Importance of teaching kids social skills
Every parent wants their child to grow up capable of sharing, having friends and coping with difficult emotions. But, do most of us really understand how to teach social skills to kids?
There is perhaps a tendency to assume that social skills develop naturally so long as we give our children opportunities to play with their peers but that’s not entirely true.
Picture a two year old boy who attends a playgroup where another child regularly snatches his toys and hits him.
The likelihood is that the little boy will become anxious when he is left at the group or he may begin lashing out at other children.
Those two year olds are very unlikely to resolve their dispute and learn anything beneficial about socializing without support from an adult.
It is important to allow children space to practice their social skills however this should be done under the watchful eye of an adult who is ready to step in to guide or intervene when necessary.
So, how do we teach social skills to kids and toddlers so that they can cope in a variety of situations?
Social skills should be the priority in the early years.
As a preschool teacher I was more concerned about the children’s social skills than whether they could write their name or count to 20. (It’s the reason I left to home educate our boys!)
Interestingly, research in 2015 found that a child’s social-emotional skills in kindergarten had a significant association with their outcomes as young adults.
The research didn’t focus on outcomes that might first spring to mind when you think of social skills, like having a great adult social life. Instead it included outcomes like education and employment success, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.
Social skills have a huge imapct on the way we perceive ourself and how we find our place in the world.
When do we begin teaching social skills?
Long before we send our kids off to deal with the world alone there are many social skills that we should be teaching them.
I often hear parent’s say that their child needs to go to nursery to learn how to socialize but it can be quite the contrary in fact.
Young children lack the social skills to interact daily in a group setting away from their attachment figure.
The more that parents can nurture their child’s social development the better.
If childcare is the only option then take time to find a good preschool nearby where they truly understand the importance of teaching social skills.
Recent research showed that children with better social skills had reduced stress levels at daycare.
How to teach social skills to children…
One of the most important things to teach toddlers is how to express their emotions in an appropriate manner.
Even before babies show any sign of understanding we can talk to them about emotions: “You sound sad little one. Mummy’s got you”.
Don’t be afraid to talk about emotions that may stir up some negative feelings for you.
Emotions like anger and jealousy are not “bad”. They are normal emotions and talking about them openly will help our children to process what they are feeling and cope with them effectively.
When you’re toddler begins to struggle with overwhelming emotions (I don’t like the word tantrum) you can help them to label their emotions.
Books and role play make great prompts for starting conversations about feelings.
Dealing with hitting, kicking, biting and other unwanted behaviour
When things get too much and kids lash out, it’s our job to step in and help them to work through it.
Staying calm can be challenging but try to ignore everyone else around you and focus of your child/children.
Parent: “I hear that you’re cross that your brother won’t give you the red tractor. You can be mad but you can’t hit.”
Toddler: swings towards sibling again. He looks really angry.
Parent: puts out hand to block the hit. I know you’re cross but no hitting.”
Child: “I want to hit. I want him be sad.”
Parent: “You’re so cross you want to hurt him”.
Toddler: Looks towards parent now. “I cross. I want tractor.”
Parent: “Can you show me how cross your are by squeezing like this?” Squeezes fists.
Toddler: Toddler squeezes fists, relaxes and bursts into tears.
Parent: Comforts toddler. “You’re so sad and cross. You felt sad so you wanted L to feel sad too.”
Toddler: ” I sad.”
Parent: “It’s OK for you to feel sad and cross when someone says no but it’s not OK to hit…ever.”
Toddler: “No hitting.”
Parent: That’s right. Hitting hurts. Now, let’s go play.
Toddler: ” I want tractor.”
Parent: “Let’s ask if we can have the tractor when he’s done.”
Often, the sibling who has the desired toy will give it up within a few minutes.
When they do hand it to their sibling say something like “Look how happy you’ve made him.” It’s more effective than “good sharing!” as youre
Sam: “No hitting.” He taps her arm gently, experimentally. “Hurts?”
Mom: “That’s right. Hitting hurts. No hitting, ever. Now, I think we’re both hungry and tired. Let’s go get a snack.”
What has Sam learned?
- That his mother will set limits on his actions to keep everyone safe, which is a great relief to him.
- That his mom understands when he’s upset and will help him with his feelings.
- That when he hurts inside, he wants to lash out — and that he wants to try not to because it hurts others.
- That when he feels angry, there is something he can do with the anger to let other people know, without hurting them.
- That he’s an acceptable person, angry feelings and all.
- That his feelings aren’t dangerous and he can manage them.
And, maybe most important of all, that his mother’s love for him is unconditional — no matter what.
Hitting, kicking and biting are all normal behaviours for young children to explore but early intervention is key.
If a two year old was to hit a sibling or peer then I would respond with “We use gentle hands”.
Toddlers develop empathy by watching us interact with the world.
Respond to them with empathy…
“I know you really wanted to play in the park today. The problem is that we need to catch the bus before it leaves the station.”
– Guide them – if you take your toddler to a playgroup or social event then stay close-by.
Show them how to interact and express themselves.
Regular hitting, kicking and biting is often the result of frustration.
– Don’t force sharing – teach your toddler that it’s OK to ask some one to wait until they have finished playing.
Forcing sharing will often make a toddler more possessive.
Help them to assert themselves if they need you to. You could say “Jane is playing with this now. You can have it when she’s done.”
– Help them to figure out their emotions – When it’s your toddler on the receiving end of a “no, I’m playing with this truck”, help him to navigate his emotions.
“You want the truck too! Leo and he play with it when you’re done?”
He may well get very upset but teach him how to verbalize what he wants and empathize if he’s upset.
Avoid using distraction techniques to get them through it.
– Give names for feelings – Talk about feelings.
Don’t be afraid to use words like “angry”, “jealous” or “scared”…these are normal emotions and talking about them openly will help our children to process what they are feeling.
Books are also great for prompting conversations about feelings.
– Limit aggression – As parents we have a responsibility to show our children what behavior is unacceptable.
The most important way we teach toddlers this is by modeling gentleness and compassion ourselves.
However even the gentlest of parents will no doubt have a toddler experiment with biting, hitting, pushing at some point…
You can’t control your child’s actions but you can control your response to your child.
If your child hits another then state clearly and in simple terms that it isn’t OK.
Empathize with their upset and don’t be afraid to leave that environment if your child is struggling to cope.
Remember that playgroups are actually kinda setup more for parents than the kids so if it’s not working don’t go!
I always found an outdoor meetup worked better. Something like forest schools or a play date at the park…fewer toys to snatch, fresh air and plenty of space to run around.
Sharing is particularly difficult for preschoolers. Between the ages of two ans six,
Natural Consequences aren’t always appropriate during social interactions.
Child experts Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury agree…
Nothing disappoints me more than hearing respectful parenting misinterpreted as abandoning children to fend for themselves in every social situation and behave however they wish – a false interpretation that, sadly, gives Magda Gerber’s approach a bad name. As much as I believe in offering children opportunities to develop social intelligence experientially and supporting them to explore and experiment with only minimal intervention, I also believe that kids need and deserve our help to behave within the bounds of social rules.
Maria Montessori also advocated guiding children as they navigate social situations. She said that…
“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.”
However, allowing a small child to navigate a room full of other children without any supervision is irresponsible and inconsiderate.
It’s like entering your baby into a marathon before it’s even learnt to walk. Surely, you’d start with a fun run and build up?
As kids get older then yes they need to be given developmentally appropriate opportunities to practice problem solving alone…but for most children under 3 this is not developmentally appropriate.
The Gesell Institute advocates allowing children to navigate situations themselves…
by the time most kids are four they have the vocabulary and maturity to work out disagreements with their peers by themselves.
But, it doesn’t state that children much younger should be capable of doing so without guidance. Infact everything I’ve read talks about having an adult or an expetienced older child as a bystander.
They also ALL insist that the bystander should step in just before/when things get physical or disrespectful…whatever the child’s age.
For an adult to step in to stop this then they need to be watching pretty carefully. We all miss the odd kick (we have to blink!) but proudly admitting that you don’t need to watch a 2 year old seems crazy to me.
Empathy is difficult for young children.
Toddlers are adorably self-centred. They are designed to focus on number one.
My one year old will cry if I cry and my three year old looks hurt when his baby brother has an accident. However, if a child grabs the toy he’s playing with and my son pushes him then I’m pretty sure that he’s not going to empathise with the other child!
They develop empathy because we model it to them, by showing them kindness and talking to them about emotions.
My eldest is now 3.5 years and he is pretty empathetic most of the time.
However, he is still young and therefore not hugely in control of his emotions. If he’s tired, ill or just having a bad day he won’t respond in the same way. I don’t expect him to.
Playgroups, Playgrounds and Soft Play areas aren’t ‘normal’ social environments.
A room full of kids the same age is not the place to allow a young toddler free reign.
Parents have refered to these areas as ‘safe’ to ‘practice’ the social skills they have modelled to them in the home.
I find that I’m modelling more when we’re out in public.
Playgroups and parties are totally different scenarios to being at home. They take a totally different set of skills (unless a child has 10 siblings very close in age!)
A small group, siblings, quiet play ground or play date would be a better place to allow social exploration.
Being surrounded by other toddlers their own age who’ve been let loose is kind of intimidating to most young kids.
Research has shown that groups of similar age children are much more likely to become aggressive and competitive too it’s quite normal for problems to arise.
Toddlers are quick to respond physically and shouldn’t be expected to be in control of their outbursts.
I prefer to be there to guide my children through their emotions and also to make sure that they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.
Waiting for natural consequences isn’t ALWAYS appropriate.
Another often misinterpreted phrase…natural consequences.
A natural consequence is anything that happens naturally, with no adult interference.
Seems logical, until you start to think about situations that arise when young children are left to mingle unsupervised. Hair pulling, biting, throwing objects…what are the natural consequences?
There are times when natural consequences ARE NOT PRACTICAL:
- When natural consequences interfere with the rights of others. Adults cannot allow the natural consequences of allowing a child to throw rocks at another person. This is one reason why supervision is especially important with children under the age of four. The only way you can prevent potential dangerous situations for children this age is to supervise so you can rush in and prevent a dangerous occurrence.
Fine, let your 8 year old get wet because he refused a coat but you simply can not wait for a natural consequence when physical or emotional violence is taking place.
Anyone who’s attended a high school should know that a child who is bullying is rarely ostracised by their peers. In a lot of cases they’re allowed to dominate and have a gang of followers and peers who are afraid to get on the wrong side of them.
Another child can not be left to suffer while your child works out that she won’t be well liked if she continues acting that way.
I’ve been there…my three year old has tried out hitting and kicking. He tried…I calmly reminded him that it wasn’t OK. He did it again and I warned him that we would leave if it happened again as we had to keep everyone safe. He didn’t stop so we left.
Infact, we stopped attending playgroup for months as he didn’t enjoy the interactions. He was stressed out by the aggressive kids and all of the toys. When we returned he was a different child. He was developmentally ready…I didn’t have to force it.
So, where do we go from here…
We live in a world that’s full of different beliefs and opinions. Difference isn’t a bad thing but we have laws that help to develop a sense of ‘normal’ and they set also set a certain expectation.
It’s a much better idea to explain to young children from the start that physical and emotional violence are not acceptable than to allow them to ‘experiment and practice their skills’ on someone else’s child.
I want my child to meet lots of different people and to be sociable (that’s a reason we’re world schooling). However, I also want them to be clear on what is an acceptable way to treat people and an acceptable way to be treated.
I don’t want to make any struggling parents feel worse. This isn’t aimed at you. If you need a hand just ask. I’d be happy to watch another child so that you could have a cuppa and a chat. I’m sure other parents would too.
I don’t claim to be perfect. I have my share of off-days. I turn on the TV to keep my boys entertained and when they’re bored of that I turn on the Kindle Fire so that I can binge on biscuits 🤣. I can sit on my phone too much! I blog to keep myself sane and so I don’t forget how to write.
I hope that even one person can read this and adapt their parenting a little if they feel they’ve learnt something new. We’re always learning and should never be afraid to reflect and adapt.