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Improving Kids' Social Skills

three girls with their arms around each other

Not all kids need help with the same social skills, and what your child needs practice with could vary, depending on her age. "It's important to know the normal developmental skills appropriate for different age groups so you can determine where the help is needed," says Susan Diamond, M.A., a speech-language pathologist and author of Social Rules for Kids. The proper social skills that need to be taught can be divided into three stages: determining the social skills that need development, figuring out ways to teach the skills, and reinforcing lessons with the right resources. We'll take you through all three stages and offer examples on how a child struggling with general shyness and social anxiety can become a friendly kid who's comfortable and ready to handle any social situations.

Determining the Stages of Social Development

In general, kids will have developed certain social skills and social cues by these ages:

2- to 3-year-olds: able to seek attention from others, initiate social contact with others both verbally (saying "Hi" and "Bye") and physically, look at a person who's talking, have the ability to take turns talking, and laugh at silly objects and events.

3- to 4-year-olds: are able to take turns when playing games, treat a doll or stuffed animal as though it's alive, and initiate verbal communication with actual words.

4- to 5-year-olds: are able to show more cooperation with children, use direct requests (like "Stop"), are more prone to tattling, and pretend to be Mom or Dad in fantasy play.

5- to 6-year-olds: are able to please their friends, say "I'm sorry," "Please," and "Thank you," understand bad words and potty language, are more strategic in bargaining, play competitive games, and understand fair play and good sportsmanship.

6- to 7-year-olds: are able to empathize with others (like crying at sad things), are prone to sharing, use posture and gestures, wait for turns and are better losers and less likely to place blame, joke more and listen to others tell their points of view, and maintain and shift/end topics appropriately. At this age, however, they still can't understand the clear difference between right and wrong, and may not take direction well.

Improving Social Development

Playdates are a crucial part of growing up, but kids with social issues can have a hard time making plans. "Having a playdate is a great way to introduce your child to the concept of using rules when a friend comes over and to teach him how to be polite to guests," Diamond says. Discuss ahead of time any situation that could be uncomfortable. "Write a plan beforehand. Go over all the different things the kids can do together, and then have your kid offer his guest three activities to pick from. Have them take turns picking activities from there, to avoid fights and to help teach compromise," Diamond says. "Talk about what you think will happen, what could possibly happen. You can even role-play and practice greetings and manners. If it's necessary, write a script to help reduce your child's stress."

To enhance your child's social development further, Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., child psychologist and parenting expert, suggests the four strategies below.

Teach empathy: Run through different scenarios by asking your child how other people might feel when certain things happen, and substitute different situations each time.

Explain personal space: Tell your child that it's important for everyone to have some personal space to feel comfortable, and practice acceptable ways to interact with someone during playtime.

Practice social overtures: Teach kids the proper way to start a conversation, get someone's attention, or join a group of kids who are already playing together. These are all situations that can be discussed and brainstormed at the dinner table, or in the car on the way to school or activities.

Go over taking turns: Sit with your child for at least an hour a day and play with him to explain what it means to wait, take turns, and share.

Reinforcing Specific Social Skills

Activities and games can provide additional help in developing specific skills, and you can reinforce your child's social development and interaction by playing The Name Game and Follow the Leader. Researchers Sandra Sandy and Kathleen Cochran developed The Name Game to help young children learn the importance of getting someone's attention before speaking. Have kids sit in a circle and give one kid a ball. Ask him to name another child in the circle, and roll the ball to that child. The recipient then takes his turn, naming another child and rolling the ball, and so on. The classic Follow the Leader game teaches kids about taking turns and practicing patience. Designate either yourself or your child as the leader, and have the follower(s) mimic the leader's actions.

Dr. Diamond recommends these other activities for recognizing particular social cues:

For nonverbal skills: Help kids recognize facial expressions and body language by watching kid-friendly TV shows with the sound off and observe what characters are doing and what certain movements might mean. (Just make sure to follow the media guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggests that kids watch TV for a maximum of two hours a day.) "Predict what you think they're saying, and really start [observing] facial gestures," Diamond says. "You can also look through magazines and make collages with different facial expressions, and talk about what the people in those photos might be saying."

For tone: To help kids differentiate a range of tones, "use a tape recorder and record different emotions in your voice and ask your child what they are, then explain how meaning changes with voice change," Diamond recommends. For example, try recording phrases like "I'm angry!" in a loud, empathic voice, and "I feel so sad" in a soft, low, dejected voice.

For attention span If your child has trouble staying on point, pick a topic and say three sentences -- two related to the topic and one random. Then ask your child to pick the sentence that's off-topic. For example, bring up the family dog. Talk about how long he played outside today and what he did at the dog park, and then say something about the weather. Ask your kid to differentiate between the different sentences. "Also, at the dinner table, have your kid keep track of how many times the topic changes during dinner," Diamond suggests.

There are plenty of good apps available that reinforce social skills. "Model Me Going Places" allows kids to look at photos of other children modeling appropriate behavior in certain situations (the hairdresser, doctor, playground), "Responding Social Skills" teaches kids how to respond to others and how to understand others' feelings, and "Small Talk" presents conversation fillers for awkward social moments. But if your child still seems to have difficulty keeping up with the skills she should be developing for her age group, it may be time to give her a little help. "Some children have problems with impulse control and self regulation; some have a problem with processing information," Dr. Balter says. "These issues can lead to [kids] having awkward interactions with peers." So if social issues cause your child fear or make him feel isolated, seek help from your pediatrician or another child expert, such as a therapist.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.