies that I use to prevent or mitigate a meltdown/tantrum are being a good model for the child (e.g. responding in a calm and compassionate manner) and providing shared control (e.g. giving the child certain choices). However, sometimes these are not enough. If you are working with a child who is particularly strong-willed and likes to do what he or she wants to do and will resort to hitting, screaming, etc. can you share a few tips to help that child better control his or her emotions?

Answer: Whoa boy! This is certainly a reality that I face daily in some form when working at school. One of my most coveted tools is my “button chart” and “Minion Mystery Bag.” Here is a photo:

Minion Bag Jill Kuzma

My button chart is essentially a visual strategy that teaches “tolerance for delay” skills. It is a concrete, visual method to show the passage of time for a task – but YOU control how fast the time passes until a “reward”. This is different than using a timer – once you set a timer for 15 minutes; you are at the mercy of the timer. If the child begins to refuse or tantrum before the timer is up, you have lost the opportunity to support building task completion/compliance skills in a positive manner.

My “mystery bag” is the “reward” component that I use for the final few minutes for a session with a group of children.   In my personal (non-work) world, I am trying to teach myself to sew and quilt, so I made a very crude-looking bag out of Minion fabric – so I call it the “Minion Mystery Bag.” I figured that it was a relevant and relatable character for my elementary kids for a few years anyway.

This is how I use it: I tell the group that we need to work “until the buttons are all on” the chart. Then, we can see what is in the Mystery Bag. As we proceed through our session work, I place each of the four buttons on the chart at random intervals. I do not worry about placing one every 5 minutes or so, I usually just have it in front of me and place them on as we move through our time. Sometimes I lose track of time and end up putting 2-3 on quickly – I found that this works out fine. Given a 20 minute session for example, I find that usually I can stretch our “work” time out for 16-17 minutes, leaving 3-4 minutes for mystery bag time. However, if the student(s) are becoming quite frustrated, or demonstrating escalated behaviors, I can place the buttons on more quickly.

Essentially, I have control of the time.By setting the expectation that we will “work until the buttons are on” – it is setting the expectation for the adult’s direction. I want the student to understand the notion that “many times at school, we need to do the job that the teacher says to do – even if you do not want to.” However, by using the button chart rather than a timer, you have control over the passage of time and you can be proactive in adapting the task expectation by placing the buttons on more quickly with the end result of the child following the stated expectation, and you were also able to de-escalate some strong feelings building.

As for the Mystery Bag contents… this varies! At the start of the year, or beginning with a new group of students, I typically put sensory types of things in the bag – such as oil/water colored bottles, or a fine-motor building kind of activity, or thera-putty, floam, etc. I can gradually fade these activities into more purposeful activities such as a game targeting specific language or social skills (a quick game like Spot-It, or one of the GameWright Games – my very favorite game vendor!!!   Sometimes, I even put an iPad in the Mystery Bag set to an app that targets a specific language skill – this becomes the “fun” mystery activity.

One added benefit to using the Mystery Bag for the final few minutes of a session….. I can take a few minutes to record some notes on my data and planning sheets!

5. Can you recommend some of your favorite resources (books, websites, others) to help readers learn more about social/emotional development and how to foster them?

Answer: I have mentioned a few links in the questions above, but here are a few of my favorite resources that I use weekly!

  • Books That Heal Kids Blog – a fabulous resource to find children’s literature on various social/emotional topics:
  • Autism Teaching Strategies – a great website from Joel Shaul. He generously shares tons of free social skill teaching resources and has some fabulous books to teach conversation skills to kids (The Conversation Train and Green Zone Conversation).
  • Learning Works for Kids Website – this website is run by a team of psychologists, educators, and digital designers and is based on the philosophy that “…popular video games and other digital media, when used mindfully and responsibly, can be powerful tools for sharpening and improving children’s academic performance and cognitive thinking skills.” I especially appreciate all of the information provided on the “thinking skills” which align directly to the executive function skills I focus on with my older elementary students.
  • Simon’s Cat YouTube Channel – This is a fabulous resource to use with students to teach social perspective taking skills and reading non-verbal facial expression and body language cues. I use these short clips with my visual cues of “talking and thinking” bubbles held right up to the screen to teach about social cognition. You can also use these with a literacy extension if students write a script or “dialogue” for the characters. One of my very favorite videos to use with kids is called, “April Showers” – Here is the link:

Jill, please don’t forget your own fabulous website –Jill Kuzma’s SLP Social and Emotional Sharing Site.

Thank you so much, Jill for sharing your expertise. I’m honored to have you participate. I highly encourage everyone to visit her website for more suggestions and insight.

Here are some more posts from my Interview with Experts Series:

Expert Interview: Autism and Sensory Needs

Expert Interview: Oral Motor Development and Pacifiers

Expert Interview: Executive Functions and Speech Therapy

Expert Interview: Bilingual Language Development

Expert Interview: Language & Picky Eating in Internationally Adopted Children

If you are an expert in speech, language, literacy, AAC, child development, etc. and would like to participate, please contact me at

Kimberly Scanlon, M.A. CCC-SLP is a speech language pathologist, an author and a mother. As the owner of Scanlon Speech Therapy, LLC, a unique boutique practice in Bergen County, Kimberly embraces individuality and treats the whole person. Her goal is to spread compassion, hope, and some speech, language and literacy tips one moment, one person at a time. Her first book, My Toddler Talks: Strategies and Activities to Promote Your Child’s Language Development and her second book, Learning to Read is a Ball are available for purchase online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


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