What’s inside this article: The six most important social skills for kids to have, with tips for how to practice, teaching strategies, and the benefits of having strong social skills.
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Socializing is an aspect of everyday life, and having strong social skills will help your child find success as they navigate their way through life.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Just as some kids struggle with reading or math – others struggle with social skills.
Helping develop your child’s social skills will help prepare them for happier, healthier relationships and interactions in their future.
Research shows that kids with strong social skills are happier, less stressed, and better behaved than those that struggle. Fortunately, just like math and reading, you can strengthen your social skills through direct teaching and practicing.
Methods of Teaching Social Skills
There are numerous ways to teach specific social skills for kids who are struggling:
- Social narratives/stories
- Role-play activities
- Modeling the behavior
- Coaching and positive reinforcement
- Children’s books
- Visual supports
- Practice and repetition using various teaching strategies across several environments (school, home, playground, etc)
Benefits of Strong Social Skills for Kids
- Better educational and career outcomes: Research shows that kids who are better at sharing, listening, following directions, and cooperating when they’re 5 years old and more likely to attend college and have a full-time job by the age of 25 than those who were struggling at 5.
- Better success in life: The American Journal of Public Health indicates that research suggests social-emotional skills in kindergarten are the most significant predictor of success in adulthood.
- Healthy Friendships/Relationship: Social skills are necessary to get along well with other children and make friends more efficiently in school. Later in life, these skills are equally as important for building romantic relationships and work relationships.
When kids struggle to communicate and use appropriate social skills, they are more likely to experience stress and anxiety. Increased cortisol levels caused by stress and anxiety make it more difficult for kids to regulate their emotions, and they are more prone to meltdowns or outbursts.
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The Most Important Social Skills for Kids
There are many, many different social skills, from the most basic to complex. Where do you start if you’re helping a child develop their social skills?
Here are some of the most important social skills for kids. These social skills create a strong foundation for building more advanced social skills as your child moves through adolescence.
When you’re teaching your child new social skills, always start with the most basic skills, and build upon them as your child progresses.
Being willing to share toys with peers goes a long way when it comes to making friends in early childhood.
Being reluctant to share at times is normal for toddlers and not cause for concern.
However, experts in Early Childhood Development suggest that by the time children are 7 or 8 years old, they should start becoming aware of “fairness” and be more willing to share with others around them.
How to Practice
Many parents force their children to share their toys with siblings or other children. However, it turns out that may be counterproductive.
From an early age, it’s a good idea to promote sharing by making suggestions to your child but allowing them to choose whether or not to share.
When young children show a willingness to share, point it out and use positive reinforcement, mention how sharing making other people feel. For example, “I saw you sharing your favorite toy with your friend at the park. That was so kind and must have made him feel really happy to have a turn, too”.
You can use social narratives and children’s books such as “Teamwork isn’t my thing and I don’t like to share!” by Julia Cook.
Research shows that reading about something to children triggers the same neurotransmitters in the brain as actually experiencing the situation, meaning it can effectively teach social skills.
Teamwork is all about working together to achieve a common goal. When kids can work well in a team or with a partner, they can also contribute, participate, and help out others.
In school, your child will need to work as part of a team often. In gym class, music class, on the playground at lunch a recess, and during projects or assignments.
Children should start successfully working together with their peers around four years old to meet a small common goal. This could be something simple like picking up toys together or building a tower of blocks with a friend.
How to Practice
Create opportunities for your child to work as part of a team at home. This gives you the chance to set them up for success because you have control over the situation. Teaming up with peers is more unpredictable, so this is a great stepping stone.
Assign everyone a specific job when you’re cooking dinner, so your family is working as a team to get the job done. Maybe your child can set the table while you cook and an older sibling or parent does the prep work of peeling and cutting the vegetables.
Use prompting as necessary to help them stay on task and work as a team and positive reinforcement.
3. Following Directions
When kids have a hard time following directions, they usually deal with various consequences for making mistakes or not listening. Unfortunately following multi-step, or even two-step directions is something extremely difficult for some children.
There are a number of executive functions involved in following directions successfully.
How to Practice
First of all, make sure you’re doing a good job GIVING directions to your child. If your directions aren’t clear and concise, it’ll be even more challenging for your child to follow them successfully.
- Give one-step directions. If you need your child to put away their toys, brush their teeth, change into their pajamas instead of saying, “Put away your toys, brush your teeth, and then put your pajamas on,” just ask them to do one thing at a time, giving the next direction when the first is finished.
- Use concise and easy-to-understand language. Some children struggle with processing auditory information, so long-winded instructions may get lost. Keep it simple, “Put on your pajamas, please.”, use visual supports if necessary, for example, a bedtime checklist.
- Don’t forget that mistakes are normal. Children are going to act impulsively, get distracted, forget what they’re supposed to be doing, or do things incorrectly. It’s typical and expected childhood behavior. Avoid being overly punitive when your child makes mistakes. Mistakes are teaching opportunities, stay patient and help them and they’ll get better with practice.
When you see your child following directions, especially when it’s the first time you’ve asked something, praise them!
You can use this social narrative for following directions to help your child understand what to do when they’re given a direction and why it’s important.Following Instructions Social Narrative
4. Respecting Personal Space
Respecting personal space is huge, and this is a crucial social skill to help your child master.
Invading another person’s personal space can make them feel extremely uncomfortable, is often inappropriate and at times viewed as disrespectful.
How to Practice
Establish some basic household rules that show respect towards personal space – such as always knocking before entering the bathroom or someone’s bedroom. Model the same behavior with them. By reinforcing these rules early, these small acts of respecting privacy come naturally as a habit to your child.
This social narrative about personal space helps children understand that the personal “circle” around a Sperson varies depending on your relationship with that person. The story also reinforces appropriate social behavior based on what circle the person is in.
5. Using Manners
There is more to manners than just saying please and thank you (although those are important).
Manners are numerous socially expected behaviors, and it can change from situation to situation, making it harder for kids to learn than you may realize.
Some examples of “using manners” that your child should know:
- Raising your hand when you need to speak in class.
- Apologizing for mistakes
- Waiting patiently in a line-up
- Being on time
- Being quiet when someone else is speaking
- Disagreeing respectfully
- Saying excuse me when you pass gas
How to Practice
Be a good role model with your manners. Say “No, thank you,” and “Yes, please,” when talking to your child, as well as when you’re talking to others.
Use prompts to help your child remember to use manners and praise them when they do.
Visual supports can help reinforce polite and impolite behavior if your child doesn’t understand which actions are expected.
Being able to give a sincere apology when you make a mistake or accidentally hurt another person’s feelings goes a long way when it comes to maintaining relationships and showing respect to the people around you.
It can also be really hard to apologize because it means admitting that you did something wrong. The social act of apologizing is uncomfortable to many.
Teaching your child how to give a sincere apology will help them maintain, or repair friendships as it allows the other person to feel comfortable again.
How to Practice
Model the appropriate behavior. We all make mistakes. As a parent, make sure you apologize to your child when you make mistakes. Maybe you were short-tempered, or you thought your child did something they didn’t.
Tell them you were wrong and that you’re sorry, it wasn’t their fault.
Roleplaying works well for practicing apologies as well. You can take on different roles and use hypothetical situations to practice giving apologies for a variety of things. Making it fun will help your child get comfortable saying sorry.
“Punk the Skunk Learns to Say Sorry” is a children’s book about a skunk that helps kids learn how to say sorry after making mistakes.
These six important social skills for kids provide a strong foundation for developing interpersonal skills that will help them feel happier and more successful at home and school now and benefit them into adulthood.