Teaching Social Skills to Young Children
By Ronnie Ginsberg, Psy.D.
Q. How can teachers and parents promote and support children’s social and emotional development?
– Robert Young, Duluth, MN
A. Helping young children develop the social skills necessary to succeed is a crucial task for teachers and parents. Such skills are not only necessary for enhancing social and emotional connections, which promote a feeling of belonging versus isolation and loneliness, but they are also clearly essential in the development of academic success. There is much that we can do to foster these crucial attributes, and here’s how.
· Promote effective communication. Make sure children understand what you are asking from them and what they are asking of each other. Reframe what children are trying to communicate to their classmates, especially if it’s not obvious to the other child. “I think Billy is asking if he can play too.” Encourage children to repeat back what they think has been said so that the other child (or you) can correct any misinterpretation.
· Teach children the language of feelings. It is helpful for children to understand how they feel in different situations, not only to help themselves, but also so that they can comprehend that other children have feelings that must be respected. “I know you feel frustrated. It’s so hard to build the tower the way you want to. I’m proud that you keep trying.”
· Exhibit fairness and demonstrate turn taking. Make sure each child gets a chance to shine (whether it’s going first in a game or being the line leader for the day). One of the hardest concepts for preschoolers to learn is that their own feelings and needs are valid and that, simultaneously, they are not the center of the universe; others have desires and rights, too. For young children, this means creating a system of turn taking and keeping in mind who got which privilege when.
· Observe out loud both positive and negative social behavior. Think out loud as you “solve” problems. “I’m noticing the great solution you figured out! Instead of just sharing the one fire truck you both wanted, you got some other ambulances and police cars and are using them all together!
· Encourage child-driven solutions to difficult situations. Applaud the positive and help reformulate the less appropriate. Ask, “What do you think would help?” Listen attentively and help modify what might be undoable. One preschooler’s solution to a toy-sharing dilemma at school was to have his mom go out and buy another one! After practicing child-driven solutions for several weeks, you may be surprised to see that the combatants can come up with reasonable ideas.
· Stay solution focused when intervening. Once feelings have been explored and everyone has had her say, the discussion should continue until some resolution has been reached, even if the solution is to reconvene later when everyone has calmed down. “Maybe we should all settle down for our usual snack and see if we can decide whose turn it is on the computer after we’ve finished eating.”
· Help children learn what’s special about them. Children who feel they have a special talent or skill feel more self-confident. The talent doesn’t have to be something as obvious as throwing a ball or painting a picture. Being a good helper or a caring friend is something children can be proud of, and that feeling of competence can help children both initiate and reciprocate in social situations.
· Create an atmosphere that encourages discussion. Children need practice both in talking and in listening. Give them that opportunity as frequently as possible. Have them share stories about their cat, their brother, or their friend, or start each school day off with a brief “update” circle where children can share something important about their lives with their classmates.
· Remind children of their “better selves.” Children often rise (or fall) to the occasion, and adults believing in how hard they are trying will help them feel good about themselves and spur them on to continue trying. Children want to gain our trust and our respect, and if we can nurture these innate tendencies, their social skill repertoire will reap the benefits.
Ronnie Ginsberg, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of training at an outpatient mental health clinic in Massachusetts and also maintains a private practice for psychotherapy and psychological testing. She consults with preschool teachers and parents to help smooth transitions in normal child development, and helps modify classroom and home environments to meet individual children's social, emotional, and cognitive needs. She has run numerous peer leadership training programs for 10-14 year olds, and authored over 50 parenting articles for local newspapers and school publications. Dr. Ginsberg, of Andover, MA, is the mother of two adolescents.