The Importance of Teaching Social Skills
When I was a child, people regularly told my mother that my sister and I had such nice manners. My mother’s response was thank you but really we just had nice company manners. In other words, we had one set of behaviors for the public and a less pleasant set for home. We had a skill – knowing how to adjust our behaviors to match the environment.
When you go to the library, there is an accepted way to conduct yourself. And within the library itself, you can be more active and loud in the children’s section than in the reference section.
When you watch a movie in a movie theater, you expect that the audience will be as quiet as you are. When you whisper to your neighbor, you are probably annoyed if others in the theater use their normal speaking voice. However, if you are at home, you can feel comfortable to yell at the TV screen.
These social skills are taught to children. Parents remind their children of appropriate behavior before they go to the library or the movie. Parents may remind their children to say “please” and “thank you” before they go to play at a friend’s house.
Some children need more specific lessons than others. Children with neurological, emotional or developmental disorders may not inherently know how to interact with others appropriately. This, in turn, may affect their ability to create all the meaningful relationships that they may desire. In order to help these children build the valuable relationships that are so important to their self-esteem and sense of belonging, it is important to teach them social skills.
As parents, we need to provide as many opportunities to work on social skills as possible. Many of us may have children who will happily entertain themselves for hours by retreating into the world of electronics. This is antisocial in nature and rarely provides any growth opportunity. In order to compete with the lure of the glowing screen, consider activities that focus on your child’s interest. For example, find a sport that they enjoy and have them join the team. Your child could learn sportsmanship as well as gain practice in waiting their turn, following directions and working with others.
Schools and other organizations offer activities geared toward specific interests. Does your child enjoy drawing? Sign them up for an art class. They will have the ability to improve their skill in an environment that encourages them to interact with at least the instructor if not with the other students as well. Do they like chess? What about an afterschool chess club? They would have the opportunity to interact with another child in a situation where the topic of conversation is a mutual interest – often a stumbling block for such children. Similarly, some social skills group use children’s interests such as Pokémon as a foundation for teaching specific social skills such as turn-taking and conflict resolution. Benefits of a program like this go beyond the social skills. It also gives the children an appropriate outlet to focus on their fixations.
There are other methods that you can use at home. Social stories are a way to prepare a child for a situation that may be challenging. The goal of a social story is to increase the individual’s understanding of a behavior or event by explaining it ahead of time. It is a way to suggest some appropriate responses for the situation in question and hopefully make the child more comfortable with the situation and bring out the desired appropriate behaviors. There are many sites online with sample stories that can be modified to meet your specific child’s needs.
Role playing is another tool you can use. Does your child have a hard time at a restaurant? Do they know how to order their food politely? Can they wait patiently for their meal to be prepared? Why not practice at home? Before you plan to leave for the restaurant have your child practice ordering their meal with you as the server. Have them demonstrate the quiet voice they will use when sitting at the table. Have them show you their patient waiting behavior. Then, when you are at the restaurant, you can refer back to that practice role-playing you had at home.
Does your child have a hard time with friends? Set up playdates for maximum success. Keep them to a time limit that your child can handle. Consider providing neutral activities that don’t allow either child to dominate the playdate. If you know that your child has a hard time sharing their toys, then consider taking your child and their friend to a park or restaurant with an indoor play structure so that they have a way to interact with each other in a location where your child can’t escape to their isolating activities, dominate the activities by insisting on only doing their favorite choice or get upset about having to share their favorite belongings.
Social skills, just like reading, multiplication or riding a bike need instruction and practice. Some children are naturally more proficient. Some children take years to get their training wheels taken off. Some children will take social stories, groups and role-playing. As we need to interact with others to be successful in this world, social skills need to be given as much effort as any other skill you deem important in your child’s life.