Helping preschoolers develop social skills is crucial to their future success as well-rounded social beings. The time to teach children to interact appropriately with other children and adults is before they are exposed to daily encounters outside of their immediate family circle.
There is more to teaching preschoolers social skills than just arranging play dates and monitoring their ability to share and “play nice.” Social skills encompass considerably more than just good manners.
Social skills are about adopting a positive attitude in the following areas:
Being aware of the feelings of others
Showing empathy (not just being aware, but caring about the feelings of others)
Self assertion in an appropriate and effective way
Babies view the world from the perspective of their own needs. They are aware of others, but only in respect to how others fulfill the baby’s needs and wants.
Toddlers have an awareness of the existence of others from a conflict point of view. To the toddler, if another wants what he also wants, that person is in his way. He has mastered the art of self awareness, but has not yet learned the give and take of socialization.
The parent is the first teacher to guide the child into becoming “worldly” wise. When the child sees how the parent acts and reacts toward others, he models the behavior. His initial attempts to be social will often be awkward, for he has not yet transformed from his “me” stance to understanding the concept of “we” or “us.”
Some steps a parent can take to help the preschooler develop healthy social skills:
Learning by example
When the child sees and hears the parent acting in a socially acceptable manner in encounters with others, the child will emulate the behavior. He learns through example what to say and do and how to behave appropriately in various situations.
Learning through play
The parent can role play with the child. Dolls and stuffed animals are good props for this type of social make believe. The parent and child can play house, play school and reenact fairy tales and stories. Siblings play a major role in “play” learning.
Many toys are designed to teach and reinforce social behavior. Playskool and Fischer Price have produced many preschool toy that imitate real life and help the child learn about the community and world in which he lives. There are playhouses and action figures representing policemen, firemen, and others from all walks of life to assist the child in learning how he should interpret and react in various social situations.
Learning through experience
Giving the child exposure to other children and adults makes available opportunities to see other people’s social interaction. The more a preschool child is acquainted with various attitudes, the more flexible he will be with his own attitudes and ability to cope.
Letting the preschooler know what is to occur and how he is expected to respond is an important part of learning social skills. Telling the child in advance where he is going, who he will see, what he will be doing and how he is expected to behave precludes any surprises and inappropriate reactions.
For example: “We are going to the library. We want to speak softly so that we will not disturb others,” or “When we are in the theater, we will not talk during the show, but we will clap loudly when it is over to demonstrate our appreciation.”
Praise is perhaps the strongest method we can use to instill good social skills in our child. Each time he displays appropriate response in a social encounter we will want to reinforce the positive behavior with praise.
For example: “That was so nice of you to share with your friend. Next week we will invite him to our house,” or “I was proud of your good manners when we were at lunch with Grandma. You are very good at saying please and thank you.”
One component of social acuity that is often overlooked is assertiveness training. While you want your child to be nice, you don’t want to inhibit his own self worth. You want to instill in him that life can be fair, and while you want him to consider other’s feelings, his feelings also count. If you skip this valuable component of social acumen, you are at risk of the child having low self- esteem and becoming a “people pleaser.”
When he is expected to share his toys with visiting children, you can say, “We will put your favorite superhero figure high on the closet shelf. You can share your other toys with your visitors.” By communicating concern for his favorite toy, you also communicate to the child that he is important. Sharing will come much easier to a preschooler when he realizes he doesn’t have to give up everything and his feelings are being considered.
By preparing your child for social situations in advance, communicating appropriate and expected behavior and lavishly praising successful encounters, you guide your child into developing social skills and prepare him for when he will be navigating his social encounters on his own.
A child who has well-developed social skills will exhibit self-esteem and confidence in all his encounters with the world around him.