social skills

Your Child’s Social Skills and Play

Playing with blocks

A child’s social competence is most simply defined as their ability to play while keeping friends. If the other kids are happy when your child shows up, they want to continue playing with them and the play tends to go well most of the time then their social skills are likely developing at least fairly well. If other kids shun them, stop playing often and the play breaks down repeatedly then their social skills may be an issue. The idea is to watch the child in play, and look for patterns that cause the difficulties. Ask his teachers and other caregivers for their input about his play.

Across the preschool years notable social skills include turn taking and later, sharing, listening to others, carrying small then more complex conversations, shifting from parallel to interactive to group play, later building play scenarios and entering into on-going play. In elementary school, personal space issues, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, managing competition, perspective taking and empathy for others all become increasingly important.

Children who struggle with these skills may benefit from more playtime, guided practice and additional coaching activities. Good parenting books include:

  • Raise Your Child’s Social IQ by Cohen
  • Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success by Duke
  • The Unwritten Rules of Friendship by Elman
If you have questions about social skills, please join me on facebook for a parenting chat every Tuesday night from 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. EST.

Teaching Them How to Share

I think learning to share starts with learning to take turns. Taking turns is more concrete than sharing. The child knows, “I have this to myself. When the timer dings, or you tell me, it will be their turn. If I ask nicely and wait, I will get another turn.’ This can make sense as early as 18 months to two years old. Sharing is, ‘we might all touch it at the same time. I may not get this to myself.’ This can be a more complicated issue and can be managed more easily as children get to be three or four years old. At any age, if they have difficulty with sharing, focus first on turns. When there is difficulty, think of empathy and coaching before discipline. This is a social skill that can take a lot of time and practice to learn. It’s more than a specific behavior.

Turn Taking

If your child is having difficulty with turn-taking, you might more actively practice. If he is playing at the train table when you come in the playroom, you could pick up an unused train and say out loud, “wow! The green engine. I am going to take a turn with this train.” If he wants the green one immediately, you can say, “oh, you would like a turn? I am taking a turn, but will be done in just a minute, and you can have the next turn.” Role the train for just a bit longer, and then say, “I am done; you can have a turn now.” You might add, “when you are done, can I have another turn?” Then when he is done, if he remembers to give it back you, gush a little, “you remembered I wanted a turn; that was thoughtful!” If he forgets, you say, “Oh, remember I want the next turn,” and prompt him to hand it to you. If he does, gush a little. Again, this can take some time. (this paragraph from a previous post)

Talk them through these steps with similar language every time they are in a situation of turn taking. Turn Taking may be easier when it is about an activity like waiting to bat in a t-ball game or waiting for a turn on a slide. Use similar words to talk through these times. Also, talk about it when you are waiting for a turn at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office.

Playing board games, even cooperative board games, is a nice way to introduce and practice turns. Cooperative games like Snails Pace Race and Things In My House give an opportunity to practice turn taking without the added pressure of learning to lose.

Sharing

Again, talk about sharing whenever you see it. Talk to them about how we share pool toys with neighbors and how we share a metro ride with strangers on our way to the zoo. Talk about how well they shared the sandbox at the park. Work to share something with them everyday such as a bowl of ice cream or space in the chair when you are reading to them. The idea is to make sharing a common event and highlight the times it is going well.

It’s often more difficult to share things such as a shovel in the sandbox or a puzzle task with classmates. When you can be proactive, prepare them for the sharing that’s about to happen. In our preschool, before we take out a big floor puzzle, we talk to the children about how we are going to all work together to share the task, how we can ask each other for pieces and should listen to others’ requests. We end up reminding them to share the pieces and the space throughout the activity.

It may be a good idea to have a similar conversation about sharing before playdates. Let your child know that friends are coming over, and they will be sharing their toys. If this is difficult, you might allow your child to put away a few toys that they are not ready to share with the understanding that what is out is for everyone to use. Be ready to give reminders throughout.

Read About It

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Teach Them to Listen

There are many ways to build listening skills. There are lots of good children’s books that introduce the idea and importance of listening. A few titles include Listen and Learn by Free Spirit Publishing, The Worst Day of My Life Ever by Julia Cook and the Amelia Bedelia books.

Many games practice listening skills including Telephone, 20 Questions, Robot, Eye Spy, Crazy Directions, Simon Says, Hullabaloo, Guess Who, Clue Jr. or Clue and Noodleboro’s Pizza Palace listening game. As children are older, there is Mystery Garden, Listening Lotto and Sound Bingo. Play games regularly.

We talk in classes about being a good listener by keeping our bodies still, our mouths quiet and our eyes on the speaker. You might check in with children after you speak or have given them directions by asking what you said, for the most important part or for what they should do first. When you ask them to give you words back about what you said, it’s better for it to be their own version rather than verbatim.

Challenge listening by reading slightly longer books with more words and fewer pictures as they grow. Challenge listening with verbal stories or books on tape. Occasionally, practice dialogic reading with your child. When they are younger it is asking questions about the pictures, such as “What is this?” As they are older, it is asking questions about the story such as, “what do you think will happen next?” or, “what was your favorite part?” The idea is to build open discussion around the reading as a habit to increase listening and comprehension.

Take Listening Walks, this is a trip around the neighborhood or on your favorite path with the idea of walking quietly and listening to all the sounds you can hear. Afterward list together all the sounds and talk about how different it is to really listen rather than talk and play.

Teach Turn Taking thru Role Play

At any age, if your child is not yet good at turn taking, it can be helpful to role play the process. This means to approach them when they are playing alone and happy at, say, the train table. Pick up the blue train that is not being used and say something like, “wow! The blue train. I love this train, it’s the best train on the table.” Then play with it. If the child wants it or even just looks up, say something like, “oh, you’d like a turn. Sure, I’ll be done with my turn in just a minute, and I’ll be sure to give it to you.” Then feel a little silly while you play with the train. Soon say, “I am done with my turn now. Here, you can have a turn with the blue train. Please remember that I want the next turn when you are done with it.” If they remember to give it back when they finish, gush a little. Say, “you remembered I was waiting, that was kind. Thank you for giving a turn.” If they forget, just gently remind, “hey, can I have the blue train back in my hand? I was waiting for another turn,” and gush when they give it, “you are giving me a turn, thanks!” Do this a few times a week and the child is gradualy learning the language and process of turn taking when it isn’t a fight or high emotions.

Two-Year-Old Doesn’t Like to Play with Others

Dear Dr. Rene,

My two-year-old daughter is happy, friendly and affectionate around adults, but, aside from a couple of her friends who recently moved away, she just does not seem to like other children at the moment! When I tell her that we are going somewhere to see her friend(s), she tells me that she wants just her and I to go. When we are in the company of other children, she gets upset if they come anywhere near her. While her friends want to hug, hold hands or play together, my daughter doesn’t really want anything to do with them. I stay at home with her, she does not go to school yet, but we do go to classes and meet up with friends on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this a quick passing phase, but was wondering if you have any advice on how I should handle this behavior.

Thank you,

Nicole

Dear Nicole,

I know it can be difficult to watch your child struggle as she learns to be social. I want to first latch on to that she is friendly and affectionate towards adults, and you mentioned her having a few friends that recently moved. These points highlight that she has the capacity for being social. That she’s even had one recognized friendship at this little age is a positive. I would try to figure out if there was something particular she liked about the friends that moved away and look for that in new playmates. While I wouldn’t force the hand holding or hugs, I would continue to give lots of opportunities for play with her same age peers. Attend playgroups or gym classes, go to the playgrounds and take group swim lessons. Continue to model being social by greeting others, inviting them to join you at activities and talking about concepts like taking turn and sharing. Occasionally, host others for play at your house so she can have practice at being social in more comfortable surroundings.

Many two year olds still tend to engage in parallel play, playing near other children more than with them. By three to four years old, most of them move to more interactive play. It may be that she is simply still at parallel play. She may prefer adults as they lead play easily and offer good ideas. Adults are also more reciprocal than other two year olds with turntaking and sharing and less likely to provide conflicts. It may be helpful to try playdates with a few slightly older children in the neighborhood.

When she does request to be just the two of you, agree when that was already the plan. If it wasn’t, validate her request by saying something like, “I know you want it to be just mommy, but today we are meeting Johnny and his mom at the park.” I wouldn’t ignore her request, hear her first. Then calmly let her know the plan. I would think this will be a passing phase, but it’s something to keep in mind moving forward. I am hopeful for you both that she will find same-age friends easily when a good match presents itself.

You might also read Just You and Me by McBratney and talk about how the gosling wanted to be alone with the big goose, but how nice it was they shared their space with the other animals who wanted out of the rain.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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