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Leaning into SEL to Help Children Navigate COVID-19


‘When We Stayed Home’ encourages emotional regulation and empathy, the cornerstones of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), to empower the young and confused during powerless times. (Note: this post is not a substitute for professional advice or therapy from a licensed therapist)

Much has been written of late about the importance of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This age-old, yet new again, set of interpersonal skills deservedly stands in the spotlight during these complex and socially-distanced times.

Becoming comfortable in one’s own skin and the world at once starts early in life. Some say it never ends. How do we engage the concept when we’re engaging via devices and distancing from the community that is where we develop and hone these skills? A conundrum, to be sure.

For those new to the concept, SEL civilizes us. SEL’s close cousin is Emotional IQ.

According to CASEL, the leading think tank of all things SEL: “We apply these skills, knowledge and attitudes to develop healthy identities and manage emotions to achieve personal and collective goals. It’s how we feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make caring and responsible decisions.”

The ability to reflect (to concurrently think and feel about thinking and feeling) starts at about 3 to 4 years old when, for instance, a child wants you to trust them. When you catch them throwing toys, they want you to believe that they won’t throw their trucks again if they get to keep them.

The capacity for Social Emotional Growth really takes off at about age 6 when a child, for instance, can express disappointment of going to a sports practice, but not to play, and only warm up and do drills instead. We’re talking SEL at the pre-dawn of the Golden Age of Childhood from age 7 until pre-pubescence when children are invested in being seen as ‘good.’

SEL has become an essential part of my own thinking these days, especially in the spring of 2020 when the reality of Covid was setting in. It’s the time I spent co-writing a book for children (When We Stayed Home), for ages 3-6 years old and their caregivers.

Who’s not having some regressive moments these days? Growing empathy and self-regulation appears to having its moment to help navigate the pandemic and quarantine. It’s SEL that organically flowed through the writing of When We Stayed Home’s pages.

First a bit of back story. My co-author Judith A. Proffer and I go way back to our early 20’s. When Covid-19 changed our world in March of 2020, Judy called me.

She was moved to write a book to help her grandnephew Lucas navigate these uncertain, scary times. Knowing that I’m a therapist in Los Angeles for 20 plus years now, Judy turned to me to collaborate.

The hidden lead in plain sight highlights what his mom, Judy’s niece, was doing to make light of scary times and big unwanted changes for her pre-school aged son. He was a good kid about to turn five years-old.

Between Judy’s desire to help and my work, while keeping in mind the children in my life too, we put our heads and hearts together. We wrote a book that appears to have struck a nerve and has made something of a splash.

The Huffington Post did a roundup of 37 Covid themed books for children, and we took the number #1 spot. What separates us from the pack, I believe, is our SEL approach.

What do we add to the conversation? First, we go happy and at all times write from inside our protagonist’s voice. We share what he has been doing to stay active and creatively alive while being a good kid and taking his parents’ cues for social distancing seriously with aplomb.

In the second half of the book, we take a turn to reveal the complicated worrisome feelings behind the mask. We walk back the ‘fun and games’ narrative to reveal the difficult feelings underneath.

We aim to soothe and de-stigmatize the painful feelings. The way out of dysregulated emotional states is to acknowledge them, and to go into them gently. In this way we hope to clear the path to an expanded sense of trust.

We know that honoring profound sadness (missing friends, family, school, hugs) is a gutsy move. We’re talking about potent material even adults can find challenging.

All little bit of it certainly goes a long way. This is what distinguishes our approach to these complex times from most of the others. The goal is to strengthen the connection to the internal emotional state.

We witness a growth spurt in the capacity for inner listening. Maturation from toddler to childhood entails a sacrifice, a buy-in, that clears a path of resistance and sensitivities that might arise as a consequence.

What it means to participate as a ‘super-helper’ is a point of pride. It’s also what the adults and caregivers require of our young hero.

We address the child’s spirit. He must be co- operative and go along with the adult-directed efforts, while not losing his own burgeoning voice or identity in the process.

We realize these times are a huge pivot and departure for most everyone. We need our children to go along without frightening them, as that would likely backfire big time right away and over time.

There's a time and place for all of one’s reality – fears, hopes and dreams of a better day - even when it’s uncomfortable at first. By demonstrating that it is possible to befriend and tend to one’s inner turmoil, we help our little ones grow joy and empathy based on a bedrock of hard-won reflective capacity.

Like we say, “Stay Happy, Stay Hopeful, Stay Home.” We’ll get there together.

Tap here to learn more about CASEL. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may be reached online or via telephone at 800-273-8255

About the Author

Tara Fass, LMFT #35078, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California.  For 8 years, from 1993-2001, Tara was a parent plan mediator for the Superior Court of California.  During that time she also conducted approximately 100 Court ordered Child Custody Evaluations.

Now in private practice, Tara treats adults and couples dealing with a broad range of issues from navigating the legacy of contentious and uncontested divorce in one's life.

Tara specializes in co-parenting counseling, and she is the co-author of the new children’s book When We Stayed Home, a story about little boy and his dog as they navigate their life at home during the pandemic.

To learn more go to Tara's website at or connect with her through our Provider Directory

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