Raising Social Superheros
It is important that children learn the values, knowledge and skills that allow them to relate to others effectively and also for them to contribute in positive ways to their family, school and community. These skills are needed to interact with our cultural environment adaptivley.
Immediate family (parents/caretakers) is the direct source of influence on a child's social development, however there are many more influential aspects of the social environment. Children build a sense of self awareness (who they are,) and how they fit into the social world around them. Understanding themselves, and others around them is a central goal of social development.
Below is a diagram from Kids Matter showing the many influences on a child's social development and behavior. You will notice the ones nearest to the child are the ones more closely involved with the child. Having daily interactions with those close to them will help children learn about rules, acceptable practices, and values that are supported by these individuals.
Their lives are also molded by larger social circumstances that impact their families and communities collectively. Things such as access to resources (health, education, social services, etc,) as well as their parent's employment/income status and even their ability to balance work and family time. Children's sense of social connection is often influenced by ideas they come across in the media, such as community attitudes, and cultural values.
How does a child become aware of themselves?
Children base their concept of self on feedback from others they interact with, as well as partially from their own judgements based on these results. In the school aged child, they are mostly concerned with 3 main things that help them build a baseline for what is acceptable among their peers: academic success, appearance, and likability/peer relationships (the order of importance depends on developmental age.) Preschool children may place a high value on their capabilities to achieve these goals, however elementary aged children begin to compare their achievements against their peers, and it is important to recognize and support a positive self concept to avoid emotional and behavioral difficulties.
When we think of school, we typically jump to associating it's importance with academics, this is true, however we also know that school is where children are being "graded" on their social skills daily. Those who "pass" or do well on these tests are apt to be well liked and happy children. Those who do not pass are more apt to feel disconnected and left out. Social skills are crucial to a child's emotional development and well being. Without minimal peer acceptance, school can be a lonely place, and may cause the child to want to withdraw/avoid going all together.
How do cultural values play a roll in social development?
A child who has a strong cultural identity in combination with a positive self concept will have a sense of feeling connected and belonging. Cultural identity is validated when they learn about their own traditions, and when their peers show respect for their values regardless of their own. It is important to teach young children to respect the values of those who differ from their own, and to appreciate variations in their own community. When differences aren't acknowledged, or when traditions are minimized in minority cultures, it can negatively affect a child's sense of belonging and self esteem.
Discrimination can have serious long lasting effects on a child's social development, well being and mental health. Children must know that discrimination occurs, and they should speak up and tell an adult if they are feeling bullied by anyone, to be handled and validate that the bully IS wrong. This will ensure an upwards march in self concept, if left ignored, the child tends to translate this as the "norm," therefore assuming the abuse is deserved.
How do children learn social values?
Young children are naturally self centered, they are often noted playing alone next to others, and assume all of their peers have the same ideas or opinions as them. Understanding other's point of view is taught from preschool age, we do this by way of explaining reactions, and behaviors aloud while they are engaging. "Oh, Sarah didn't like when you took the block away from her, look, she is frowning." Pointing out these social cues may seem silly to us adults, as this is nearly a subconscious thought process for us, however it is crucial to help a young child recognize other's emotions and behavior around them as they navigate their world with the ability to learn these social cues through play. You can also encourage older children to explore perspective-taking by asking questions like, "How would you feel if I did not call you when I said I would, what if she spent her entire evening waiting by the phone for you to call?" This critical thinking approach will help spin the thought process from *Self*"I didn't call her back because my little sister made a mess and I was too busy cleaning it up!" to *Others*, "She probably thought I forgot about her, I will call her now to let her know I got sidetracked, so she doesn't think I am ignoring her."
Having the concept of difference in perspectives will ultimately help them gain basic conflict resolution skills by having the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes, and recognize that someone may have a different point of view than them, in the same situation. It also promotes caring, respect, and fairness. Children mastering these skills at a young age will likely go on to be the ones who include and appreciate children who are different from them, or who are viewed negatively by others.
What are basic social skills?
Lacking social skills can be more debilitating and detrimental to success in life than academic struggles. In order for a child to be socially adept, there are several basic social skills they must master. They must be able to engage peers and maintain a conversation, read social cues throughout the encounter, as well as having the ability to solve problems/resolve conflict as they arise.
Appropriate social interactions almost always begin with a greeting. We do this in two ways, non- verbally and verbally, greetings do not always have to be verbal, however they do have to include a non-verbal gesture/cue in order to be considered a greeting, and received as such by the other person (in person.) We do this by way of waving, smiling, open arms to embrace a hug, a hand out to initiate a handshake. There are many ways one can greet someone verbally, a simple "Hi, how are you?" or "Hello, my name is," are most common in generic situations. These greetings change given the circumstances, and environment. For example, family, and friends may warrant a warm hug and hello, where as a visit to the principal's office may call for more of a subdued "Hello" with different body language. Being able to adjust the presentation of your greeting is key to showing the recipient you understand the purpose of the encounter. It is important to distinguish that the child does not have to be "glad" to see everyone, however, in most cases we focus on happy greetings, especially in regards to social acceptance. Here we ride the fine line of being influenced to force specific actions in order to be accepted, which is a struggle if we ignore the difference between the two types of encounters, and when they are each acceptable.
2. Initiating, Maintaining, and Closing Conversation:
Typically after a greeting, a conversation is expected, good listening skills and the ability to stay focused is key in having a successful conversation. We are so eager to respond in a conversation by nature, that we tend to ignore or miss important information from the sender as we are busy trying to think of relatable anecdotes to share. The problem with listening to respond is that it's putting your response at high risk for not being relatable, leaving the other person confused, and feeling like they have entered a one sided conversation.
It is always good to have a basic list of conversation starters to deploy to start a random conversation, for instance when you just meet someone you know nothing about them, a common way to begin a conversation is to find something you both have in common at the moment. Ok, you may be asking your self "What is she talking about?? I just met them!" However you will always have at least two things in common with someone you met, and that is being in the same place at the same time. A good starter question as an example would be, "What brings you to _____ today?" and from there allow the person to share information and respond by acknowledging their message, and making it relatable to yourself.
3. Understanding Others:
Children often don't know what to talk about, this sometimes can lead to a one sided conversation about the child's experiences, likes, or interests, leaving the receiver either overwhelmed, or uninterested. If the child doesn't recognize cues from the other person that they are not interested/bored, and doesn't allow them an opportunity to enter the conversation, the other child may walk away avoiding future interactions.
Being able to recognize the other participant's cues and finding a good place to mutually wrap it up is a skill that will help with things like closing a conversation. Children should learn how to interpret other's body language such as, "they seem like they are in a hurry," or as "she's genuinely interested, let me tell her more," as cues for whether they should continue the conversation or respectfully find a natural stopping point. Sending cues is also necessary to help the other person understand your position in the conversation and whether or not they should continue or find a closing point, based on what signals you are sending them.
For example, shouting "I can't talk anymore I have to go!" and sprinting out the door leaving the conversation without closure, the person may think you are rude, and avoid future conversations. However, if you were to begin giving cues by subtly moving closer to the door, and putting on your shoes, or choosing to initiate the closure yourself by politely being honest saying something like, "I could talk about this for hours, sadly I must go, I have an appointment in 5 minutes. I will call you afterwards so we can finish!" The person will hopefully understand that you were genuinely interested, and be willing to finish the conversation with you at a later time.
Children who struggle with a positive concept of self, and the ability to see other's perspectives may have trouble initiating, maintaining, or closing a conversation appropriately. Impulsive children often have trouble knowing when to talk and when to listen, these children may appear insensitive and selfish, although this is not their intent. This sets the child up to feel unwanted, or not liked, which isn't necessarily the case, these children need to be reminded, that their friends want to share things with them as well. They want to be liked by him too. In this situation, both children walk away feeling unaccepted by their each other, the sender feeling like the other doesn't care about all of the things he is sharing, and the receiver feeling like their contributions aren't welcomed, and not cared about... this is where mastering the skill of recognizing different perspectives comes in handy!
4. Sending the message clearly:
Young children tend to assume everyone has the same knowledge on a subject that they have. This may lead to starting a conversation without the details the listener would need to actively participate. For example, a child may say, "I finished! I did it!" while holding a trophy with a basketball... It may seem like others should be able to use context clues and assume they won a basketball championship. However, they don't always, and not always are there such obvious cues to help form a topic based on such a generic statement. The child needs to be able to put themselves in the receiver's shoes, and assess what information would be required for them to be able to engage with them. If not, the child may come off as flighty, or random, leaving peers feeling uncomfortable in trying to guess what he is talking about. Likewise, the other child should be equipped with the skills needed to ask for clarification, and further explanation on things they question, in order to proceed with the conversation, after gaining more details.
5. Showing Empathy:
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It allows a personal connection by displaying you recognize another person's feelings, as well as understand them. As an example, a child who got went up against their good friend in a swim competition and won, would refrain from boasting their win to that friend, rather they would give words of encouragement or find something positive such as, "good game, you almost had me there at the end, you did great!" This is having the ability to oversee your own personal feelings in the same situation, and show kindness, and relate to how another person feels despite your differing experiences at the moment.
6. Understanding Social Cues:
Cues are things that give us clues as to what the other person is thinking or feeling. Cues can be non-verbal or verbal. It is essential to be able to distinguish between things like tone of voice, body language, and sarcasm in order to judge our response/reaction. As an example, if you told your friend above, "I won the swim competition!" and the other person responds with "Great Job!" not being able to interpret things such as the tone of her voice, along with her folded arms, and eye roll, may lead the sender to think she is truly happy for her win, and to keep engaging her. When we understand these cues mean she is likely being sarcastic, leaving her most likely unreceptive, and that it may be best to not continue engaging her at the moment. Understanding cues like this will save a lot of frustration, and misunderstanding between both parties.
7. Previewing the Conversation:
Children who struggle with impulsitivity often struggle with this skill. Being able to join a conversation, listen for a moment to get an idea on the topic and which direction it's headed, to gauge your contribution. If a child walks into a conversation where a group of children are in the middle of discussing a fear of spiders, and a child walks in without previewing, asks if they want to go catch spiders on the playground, it could be seen as tactless and insensitive. Although he was on topic, he failed to acknowledge the direction of the conversation, and came off rude, and provoking. Had he taken a moment to gain more context, he could have either chose to add to the conversation productively, or refrained from participating at that moment.
8. Problem Solving Skills:
Conflict is typical in social interactions, and not everyone will agree with you. Some may get angry with something you say, insult you, become aggressive, etc... Your reaction to conflict is based on how good your problem solving skills are. Children lacking problem solving skills are often impulsive, explosive, angry, or highly sensitive. These are the children who are presented with a social conflict, and end up making the problem worse, rather than resolving it. They are often the children who need to be in full control, or they aren't happy. They are unable to be flexible, or communicate frustration in healthy ways. Negotiation skills as well as the ability to compromise are important in achieving a resolution that ends with everyone being at least minimally satisfied, an maintaining their friendships.
9. Being able to Apologize:
Everyone makes mistakes, having the ability to make a genuine apology is key to successful relationships big and small. Children who have trouble owning up and making apologies may be afraid to be wrong, and looking weak to their peers. They also may be oblivious to their mistake, therefore not seeing a reason to apologize. Children need to understand that taking the blame is not seen as a weakness, rather it being a great thing to be aware of themselves to the point they are socially accepted for taking ownership of their own actions. An apology should always have three parts: acknowledgement remorse/empathy restitution I love this poster from A Character Ink Blog:
How can Parents Help Teach Social Skills?
Many children learn basic social skills on their own, through trial and error. Some children do however need extra support and guidance when navigating social interactions. Parents can teach by modeling, role playing and providing opportunities for their children to practice these skills.
School is the perfect place to practice social skills by engaging peers on a daily basis. They learn to improve their skills by adjusting their actions/reactions according to the feedback of their peers. Teachers often are helpful in helping students work together cooperatively, by pairing socially inept children with the socially adept. Having a classroom that celebrates diversity and embraces all of the children's social abilities can greatly help enhance the sense of belonging and a positive concept of self, inside and outside of the classroom.
Positive reinforcement is crucial to social development, making it known that they deployed a skill successfully, and recapping the situation at a later time will also help boost their confidence. Recapping the situation is especially helpful if they did so subconsciously, without truly realizing the great impact of their own decisions and reactions within the social interaction.
Resource links for parents: