As a child, we had a player piano in my home. Oftentimes, I would put a musical roll into the console of the piano and let it run and see if I could pattern my fingers after the keys. In doing so, I would try to fool myself (and others) into believing that I could play piano. Anyone watching me could know that I was “faking it” and was doing a melodic version of lip-syncing. Something just seemed forced and fake.
Sometimes, the situations in our “social skills” activities with our children can seem “canned” at first. We are trying to teach social skills in the hopes he/she will “get it.” Yet, when the child leaves the house with age-appropriate peers, the question is quickly answered whether or not he/she can tread water among the difficult and choppy social skills waters. It is a world that we, as adults, only have a generational-gap glimpse of, and it can be frightening placing our children out there.
So, what are the practical skills a child needs to be successful in socializing with peers? How can he/she build a rewarding and successful social network? Which tools are not necessary or may never be fully or partially applied? Most importantly, how do we equip our children for the ever-changing realm of school, home, work, and social media?
Let’s review some of the most important social skills a child should learn and develop to make his/her social life successful and enriching:
- Provide “on the job training”
The only way children are going to learn to be more social is practice. Like exercising to develop muscles or stamina in running a marathon, they must strengthen their social skills.
Some people believe this can come from team sports or organized activities. While this is definitely helpful, play dates are a very necessary element. It is through one-on-one interaction that a child learns to direct and negotiate how and what to do — it’s where a child learns what works and what does not. It is helpful to be within earshot during these interactions so you can give positive feedback to your child.
- Develop a team of social skills coaches
In order for any social skills program or interventions to work, one must have a team that is on the same page. That means a skill (such as conversation starting) must have the buy in of teachers, counselors, supervisors and coaches for consistency. With social skills, our children must realize and learn application of the same social skill in varied environments.
- Facebook, Instagram, texting, etc. must be a part of teaching social skills
The world is now altered by the ever-changing face of technology. There is increasing evidence that our brains are being rewired to adjust for integration of this new means of communication. (As proof, when was the last time you had the top five numbers of your closest friends memorized?) Certainly, children prefer this type of communication over any other medium, and they are more proficient than most adults.
This being said, it is important that a portion of social skills activities teach your child appropriate social media etiquette about cyberbullying, the dangers of texting pictures, and which topics are appropriate to discuss online.
Again, this is one of those places where the computer, smartphone, video game system, or other technology device should be nearby so you can assess and offer positive feedback (and a healthy level of skepticism), when needed. In doing so, it helps when your child opens the doors of your home to the worldwide web of the Internet.
- Using the phone
Like anything else, using the phone takes practice. The first element is for a student to get a peer’s phone number. This task, though simple, is a momentous achievement. Why? Because when a child does this, he/she has merged the social skills world of “only having peer relationships at school” to “having a friend at home.”
This means once they have completed this task of getting the number, the creation of a script of “what to do and when” is next. This involves teaching your child what to say when he/she makes a phone call, what to do if the other child is not home, and how to make plans. Being with the child as they read or mouthing the words to them may be all the support they need for this (sometimes) anxiety-provoking situation.
- Sometimes our children have difficulty with getting too close to others
Violation of personal space may create hostility among peers (especially at younger ages) and may create a reaction that is confusing and frustrating. Role-playing for our children on an asphalt driveway can be useful: draw concentric circles in chalk (with your child in the middle) and discuss who should be in which circle(s), while defining strangers, friends, family, and self.
Additionally, when a child is too close to you or someone else, immediate, consistent feedback is needed to help him/her understand.
- Children’s activities and games have a natural starting and ending point
When a child wants to join in, they must learn this or he/she could “jam” themselves in at the wrong time and be rejected. Help your child practice finding out when an activity will be over when they want to join a group. This can be useful at a playground, dance, or other peer/social event.
Sometimes children will continue to try to establish themselves into the same peer group over and over again, despite rejection. This creates sadness, frustration, and diminished self-esteem. Instead, have the child seek other peers immediately who are not in the social group or others who are not engaged.
- Teaching your child a “pick up” line for conversation is vital
Now, I don’t mean a cheesy line that would be used for dating. What I mean is we all have statements and questions that we use to engage acquaintances around us. Teaching a child to ask a question, give a compliment, or state something they have in common is the first step to developing deeper conversation.
- Watch for your child becoming a “know it all,” “boss,” or “rule keeper”
Often, these are roles children may try to occupy as they begin to feel more comfortable and find a place in the social and conversational arena. Be on the lookout for this and squelch it as soon as you can, as it can grow into a social skills problem and lead to further rejection/isolation.
Brett Novick holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from LaSalle University in Philadelphia, PA and a Master’s Degree in Family Therapy from Friends University in Wichita, KS, as well as post degree work and certification in School Social Work from Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ and in Educational Leadership. Novick is licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and State Certified as a School Social Worker, Principal, and Educational Administrator.
Novick has worked as a School Social Worker/Counselor for the last fifteen years and is an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has also authored national and international articles in American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, National Education Digest, NJEA Review, National Association of Special Education Teachers, NASSP Principal Leadership, Better Mental Health, and ASCD Educational Leadership Magazines.
He has been received several awards for his work in education, inclusive education, counseling, and human rights.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism