8 Social Skills Children Need And How To Develop Them

As children return to school across the country, concerned parents wonder whether their little ones will have the necessary social skills to thrive. Here’s how they can help…

Kids playing outdoors in the park

With more than 50 million American children returning to school — some for the first time in over a year — parents and educators are holding their collective breath. They can’t help but wonder how children who have had limited social interactions since the beginning of the pandemic will fare in the social skills department.


Educational and developmental psychologist Dr. Kimberley O’Brien believes that children will be back to their social selves in no time with a little help and preparation. “School rules might seem rigid and restrictive to children who had a lot of flexibility during lockdown, so parents can try to refresh the rules in their children’s minds before school starts,” says Dr. O’Brien.


Parents can also use some simple techniques to teach their children important social skills that will help them be good school citizens. These techniques are particularly important for children who are starting kindergarten this year and may have missed out on preschool.


In this article, we’ll cover eight social skills kids need and how to develop them, including:


  • Social confidence
  • Sharing
  • Cooperating
  • Communicating needs and emotions
  • Holding a conversation
  • Using good manners
  • Being a good sport
  • Conflict resolution


  1. Social confidence


Because children have been trained to not stand too close to others or gather in groups, they might feel nervous when they suddenly find themselves at school with hundreds of other kids. Dr. O’Brien suggests helping them practice their social confidence in real-world situations before school starts. “Ask your child to order a coffee for you or ask someone for directions,” she says.

She also encourages parents to prepare children for the first day of school. “You can practice walking by or through the school gate to help your child feel more comfortable in that area,” she says. “On the first day, take a bit more time to let your child circle in and observe rather than pushing them through the gate when they’re not quite ready.”


2. Sharing


Whether you’re trying to teach your child to share with their siblings or their friends, you can establish some rules that facilitate the process.

“Your child might put a few special toys in a box that becomes a no-sharing zone, but all the other toys are communal,” says Dr. O’Brien. “You can also try a turn-taking rule where you set a timer and each child gets five minutes with a given toy. Having those kinds of structures in the house can help kids get ready to be back in the classroom where they have to share many things.” 


3. Cooperating


According to Dr. O’Brien, cooperating requires good listening skills to figure out the other person’s point of view. “You can teach your children that they have to listen to the other person for a set amount of time — 30 seconds or a minute — when they’re trying to cooperate and work towards a shared goal,” she says. “You can then suggest activities that require cooperation, such as baking or building a tower, and ask them to practice these listening skills.”


4.  Communicating their needs and emotions


For many families, lockdown has provided valuable teachable moments and opportunities to develop communication skills.

“Because you probably had more time to reflect on what you really want and what your values are as a family, you may find that your children have become more adept at telling you what they need and how they feel,” says Dr. O’Brien. “When they return to the classroom where the pace is faster and they don’t get as much airtime, they’ll have to consolidate their needs. Discussing this with your children and practicing expressing how they feel in a concise way can be beneficial.”


5. Holding a conversation


Being a good conversationalist requires both active listening and self-disclosure — two skills that can take a while for children to master.

“We talk about a conversation being like a tennis game that goes back and forth,” says Dr. O’Brien. “You can practice to and fro conversation at home on a topic of your choice. Talk to your kids about the importance of looking at the person who’s speaking and nodding to maintain engagement. Then switch roles so they can feel what it’s like to have someone nodding and giving them eye contact. Role-playing is great for practicing conversation skills.”


6. Using good manners


Teach your children the four power words: “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome” and “I’m sorry.” Not only will your child be perceived as polite, they’ll also be more likely to get what they want because they’ve asked in a respectful manner. Model the use of these words as often as possible.


7. Being a good sport


Children should learn to win and lose gracefully from a young age. “They say a fast game is a good game,” says Dr. O’Brien. “It doesn’t really matter if you win or lose, you just set up and start the next round. You can try this at home with UNO, Connect Four or any game that’s short and sweet. It draws the focus to the fact that it’s more about playing the game than winning or losing. Playing with an adult rather than always playing with siblings is also great, because there tends to be more conflict between siblings.”


8. Conflict resolution


Teaching children to resolve conflict can be tricky because it requires several steps.

“There’s a technique we use in our Best of Friends social and emotional learning program called LEAP,” says Dr. O’Brien. “It’s an acronym for Listen, Engage, Agree and Partner. You try to find some common ground, agree and then partner to move towards your goal. All you need to do is find one thing you agree on so you can move forward. You can help your kids practice LEAP with you or with their siblings to prepare them for conflict resolution at school.”


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Want more help preparing for back to school? Read Parental Anxiety Around Back to School: We’re All Feeling It and Back to School Bestsellers.