Helping Your Child Improve Their Social Skills

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Is your child appropriate in their social skills and how they interact with others? Research shows that children who are popular, likeable and able to resolve conflicts with others are also more likely to succeed at school, and are generally more resilient than children with less developed social skills.

Social skills are complex and multi-faceted. They are also closely linked to development. The social skills that serve a five-year-old child will clearly not be adequate for negotiating the more complex social world of a twelve year old. In assessing social skills, it is important to bear in mind the milestones of normal social development according to the child’s age.

It is often assumed that social skills will be ‘picked up’ over time. However, while many social skills may be learned naturally, all children can benefit from being taught social skills. Social skills do take work and are not always learned easily. Some children may require repeated instruction and reinforcement of learning. It is also possible for children to have well-developed social skills in one area but not in another. For example, they may be able to work cooperatively on a group project, but lack the self-confidence to approach a group of children on the playground.

Social competence has many domains to focus on and here are a few key areas:

  • Basic interaction skills– smiling, making eye contact, listening
  • Entry/approach skills– how to approach an individual socially or join a group
  • Maintenance skills– how to share, take turns, follow rules, co-operate
  • Friendship skills– how to show appropriate affection, involve others in decision making, be inclusive
  • Conflict resolution– how to manage disagreements in a socially acceptable manner
  • Empathy
  • Communication of needs and ideas
  • Sense of humor
  • Assertiveness– how to say no to engaging in dangerous or antisocial behavior, stand up for oneself

Teaching social skills to children
Although they do not receive the same attention in the classroom, in many ways social skills are just as important for success as academic skills. The following are some tips on how to teach social skills to children, both at school and in the home.

Provide explicit instructions
Children often need to be given direct, explicit instructions about how to behave in specific social situations. For example, a child may need to be told that it is important to say “hello” back when somebody greets them, or to smile when approaching a child to ask to join in a game. Of course, this kind of instruction is provided all of the time by parents and teachers who remind children to say “thank you” or not to interrupt when someone else is talking. However, there are often significant gaps in this instruction. For example, while most children are instructed to say “please” and “thank you”, fewer are explicitly told how to be a “good sport” (“Don’t comment on another player’s poor moves or bad luck. Don’t taunt someone for losing. Accept bad luck without complaining.” etc.) Learning these skills is not easy, and most children will need to be told the same information many times before they learn it fully.

Provide structured learning opportunities
Social skills cannot be taught by instruction alone. Children need ample social opportunities to develop their skills. While there are numerous social opportunities at school, most of the time social interaction is unstructured. Children with good social skills therefore tend to get many opportunities to reinforce their skills, while more shy or aggressive children often have fewer chances to learn, thus creating a growing gap between socially skilled and unskilled children.

The following are some examples of simple, structured activities, which teach social skills:

  • To teach sharing, set up a co-operative activity in which children have to share a limited set of resources.
  • To teach fair play, provide instructions on how to play fairly, then get children to play a board game, during which children can be reminded of the rules. Rewards can be provided to those who played well.
  • Use role-play to practice various skills, such as ignoring a person who is teasing you, or approaching a group or person to ask to join a game.

If your child is struggling with social skills development, Pediatric Therapies can help! We regularly offer group opportunities we call Social Skills Academies. These academies are led by our speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists and address the specific skills your child may be lacking, which are preventing him or her from being a social success with peers and others. Please contact us to learn more. We look forward to hearing from you!