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Social skills

Social success is critical for broader success, and resiliency research shows that children who are popular, likeable and able to resolve conflicts with others are also more likely to succeed at school, and are generally more resilient than children with less developed social skills. Social skills are complex and multi-faceted. They are also closely linked to development. The social skills which serve a five year old child will clearly not be adequate for negotiating the more complex social world of a twelve year old. In assessing social skills, it is important to bear in mind the milestones of normal social development according to the child`s age.

It is often assumed that social skills will be `picked up` by osmosis. However, while many social skills may be learned implicitly, all children can benefit from being taught social skills explicitly, not only children who are developmentally lagging behind their peers. Social skills are not always learned easily. Some children may require repeated instruction and reinforcement of learning. It is also possible for children to have well-developed social skills in one area but not in another. For example, they may be able to work co-operatively on a group project, but lack the self-confidence to approach a group of children in the playground. Social competence has many domains.


The building blocks of social competence

  • Basic interaction skills (e.g., smiling, making eye contact, listening)
  • Entry/approach skills (how to approach an individual socially or join a group)
  • Maintenance skills (e.g., how to share, take turns, follow rules, co-operate etc.)
  • Friendship skills (e.g., how to show appropriate affection, involve others in decision making, be inclusive, etc.)
  • Conflict resolution (how to manage disagreements in a socially acceptable manner)
  • Empathy
  • Communication of needs and ideas
  • Sense of humour
  • Assertiveness (how to say no to engaging in dangerous or antisocial behaviour, stand up for oneself, etc.)

Ages and stages of social development

The following guide shows social skills development appropriate to various ages. However, it should be borne in mind that there is no universal developmental timetable. Also, many of the skills listed below are more like works in progress than milestones of achievement; they develop slowly over years, gradually becoming more sophisticated and well-established.

AgeSocial behaviours
  • Social awareness is very limited. Play tends to be solitary, although toddlers will closely observe and copy adults and other children. Direct interaction is minimal, apart from squabbles over toys!
  • Parallel play develops: children play alongside one another, with some interaction.
  • Beginning to learn to share and take turns.
  • Beginning to learn to manage physical aggression.
  • Co-operative play develops. Children start to play group games. Games become more complex and organised.
  • `Special` friendships begin to form.
  • Learning how to play fairly and abide by rules.
  • Can approach others and ask to join in with groups.
  • Begins to learn to be assertive and to ask others to stop if they are being annoying.
  • Learning to be a `good winner` and a `good loser`.
  • Can empathise with others in distress and offer appropriate support.
  • Learning to give and receive compliments from others.
  • Conversation skills developing: how to listen to others and take turns talking etc.
  • Can ask an adult for support when needed.
  • Negotiation skills: including others in decision-making, learning to decide together and make suggestions rather than boss others around.
  • Able to say `no` to peers when appropriate.
  • Learning speak confidently in front of a group.
  • Learning to respect the opinions of others.

Teaching social skills to children

Although they do not receive the same attention in the classroom, in many ways social skills are just as important for success as academic skills. The following are some tips on how to teach social skills to children, both at school and in the home.

Provide explicit instructions

Children often need to be given direct, explicit instructions about how to behave in specific social situations. For example, a child may need to be told that it is important to say "hello" back when somebody greets them, or to smile when approaching a child to ask to join in a game. Of course, this kind of instruction is provided all of the time by parents and teachers who remind children to say "thank you" or not to interrupt when someone else is talking. However, there are often significant gaps in this instruction. For example, while most children are instructed to say "please" and "thank you", fewer are explicitly told how to be a "good sport" ("Don`t comment on another player`s poor moves or bad luck. Don`t taunt someone for losing. Accept bad luck without complaining." etc.) Learning these skills is not easy, and most children will need to be told the same information many times before they learn it fully.

Provide structured learning opportunities

Social skills cannot be taught by instruction alone. Children need ample social opportunities to develop their skills. Whilst there are numerous social opportunities at school, most of the time social interaction is unstructured. Children with good social skills therefore tend to get many opportunities to reinforce their skills, while more shy or aggressive children often have fewer chances to learn, thus creating a growing gap between socially skilled and unskilled children. The following are some examples of simple, structured activities which teach social skills:

  • To teach sharing, set up a co-operative activity in which children have to share a limited set of resources.
  • To teach fair play, provide instructions on how to play fairly, then get children to play a game (e.g., snakes and ladders), during which children can be reminded of the rules. Rewards can be provided to those who played well.
  • Use role plays to practice various skills, such as ignoring a person who is teasing you, or approaching a group or person to ask to join a game.

There are endless possibilities for creative activities of this type.

Help children to solve their own social problems

When children experience social problems, such as conflict with a friend, or rejection by a group, it is often tempting for parents to jump in and try to solve the problem for them. However, except in situations involving bullying or other unacceptable behaviour, it is generally better to assist children to solve their own social problems rather than intervening directly. This can be done by asking children to think of ways that they might be able to deal with the situation, providing feedback on their ideas, and perhaps offering some suggestions, then encouraging them to try out the best options. In this way, children can learn a sense of social mastery through finding that they can deal with a difficult situation without direct adult help. See`problem solving` for more information on solving social problems.

Provide feedback

Children are not always aware of the connection between their own behaviour and its social consequences. For example, a child who hits other children is likely to soon find him or herself lacking in playmates, yet may not necessarily understand why. Adults can help children to learn to connect their own behaviour with its results. Otherwise, children will tend to see their social experiences as having to do with who they arerather than how they behave. So, the child who hits out at others when upset is likely to feel that he or she is inherently unlikeable rather than recognising that different behaviour might lead to a different result. Adults can help children to make these connections by asking, for example, "how do you think so-and-so felt when you hit him? Do you think it`s possible he might be feeling a bit scared that you`re going to do that again?" and so on.


Assertiveness is a skill that many children and adolescents find particularly hard to learn, yet it is one that has also been found to be especially valuable in building resiliency. The difficulty that many young people have in developing assertiveness is probably an understandable consequence of their relative lack of power compared to the adults around them, and the messages they receive from adults, directly or indirectly, that they should do as they are told. Adolescents are also often acutely self-conscious and anxious to conform, and the backlash against anyone who is seen as `different` can be harsh. As a result, many adolescents hide behind a facade of one kind or another, for fear of being labelled, ridiculed or rejected. The idea of communicating in an up-front and direct style can feel very threatening, as it exposes the real self. However, when adolescents do try out assertive communication, they frequently find it to be both empowering and liberating.

Assertive communication contrasts with passive, aggressive or `passive-aggressive` communication, as the diagram below illustrates:


Assertiveness means communicating clearly, openly and directly about one`s rights, feelings, thoughts or needs whilst respecting the rights of others to their own wishes, feelings and thoughts. Unlike in aggressive behaviour (which attempts to bully or intimidate others into giving way), passive behaviour (which gives in to others regardless of how one feels about it), or passive-aggressive behaviour (which attempts to sabotage others without actually asserting oneself), assertiveness seeks to find a `win-win` resolution to a conflict.

Being assertive requires using assertive body language and an assertive tone of voice, as well as assertive words. The following table summarises differences between the different communication styles:

Body languageVoiceWords 
  • Physically standing over the other person
  • Puffed out chest
  • Shaking one`s fist or pointing one`s finger
  • Getting too close (being "in someone`s face.")
  • Shouting
  • Scornful, harsh
  • Bullying, haranguing tone
  • Abuse ("You`re pathetic!")
  • Generalisation ("You never...")
  • Personalisation ("You`re just a selfish person.")
  • Sarcasm ("Well, Mr. Perfect...")
  • Put-downs ("What wouldyouknow about....")
  • Collapsed posture
  • No eye contact
  • Turned away from other person
  • Twisted, awkward limbs
  • Inaudible
  • Quavering
  • Weak, squeaky tone
  • Uncertain intonation
  • Capitulation ("OK, whatever you want.")
  • Excessive apology
  • Self-recrimination ("I`m such an idiot.")
  • Averted eyes
  • Sulking, hostile or bored expression
  • Crossed arms
  • Closed posture
  • Muttering
  • "Robotic", insincere or hostile tone
  • Feigned indifference ("Whatever!")
  • Insincere agreement ("Fine!")
  • Silence or grunts
  • Level, eye to eye contact
  • Upright, open posture
  • Feet solidly planted
  • Firm
  • Clear and audible
  • Reasonable tone
  • Sticks to the point
  • Makes point rationally
  • "I" statements
  • Takes responsibility for self

Using `I statements`

A good recipe for assertive communication is use of "I statements", according to the following formula:




This kind of statement does not attempt to blame the other person, and it offers a means of resolving the conflict by explaining clearly what the other person can do to rectify the situation.