Helping children learn social skills
Some kids seem to learn social skills very easily, but others can benefit from some extra coaching. Almost every child struggles with friendship issues at some time in some way, whether it's trying to find a buddy in a new school, handling teasing, or having an argument with a friend. These kinds of experiences are very common, but they can also be very painful.
Considering the three processes underlying social skills — seeing, thinking, and doing — can help you understand where your child might be stuck and suggest ways to help your child move forward.
- Seeing in a social situation, involves picking up on social cues. It means noticing the context: Is the setting casual or formal? Are these other kids close friends, acquaintances, or strangers? Different situations call for different kinds of behavior. Social seeing also means noticing other children's behavior. If a child feels lost regarding how to act in a new situation, answering the question, "What is everyone else doing?" may provide some hints about what to do. (Obviously, I'm not advocating lemming-like following of the crowd — good judgment is always necessary.)
Monitoring others' reactions can also help children change course if things aren't going well. For instance, noticing, "She seems bored with this game" could prompt a child to suggest a new game or to ask the friend what she would like to do.
Children who have trouble with social seeing often unwittingly annoy others. They may do things that are inappropriate for the context, such as being silly when everyone else is being serious. Worse, they may persist in doing annoying or upsetting things because they overlook the signs that others want them to stop (e.g., glaring at them, avoiding eye contact, moving away).
- Thinking in social settings involves interpreting other children's behavior to understand why they're doing what they're doing. Are they being playful or aggressive? Was it deliberate or accidental? It also means being able to predict others' likely responses and to come up with effective strategies for influencing peers in desired ways.
Research on social cognition tells us that children who struggle socially often misinterpret others' intentions. For instance, aggressive children are more likely than other children to view a peers' behavior as stemming from deliberate meanness. They're also less able to come up with constructive strategies for resolving social difficulties.
- Doing in a social context means interacting with peers in positive ways. Some children know what they ought to do, but have trouble actually doing it. For instance, they may want to join a conversation, but they feel anxious and freeze up, so they say nothing. Other children tend to act impulsively, blurting out inappropriate comments.
For children who need extra practice across these three areas, social stories can be a way to highlight and practice specific social situations so that children have a better “plan” for next time.
Children also require appropriate pragmatic language skills in order to engage in conversation with others. For children who have a language deficit, working with a speech therapist in a small group setting is optimal, so that they have a functional context in which to practice their skills.