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Building Social Skills

As adults, we sometimes confuse social skills with manners. While knowing to say “please” and “thank you” is certainly helpful, it does not guarantee a child will be included in play.

Social skills include skills such as sharing, taking turns, allowing others to talk without interrupting, and appropriate ways to deal with anger. In fact, social skills can be learned at all ages; even adults continue to learn social skills. Most of a child’s social learning is done automatically, by seeing, or copying others in his environment. Opportunities to interact with other children can help a child develop the skills needed to make friends and get along with others. Keep in mind that some children may need more direct teaching to help them develop specific social skills.

Teaching Social Skills

Whether you are a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, there are many ways to help your child develop social skills. When teaching a social skill, consider your child’s current abilities. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this skill improve his ability to communicate and socialize?
  • Does it match the social and communication skills of other children the same age?
  • Can the skill be taught in different locations and with various people?

It’s important to remember to work on one social skill at a time and be sure that everyone involved is using the same approach.

Practising social skills yourself can help your child know what to do when he meets other children. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Be a role model
    A great way to teach social skills is by the behaviour we model. Children learn by watching and practising what adults do. If you are trying to teach your child to appropriately get someone’s attention by calling a person’s name, or gently tapping him on the shoulder, try to use the same strategies yourself.
  2. Act it outA fun way to teach social skills is to “act out” social situations with your child using dolls or puppets.Here are a few examples:
    • Asking someone to play.
    • What to do when you want to play with someone’s toy.
    • What to do when someone takes your toy.
    In the beginning, you should model by playing all the ‘parts’. You can keep him interested by using characters from his favourite television shows. Be sure to speak in an animated voice and use words that your child can understand. Try to act out situations with both positive and negative responses. This will help your child recognize that other children will not always be willing to share or play with him.Here is a sample situation you can act out using toys from the television show, “Sesame Street”.Elmo: “Hi Oscar! Want to play ball?”Oscar: “I don’t like ball.”Ernie: “Hmmm….Oscar doesn’t want to play. I’ll ask Big Bird. Hi Big Bird! Want to play ball?”Big Bird: “OK Elmo. Roll the ball to me!”After you have “acted out” a few social situations you can encourage him to join in. After more practice you can ask other children to participate.
  3. Praise
    Whatever your child’s skill level, praise him for positive behaviour. For example, “Jonathan, good waiting for your turn!” If your child misbehaves by doing things such as grabbing, or pushing to get toys, show him more appropriate behaviours.
  4. Step by Step
    Sometimes you may have to teach a child specific social skills by breaking it down into smaller steps and teaching one step at a time.For example, listening to others can be broken down into the following steps:
    • STOP what you are doing.
    • LOOK at the person talking to you.
    • LISTEN to what they are saying.

Tips for Parents

Choosing Playmates and Activities

Like adults, some children find it easier to make friends and meet new people than others. Some people naturally prefer to spend time on their own, while others are more out-going. When thinking of possible playmates for your child, consider his personality, age, and interests. A child of the same age with a similar personality and interests should be a good match.

If you are having difficulty thinking of children your child might enjoy spending time with, you might want to try:

  • Visiting neighbours or extended family members with young children.
  • Visiting a local park, drop-in centre, library story hour or enrolling him in a child care program so he can see and be around other children.
  • Set up a meeting time with other parents who have children of the same age.
  • Attending ‘parent-and-child’ swimming, or music lessons together.

Make a note of children your child seems comfortable with and those he tends to stay away from. You may find that an older brother, sister, or neighbour will take your child “under her wing” and include him in activities.

Once you have chosen a few playmates for your child you can begin to plan some activities for them to enjoy together. Introduce your child to one new playmate at a time. Inviting several children over at once may be overwhelming. Try to plan activities that suit your child’s personality and social skills. If your child is quiet and doesn’t talk much, inviting a friend over to watch a video may be a good idea. On the other hand, if your child is very active and energetic, an outdoor activity might be more enjoyable. For children who are most secure at home with a familiar caregiver in the room, planning activities such as baking that require adult supervision can be helpful.

Sharing information about your child’s skills and interests is important. He is more likely to use his social skills at school, or child care when he is doing something he does well and enjoys. Sometimes children misbehave to avoid activities they dislike. You can also ask which activities and games are popular at recess and in the classroom. If possible, you can introduce your child to these games at home.

It is also helpful to provide information on things that may affect your child’s ability to get along with his classmates. For example, if he does not like to be touched a lot, he can be seated beside other children that are able to keep their hands to themselves. If he is more comfortable playing with one child than a group he may be encouraged to ask one child to play, rather than join in a group.

Social skill development is very important to ensuring that a child will grow to be a happy, healthy and successful adult. By focusing on this area and using the strategies we’ve described, you will make a great contribution to a young life. When helping your child make friends, follow his lead and respect his comfort level. Pushing him to befriend a particular child, or participate in activities he doesn’t enjoy may lead to disappointment and rejection. Taking things slowly and focusing on fun are more likely to lead to success in the long run.

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