how to teach social skills

How to teach social skills

Good social skills form the foundation of a child’s personality. Arlene Harris finds out how to teach social skills and why children need guidance from their parents to help them develop these important life skills.

Certain children stand out for various reasons – some may be loud and boisterous, some shy and retiring and others polite and engaging. Most parents would rather their child be known for the latter qualities, but unless they are taught how to interact with both adults and their peers from an early age, these traits can be lacking.

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says we, as parents, are the best teachers our children can have because they start learning from us as soon as they arrive in our world.

How to teach social skills

“Parents are their children’s mentors,” he says. “The values, skills and behaviours that we encourage in our children will guide them into their future and hopefully give them feelings of confidence and competence in study, work and relationships. We begin passing on those skills from the very beginning by making eye contact, smiling and responding in ways, which teach that how we relate to others is important.”

“Later we demonstrate that showing respect for others, good communication skills, a healthy attitude and becoming independent are all the building blocks for competence and confidence. Without being too rigid or having unrealistic expectations of our child, it’s never too early to expect some level of politeness or willingness to share.”

Social skills are a learnt skill

The Wexford-based expert says the best way to approach social skills is to firstly remind ourselves that they are precisely that; skills to be learnt. “Social skills are developed over time and with guidance,” he explains. “A parent can start with their very young child by using welcoming smiles and the power of the human voice to demonstrate respect and patience. This is the beginning of teaching manners as well as attention.

“Later, encourage politeness and cooperation around sharing and when rules are necessary, such as in games and when safety is an issue. If children learn about cooperation in the safety of a loving and flexible relationship, they can apply that learning to crèche, school and activities without feeling that rules are to be taken personally or having to struggle with appropriate authority.”

how to teach social skills

“Parents can encourage good communication skills by having family discussions about ordinary things and allowing your child to express anger in a healthy and safe way at home. Explore the scenarios and morals you and they encounter in books, films and in their friendships to allow them to express their feelings and points of view.”

A guide to social skills

Not all social skills can be taught at once, but Maxwell offers a guide as to when and how children should behave in a certain way.

✔ Early childhood communication is touch and play, then gurgling, pointing and babble and some discernible single words. I wouldn’t encourage parents to bang on about please and thank you at that stage or expect it to be spoken until after 18 months.

✔ Encourage your child by using please and thank you in a gentle and kind way. Be playful in your modelling of early social skills by saying the magic words in a sing-song voice. Try to always use please and thank you in your interactions with your very young child.

✔ Parents can encourage eye contact by mutually gazing with a very young child during feeding. Tell your young child how beautiful their eyes are and how you can see their smile in their eyes too. Don’t force eye contact especially if your child has a neurological condition, which makes this uncomfortable. Do say ‘I can tell that you hear me when we are looking at one another’ or ‘I missed what you were saying because I can’t hear you as well when you look away while talking.’

✔ Sharing is a tough set of skills to learn. I would ask all parents to remember how difficult it would be to share a prized possession – then put yourself in the child’s shoes. They have less life experience and practice at giving up something or trusting that it will ever be given back to them.

✔ Start early by encouraging sharing with a child. You could spontaneously say ‘Would you like some of my dessert?’ or encourage them by saying ‘I bet your sister/brother would love one of those sweets or to hold that toy.’ Children are more likely to understand sharing of toys and in games when they have experience of a playful adult getting down on the floor with them or assisting in an outdoor game until they have other children to play and share with.

✔ Another social skill is learning to accept different emotions. Parents can encourage this important skill by rewarding appropriate expression of feelings such as just commenting ‘Sam, you look so cheerful today!’ or ‘Ciara, you seemed annoyed during that game, what was happening?’

✔ Model contentment for what you have with your child and they are more likely to show appreciation themselves for simple things – like seeing the fun of a mucky-rainy day or a trip which didn’t involve something expensive or high-tech. Encouraging optimism and allowing your child to generate their own solutions to a problem before you offer your solutions strengthens their sense of independence and the ultimate social skill: self–regulation.

How to teach social skills

You have to stick to it

Anna Riordan knows only too well the negative result of not teaching her daughter how to behave and now that her little girl is almost six, learning basic social skills has become more difficult.

“I was very busy when my daughter was a baby and didn’t spend enough time with her,” admits the 42-year-old. “Then because I wasn’t at home very often, I felt guilty and would compensate by letting her have whatever she wanted. “I can see now, that by not insisting she said please and thank you, tidied up her toys, ate her food or even played nicely with friends, I did her a disservice.

“I was made redundant a year ago and it has really shocked me that while I was working, I neglected to teach my daughter how to behave and am now having a very hard time trying to drum it into her. But I know it’s my own fault and for her sake, and mine, I will keep going until good manners become an instinct for her.”

Social skills last for life

Psychologist, Maxwell says learning social skills at a young age is very important and will help children to feel happier and more confident in later life.

“Our inner sense of how competent we are and thus how confident we feel is based on how we think we can manage in a variety of situations such as being dropped off at a busy crèche, a noisy birthday party, a new school or being minded by someone who is not our parent,” he explains.

“Social skills teach cooperation and kindness, but equally those same skills are part of being able to express our feelings and preferences and saying what we need and want: equally important skills.

“Children who have the skills to relax and enjoy positive interaction with others are usually more able to handle or report uncomfortable situations to their parents.”

More like this:

Free printable good behaviour chart
Sparing the rod
Help your child to be street wise

Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.



Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….