Learning Social Skills

written by Jeanne

As a preschool teacher (and a parent), I knew how important it was for children to play constructively and develop friendships with their peers, if only to develop additional and more complex skills that they would need as they progressed through school.

But realizing the importance of social skills and coming up with concrete strategies to help children who were struggling, were two different things. Even more challenging was coming up with helpful suggestions for concerned parents. So I did some research.

One of the interesting facts that I learned, which helped to put things into perspective for me, was about one of the realities of social life in preschool classrooms: around half of children’s requests to play are greeted with rejection by peers. When I thought about it, it made sense. Preschool children are by nature self-centered and do not fully appreciate the consequences, for themselves and for others, of rejecting another child’s overtures to be included in their play. By focusing less on eliminating rejection and more on the reactions of rejected children, I started to better understand how I might be able to help improve social skills in the preschool world.

In other words, children will be rejected at some point or another during their play with peers.

Socially competent children tend to take these rejections as temporary, or in ways that recognize that a social situation can be improved by changing their own behavior, (offering alternatives, adapting to the existing play or simply shrugging it off and trying later). A less competent reaction, on the other hand, is to give up dejectedly, argue with peers or demand that peers play a different game. Not surprisingly, children who resort to antagonistic behaviors that disrupt the play of their peers often are rebuffed or ignored and generally are disliked.

So, what to do? My reading has offered these suggestions:

1. Children need practice to fully develop their social skills and children get their practice from playing both with other children and with their parents. If children find it difficult to make friends in large groups, play dates with a peer of the child’s choice outside of school may ease the transition into the larger group. Parents who can play with their children by following their children’s lead, maintaining a positive, non-competitive attitude, and having fun together (not using the time to lecture, suggest or control) can help children develop a positive attitude toward themselves and others as play partners.

2. Children need helpful information about how social relationships work. Parents and teachers can guide children to consider the reasons for peers’ behaviors and various options for responding. Discussions that occur when children are interested (not usually immediately following an incident when emotions are high) and that use a problem-solving approach are more likely to be helpful.

3. Children need positive role models and benefit when adults offer them positive ways to interpret the events that are a part of their daily lives. That means we need to make an effort to see social situations in a positive light and help children navigate them, not protect them from being hurt.

4. One of the most important strategies it turns out is the one I happened on when my children were young: to remain supportive, but gradually disengage from the child’s social life. Toddlers need lots of supervision and guidance, but preschoolers should be increasingly left to solve their own social problems which will get more complex as they get older. Learning to stay neutral and guide rather than intervene is all part of growing up as parents (and teachers!)



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