Getting along: developing social skills

In many ways, social skills are another term for people skills. Without appropriate social skills, interactions with other people can be difficult and at times stressful.

Take introductions for instance. When we first get to know people, we’re usually introduced, and we shake hands or discuss the weather before we get down to the business of interacting. Depending on culture, most adults take it for granted that a handshake or exchange of name, or both, is how it’s done.

But what’s really happening here is that as adults, we’ve learned a set of social skills in acceptable ways to communicate. We’ve learned appropriate skills in how to get along with other people and hopefully, achieve a positive outcome. Poor social skills can mean that it’s just that bit harder to get past the intro, and take the next step in the friendship stakes.

Like most other things in life, social skills are learned. And as with academic learning, social learning can be just as important to success. Learning how to talk to people, ask for directions, follow instructions, give and receive a compliment, or make a simple phone call, are all everyday social skills.

The more polished our social skills, the more likely we are to react positively to other people and situations, make decisions, exercise self control, and cope with life in general. The trick to social skills though, is knowing how, when, and where to use them appropriately and effectively.

Depending on personality and/or opportunities, acquiring social skills may be easier for some children than others. For instance, when it comes to mixing and playing together, some kids will just jump in feet first, and start to play and communicate with kids they have never met before. Names are irrelevant – half the time they won’t even bother asking who’s who. But ‘slower to warm up’ kids, or kids who lack practise in handling new social situations, may hang back outside the circle, checking out the scene before finally deciding whether or not to join in the play.

However, regardless of personality or opportunity, the teaching of social skills in how to follow instructions, be sensitive to others, take turns, and take no for an answer, applies to all personality types. And, play can be an ideal way for children to learn and practise.

Understanding why

Before children can learn social skills, they need to understand why they’re important.
Social skills are closely linked to development, and so, preschoolers for instance find it difficult to understand the concept of teamwork or cooperation. They are not able to put themselves in the shoes of others or see the world from someone else’s point of view.

However, basic social skills can be taught from a very early age. These include:

  • cooperating (putting toys away, simple chores)
  • sharing toys (even if it is only for five minutes)
  • participating and joining in
  • saying please and thank you
  • helping others
  • taking turns.

For older children, reasons for cooperating, sharing and participating will become apparent, as children understand that to get a positive result from a situation, they may need to exercise appropriate social skills. These include:

  • being a friend
  • assisting other people
  • exercising patience
  • following directions
  • being polite and courteous
  • concentrating on the job at hand
  • respect for rules, authority, people and possessions
  • accepting differences and different ways of doing things
  • listening
  • winning and losing gracefully
  • saying no to peers
  • asking for help or instruction
  • working cooperatively.

One skill at a time

Many children learn skills through parents modelling appropriate behaviour. They also learn by experience, especially when inappropriate behaviour results in them being rejected or excluded by their peers.

Although much of the learning and teaching of social skills happens as a direct result of living in a family and a wider community, much of this interaction and learning is unstructured.

Some skills may need to be taught explicitly and reinforced, and teaching in one skill at a time is usually the best way to go. An example might be learning how to be a good sport, or ways to praise or encourage, or how to assert without being bossy.

By providing structured learning opportunities, you can help your child to practise social skills, particularly those that involve negotiation, problem solving, playing fair, or ways to deal with rejection.

Solving their own

At times when poor social skills (and as a consequence, inappropriate behaviour) result in your child falling out with a friend, or being excluded, try to resist the temptation to jump in and fix things on their behalf.

Try taking them aside and asking how they think things can be fixed, or what they might be able to say or do to help mend the situation. Your suggestions and feedback will help, but giving kids the opportunity to try and work through what’s happened in a positive way, is a great way for them to feel they’ve sorted things themselves.

An exception to encouraging your child to solve their own problems may be if your child is being bullied or harassed at school. In cases of intimidation, harassment or bullying, consult the school, and seek professional advice if you feel your circumstances warrant this.

Keeping skills simple

When it comes to teaching a child a skill – any skill – keep these five steps in mind:

  1.    Give information, explanation and reason.
  2.    Model how it’s done.
  3.    Provide opportunities for practise.
  4.    Reinforce if need be.
  5.    Re-teach if necessary.

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