We use social skills in a broad sense every day. In a work environment sometimes referred to as soft skills, they enable us to work as a team, practice empathy and relate to others. Social skills are learned. We are born seeking relationships, seeking interaction, but it’s through practice and watching others that we learn how to implement social skills.
Elementary school age children are the perfect example that these skills are learned, we see them practicing them every day. We see children bullying others or learning to compromise. The playground is a great big mixing bowl where kids can learn which skills will serve them and which won’t. Social skills are needed not only on the playground, but at soccer practice, in school, visiting grandparents and at the park. There are four skills sets that, if mastered, tend to promote healthy relationships in the long term.
Research gathered by the Center for Parent Information and Resources found that when addressing social skills, successful interventions have some things in common. For example, the interventions focus on reflection and self awareness. Secondly, when children are walked through each step in the new skills, they are better able to retain and generalize it. When role-playing is used or specific skills are practiced in a group environment, children are able to master the skills. You will see these principles built into the suggestions to use for your child.
Making and keeping friends
It’s adorable to see young children walk up to one another at the park and confidently say, “Hi, my name’s Jack, do you want to play?” This is an example of a child who has been taught the social script for making an introduction. From here children learn to build by asking others questions, or inviting others to join in play with them. The ability to make and keep friends relies on a child’s ability to empathize, see things from another’s perspective and compromise.
Young children are naturally egocentric, this is a normal developmental stage. Around age 4, children develop what is referred to as theory of mind, the understanding that others may have a belief, intention or knowledge that is different than their own. This is a developmental leap that allows them the capacity to engage in more meaningful friendships.
If your child is struggling with this skill, you may put on your detective hat and do some observation while your child is at play. Is he isolating himself, hesitant to join others? Once he begins engaging with others, does he tend to become bossy and set the rules of the game?
When you see one of these things happening, pull your child aside and say something like, “I noticed when you told Abby that she wasn’t playing the game right, she frowned and walked away. What do you think she might be feeling?” Continue to process this event with your child and help your child problem solve a way that will lead to the interaction the child wants. Encourage your child's ability to take the perspective of the other child and find a solution that works for everyone.
Emotional regulation is an umbrella for important skills such as impulse control and identifying and expressing feelings appropriately. If a child is consistently losing control and acting aggressively toward peers, that child is often ostracized and avoided. Impulse control plays a role in friendships. A child who is able to wait his turn or stay calm enough to be in a conversation with peers is more socially adept.
Gaining emotional regulation begins with identifying emotions. You can encourage your child to notice changes in his body, for example, fists tightening when he is feeling anger. In order to regulate these strong emotions, the child first needs the ability to identify them. Once a child is able to pause between noticing a strong emotion and reacting to it, he can make a more calculated decision. Modeling this behavior for your child is often the best teaching tool.
If you begin to become frustrated, you might say out loud, “I’m starting to get upset, I am going to sit down and take a few deep breaths.” This will show your child that each of us is responsible for managing how we feel and that even adults need a break sometimes.
Team sports are an excellent setting to practice social skills. Children are required to work together, handle disappointment and take turns. If your child is struggling with social skills it’s a good idea to encourage a team sport, that way she will have a consistent chance to practice improving her skills. Sometimes poor sportsmanship is rooted in a child's anxiety about her performance. Perhaps if she misses a shot she feels embarrassed or she is sensing underlying pressure from family members to succeed. Before she can improve her social skills in this area, she needs to be free of such barriers.
Visualization and self-talk are good skills to practice if your child struggles with poor sportsmanship. Identify the triggers. For example, does your child lose control when the team loses? If so, review what self-talk might be occurring. Is she telling herself something like “you are the worst, you’ll never win.” Suggest an alternative, such as, “We didn’t win this time, but I played my best.” Refuting self talk takes practice. Use visualization by walking your child through what thoughts and feelings she may feel when the team loses, prompt her to use positive self-talk and visualize herself maintaining control.
Conflict resolution is another skill that is impacted by maturity. Our ability to use higher-level thinking such as planning and problem-solving doesn’t develop in our brains until we are well into our 20s. Despite this, elementary school age children can practice skills that will aid them in relationships.
It is very common for children to struggle with ways to address conflict. Some children lack the confidence and skills needed to advocate for themselves, and as a result are stepped on by other children more willing to assert their wishes.
Conversely, some children may bully others or use aggression to get their needs met. Keep in mind all of these skills are learned. Our expectation that children should always be seeking the most fair solution for everyone isn’t realistic. Compromising is a skill that is important if you live in a society that values cooperation. It isn’t in our DNA to solve problems peacefully, but it is “nurtured” into us.
Improving conflict resolution relies on a child’s ability to hone the previously noted skills, of empathy, emotional regulation and good sportsmanship. This skill is most effectively addressed right when the conflict is occurring.
This is the aim of social skill groups facilitated by play therapists. But you can also practice this skill with your own child. When conflict occurs between siblings or friends, consider asking the child to take a break for a few minutes to calm down if the conflict has risen to an aggressive level.
Afterwards, practice talking through the thoughts and feelings the child had during the event and challenge the child to identify thoughts and feelings the other child may have felt as well. Prompt the child to consider an alternative, for example, rather than hitting and taking a toy, suggesting asking an adult for help, or finding another toy to play with.
The barrier to conflict resolution without aggression is often impulsivity. If you can stop the child from acting out and walk through her choices, (and practice this over and over again), she will have a much better chance of doing it on her own.
I often consider these social skills as life skills. They are the foundation of all relationships. Each interaction you have with your child has the potential to teach the child pro-social ways of interacting. We know that the playground can sometimes be the Wild West of childhood. But children who are able to navigate it effectively will be ready for the workforce — the Wild West of adulthood.