Social skills shape your child’s ability to participate in community life and find enjoyment in situations outside of the family unit.
They help your child participate in the classroom, behave and speak appropriately in different situations, and express their wants and needs to the outside world. Ultimately, social skills are one of the most important factors in determining the level of independence your child may achieve in adulthood.
Children need to feel safe if they are going to be socially successful in any given situation, so the best thing you can do for your child is to prepare them for what’s ahead.
The development of good social skills typically focuses on understanding the rules of social language (pragmatics), confidence/self-esteem, actions, and problem-solving/conflict resolution.
Social Language (Pragmatics)
There are so many rules about how we use language and it seems that every setting and audience has a different set of rules. It is no wonder that children struggle with what they can and can’t say in social settings!
Strategy 1: Understanding language use
The way we use language in social settings can set the tone for how we are perceived and therefore responded to. For example, language and tone that ‘requests’ will be far better received than one that ‘demands’. Similarly, a friendly greeting would be much better than a mumbled “what do you want?”
- Model ‘scripts’ of appropriate language use – While you can’t ‘script’ every situation your child may face, you can encourage some basics that would serve them well in social settings. By modelling appropriate greetings, requesting instead of demanding and respect for the people we talk to, you can provide a good foundation for your child’s social skills development.
Strategy 2: Understanding your audience
This involves having an awareness of what other people need from you in social settings and being able to change your language according to the setting.
- Speaking differently to an adult than a peer – Help your child understand that they need to speak to their teachers differently than they speak to their siblings. At home, ask your child to repeat a spoken sentence in a way that would be suitable for the classroom.
- Example: “Now imagine your sister is a teacher at school, how would you say that to a teacher”. You could even have them practise raising their hand before they speak.
- Giving your listener all the information – Sometimes a little background information is needed.
- Example: Walking up and saying “That’s not fair” doesn’t tell the listener a lot. A better sentence is “That boy stole my ball and he isn’t going to give it back”.
- Using inside vs outside voice – These are easy to work on at home, yet helping your child understand the difference could prevent the public embarrassment of being told off in class, or the isolation of not being heard in the playground.
Strategy 3: Following rules
There are a range of conversation skills that guide us when talking with others. They include:
- Greetings and conversation starters
- Taking turns, not interrupting and being an attentive listener
- Reading non-verbal cues (including emotions of the other person)
- Making relevant comments and asking appropriate questions
- Being aware of the situation and who we are talking to
- Staying on topic
- Rephrasing when misunderstood
Confidence and Self-Esteem
While having the ability to engage in social situations has the benefit of boosting a child’s confidence and self-esteem, these elements are actually needed to be able to engage in the social situation in the first place. Strategies to help your child build their confidence and self-esteem include:
Strategy 1: Start small
New social situations can be scary, so it can help if you prepare your child instead of ‘throwing them in the deep end’. This will help build their confidence incrementally at a rate that is comfortable for your child.
- Let your child observe – If you are trying to get your child involved in a new sport, then spend some time watching it and talking
- Small scale social gatherings – Organise regular smaller-scale events, such as trips to the park with your child’s siblings and cousins. It’s less daunting to be around 5 or 6 family members, but is still a chance to practise their social skills.
- Practise small pieces of activities at a time – If your child is starting a new activity, let them practise elements of the activity one-step at a time, therefore building the confidence in their ability to do the activity incrementally.
Strategy 2: Encourage and motivate
- Specific praise – Whenever your child makes an attempt at good social interaction, let them know how well they have done. It is amazing how a bit of praise will do wonders for confidence.
- Example: “That was really great turn-taking” or “Wow, you’re so brave asking that little boy to play with you”.
- Lead by example – If your child is hanging back in a social setting, don’t be afraid to get in there and show them that it’s fine. Take them with you as you engage with a new group of people or go down the slide that has them daunted.
- On the spot mentor – A child may back away from a social situation by themselves; however, having a ‘champion’ to support them can be a huge confidence boost. This could be just asking an older sibling to help out.
Don't push your child too much or you could inadvertently end up having a negative effect on their confidence.
To use a few clichés, actions really do speak louder than words. Sometimes you just need to put your money where your mouth is and show your child that the world is just not that scary!
- Take the lead – A child who wants to go on the monkey bars but is too scared will be in emotional turmoil. However, mum or dad’s help will make a world of difference – and if that means you need to ‘get your monkey on’ to show him it’s fun, then so be it!
- Non-verbal signals – Having the right presence when talking with someone is crucial in the area of social relations. This means knowing how close to stand to someone, how to use facial expressions and making eye contact. It can be as simple as asking your child to look at you while they are talking or asking them to come closer or step back to model ‘conversation distance’.
Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution
Problem solving is the ability to overcome obstacles, either in your own activities or with others. The key to problem-solving is being able to recognise and analyse the issue and come up with an effective solution. This ability is crucial for children, especially in social settings where conflicts during play are bound to happen. Knowing how to deal with potential issues before they become huge problems will pave the way for more effective participation in society.
Strategy 1: Shrug it off
Teaching your child not to sweat the small stuff is a good first step. Many children get worked up over the smallest of things, effectively creating conflict in their angst.
- In their own activities – This means if your child has got a green ball but wanted a red one, having the ability to say “That’s OK, it’s still a fun ball to play with”. Whenever there is an instance at home that’s really not that important, teach your child to see the positive rather than focusing on the negative.
- In social settings – This is the ability to ‘pick your battles’. If another child sticks their tongue out at your child, it’s actually not that big of a deal. This is a fairly easy one to model if your child has siblings. Example: “Did Peter stick his tongue out at you? That wasn’t nice, but let’s go play with the dog instead”.
Strategy 2: Relax and persevere
- In their own activities – Children often become frustrated when things aren’t going their way. When you see this happen (i.e. when that pesky puzzle piece just won’t go in), tell your child to stop, take three deep breaths and try again.
- In social settings – If you see you child getting antsy with a situation at the park, get them to come to you and take a few long relaxing breaths.
Strategy 3: Sometimes conflict happens
Sometimes, relaxing or walking away are just not going to help, in which case it’s time to move onto more ‘active’ conflict resolution.
Professor of child development and early childhood education, Marian Marion PhD, suggested six steps for teaching conflict resolution, which if modelled at home will give your child a good skill-base to better manage conflict:
- Identify and define the conflict
- Invite children to participate in solving the problem
- Work together to generate possible solutions
- Examine each idea for how well it might work
- Help children with plans to implement the solution
- Follow up to evaluate how well the solution worked
Introducing your child to new social situations
- Approaching new people/groups – When at the park, encourage (or go with) your child to ask other children if your child can play too. This will build their confidence to join in and gives you a chance to model appropriate language, how to get someone’s attention, how far to stand away from someone when speaking and the importance of body language/facial expressions.
- Use short example stories – These are short image-based stories that show the sequence of what your child might expect to happen in a particular social setting. This tool is not about introducing new skills, but more about helping them sequence and use the skills they have.
Fostering your child’s ‘social being’
- Plenty of opportunity – Give your child the chance to practise their playing skills with other children. Organise play dates, go to the park or have picnics with your extended family.
- Equipped to play – Teach your child games they can play with other children. In the early stages this may mean guiding children in the rules of the game and appropriate game-behaviours. Progressively you may be able to draw back and let your child take the lead.
- Be ‘on-trend’ – Be aware of what the children in your child’s class are interested in and help your child build this awareness. Example: If all the boys are talking about soccer, organise a social kick-around on the oval one day after school.
- Organised sport/activities – Being involved in organised activities is a great way of fostering a sense if participation and inclusion. Just remember to introduce your child at a rate suitable to their own level of social and self-development.
The best teacher is YOU!
If you have sought professional help through a Telethon Speech & Hearing program like Talkabout, Chatterbox or Outpost, then your child’s future is already looking brighter.
However the most important teacher in your child’s life isn’t the specialist – it is you. The way you model language and interact with your child on a daily basis is crucial to their ultimate success in the speaking world.
Don’t worry though, you’re not expected to do it alone. Your TSH team are here to help you. We are a registered NDIS provider and can help assist you to be the best advocate for your child throughout the NDIS process. Simply call 9387 9888 or book an appointment with our friendly team online.