When someone meets you for the first time, they develop an impression of you based on your interactions. You may make them feel uneasy if you stand too close or feel dismissed if you look elsewhere when talking with them. How you interact and communicate with others can greatly influence all areas of your life and it’s important parents and nannies teach social skills to children. How we speak, stand, gesture and even the expression on our face can influence another person’s impression.
Social skills can be defined as the ability to successfully interact and communicate with others. These skills are not inherent; children learn these skills by watching the adults in their lives. Important social skills include how to greet others, giving others personal space, listening attentively, following instructions and asking for help. They also include how to disagree appropriately, accept ‘no’ for an answer and, and apologize.
Social skills are very important throughout a person’s lifetime. They are the basis for making friendships and having positive interactions with others. Children often struggle with social skills as not all social interactions are positive. Children experience rejection, and many are socially clumsy, insensitive, or even unkind at times. While children do not need to be the most popular in their class, they do need good social skills to be successful in life.
Good social skills help can children feel included in group activities and help them make friends. This helps with self-confidence and learning to trust others. Being sociable helps children develop resilience or the ability to withstand hard times. Teaching social skills helps children learn what they should do in common social situations, so they do not feel awkward or unsure. A child who is lacking at least one or two close mutual friends, having trouble losing or winning gracefully, not showing empathy when others are hurt or rejected, acting bossy or insisting on their own way a lot, not being able to start or maintain a conversation, or being constantly ignored or victimized by other children will benefit from learning social skills.
Parents and caregivers can help children learn these skills so that they can become more successful in their interactions with others. Children learn a lot from how adults treat them and when they observe how adults interact with others. Parents and caregivers should act as coaches and role models for children. The goal is not to simply teach children to “be nice”, but to help them to advocate for themselves as well as care for others.
Patience is critical because learning new skills takes time and practice. Children have different ways of learning and everyone differs in how long it takes to learn something new. While some skills stay for a lifetime once learned, like tying shoelaces, other skills, like social skills must be refined as children grow to maturity. It is important to teach social skills early but also again and again as children grow through late elementary school to middle and high school.
4 P’s Strategy
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents and caregivers use a 4-part strategy when helping their children develop social skills: Practice, Praise, Point out, and Prompt. These four steps can be used when adults notice that a child needs to work on a particular social skill. Before using them, however, the adult should point out the problem area sensitively and privately (not in front of others) to the child.
Practice: Practicing how to respond in different situations – before the situation arises- can help the child learn the skills needed to respond appropriately and help them feel more confident in their interactions. An adult can help a child substitute a specific appropriate response for a specific inappropriate one. For example, thanking a person for a gift and not mentioning that they already have one. This might mean brainstorming with the child about different alternative responses and then practicing one or more with the child. Practicing can involve mapping out actual words to say or behaviors to use, role-playing, and using the newly learned skills in real situations.
Praise: Often children are not eager to work on new skills so parents must reward their children with praise when the new skills are practiced as a way of helping the skills become habits. This might be a specific verbal statement (“You did an awesome job of X instead of Y when you got angry at the store”), a nonverbal sign such as a thumbs up, or even a treat (10 minutes extra fun time before bedtime) when they successfully implement the social skills practiced earlier.
Point Out: Being aware of the social interactions going on around you and using them as examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior can reinforce the skills you are practicing with the child. Use these opportunities to point out when others are using the desired skills or exhibiting undesirable behaviors. Behaviors of adults, children, or even characters in a book or on TV can be pointed out as good or bad examples. The idea is to give children examples and role models of people engaging in the appropriate social skill and let them see the consequences of inappropriate behaviors.
Prompt: As with all new behaviors, children sometimes need to be reminded of what is expected. Parents and caregivers should gently prompt the child during these times. Without nagging, parents and caregivers can remind the child to use a new skill when the opportunity arises. This might be verbal (“Now might be a good time to count to ten in your head”) or nonverbal (Zipping the lips when a child is about to interrupt).
The important thing to remember is that the ability to have good social relationships is not simply about personality or in-born traits. People who have a good relationship with others have learned skills to do so, and they practice these regularly. Just like a good coach can make a difference for a budding soccer player, parents and caregivers can help children become socially strong.