As parents, we all want our children to have friends and fit in, but that can be challenging for some children, especially when they have difficulties with social skills.
Social skills allow us to have positive interactions with others, understand the feelings and behaviour of ourselves and those around us, and change our behaviour depending on where we are and who we are with. When a child’s social skills are delayed, it can be difficult for them to interact meaningfully with peers and make friends, leading to them becoming socially isolated either through being excluded by others or by isolating themselves due to being repeatedly unsuccessful in their attempts to join in.
The most concerning impact of social isolation is the negative effect it can have on a child’s wellbeing including reduced self-confidence and self-worth, loneliness, and the development of more serious mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, there are things we can do to help children develop the skills they need to be successful in their social interactions and find a sense of belonging at school or kinder.
Identify Gaps in Your Child’s Social Development
The term ‘Social skills’ represents a wide range of abilities from recognising feelings in others through to navigating relationships, and everything inbetween. To be able to support your child to build their social skills, you first need to know where the gaps are. Ask yourself – What aspects of social interaction does my child find difficult? Do they have trouble reading the emotions of their peers, or engaging in the back and forth of conversation? Do they struggle to understand jokes or find it hard to join in? Knowing where the gaps are will help you to know where to focus intervention to help your child continue to develop their skills.
Teach and Practice Skills Needed for Social Interaction and Friendships
Once you know what areas your child needs support in, you can focus on teaching them the skills they need to be more successful in social interactions. For many children, explicit teaching of social concepts or rules will be necessary. Teaching can be done in many ways including reading story books, watching videos, role-playing and discussion of real situations. Once they understand a concept, provide opportunities to practice skills with parents and siblings to help them increase confidence in their abilities. Then encourage them to practice their skills with their peers, and assist them to reflect on their successes and their challenges.
Arranging play-dates with children from school can support children to feel included not just by helping them connect outside of school times, but also by increasing the likelihood they will have someone to play with in the school playground. To facilitate a successful play-date, you may need to teach the rules associated with having a friend to play, such as letting a guest choose what to play, or not deserting a guest to go and play something else on their own. It can also be useful to plan out the activities that are available and schedule in a snack or two to reduce the demands on the child to think of ideas and also reduce anxiety about what will happen and whether it will be successful. Regular play-dates help children make stronger connections with individual peers that can assist them in at school, as well as providing them with opportunities to practice their skills in a safe and familiar environment.
Help Your Child Use Their Strengths to Make Connections
While it is important to know what areas your child needs help with, it is also important to know what your child does well. Do they have a great sense of humour? Can they talk about dinosaurs for hours? Are they good at sport or computers? Do they have an amazing memory? Your child’s strengths can be used as a way for them to connect with others, particularly those with similar skills or interests. Joining a sporting club, cubs or scouts, a dance class or a gaming club may provide an opportunity for your child to practice their skills with like-minded peers who already have a common interest, making connecting a little easier.
Get Kinder or School Involved
Given the amount of time that children spend at kinder or school, it makes sense to get them involved in supporting your child’s social development. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, lunchtime clubs around a specific activity such as Lego or gardening can be a great way of supporting children that struggle with the unstructured time out in the playground. It gives children an opportunity to interact with peers around a common activity, with an adult there for support if needed. Other initiatives schools or kinders can employ include buddy systems, peer mentoring and small group classroom activities or games. The best way to get school or kinder involved is to talk to your child’s teachers about your concerns regarding your child’s social development, and work with them to create opportunities for positive social interaction.
With support and guidance, all children can develop the skills they need to develop positive peer relationships and have social success in the classroom and playground, allowing them to find the meaningful connections and sense of belonging that every child deserves.