A great post from Not Just Cute, which originally appeared in May 2010.

From the moment I got this assignment to write about supporting social skills in preschoolers, every time my own preschool-aged boys threw a fit or tackled a playmate, I had to laugh at myself. “And I’m supposed to be an expert on this?”

The truth is the task of teaching our children social skills is a huge job. It’s not something any parent does perfectly, and it’s certainly not something that can be covered in its entirety in one neat and tidy blog post.

Beyond meeting our children’s basic needs, we as parents tend to worry most about their social development. Will they be polite when they play at their friends’ houses? Will they behave appropriately at school? Will they ever stop fighting?

There are a few things to keep in mind as we consider the social development of our children. They are reminders to help us to take a deep breath and respond with a proper perspective.


Photo by bluebetty

Consider Normal Development

Just because your 2 year-old bites doesn’t mean he’ll become the next Hannibal Lecter. Many challenging behaviors are absolutely normal parts of development. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t correct the behaviors, but their appearance doesn’t mean you’ve done a lousy job of parenting or that you have an inherently “bad” kid.

For example, selfishness is not necessarily a personality flaw for preschoolers. It’s the way their brains are wired; they are egocentric beings. To them, if they are happy with the toy they just snatched from another child everyone else should be happy too! Experiences in preschool or playgroup require a group of egocentric children to consider one another, helping to move them along the developmental pathway.

Additionally, young children are still learning to control their impulses. Consider a new baby whose arms flail wildly until, over time, the baby develops enough control to generate purposeful movements. Similarly, it takes time for preschoolers to develop the ability to move from acting on impulses to making controlled, thoughtful choices.

Social Skills Are Learned Skills

Children are not born knowing how to share or why they should say “please.” As with any learned behavior, there will be mistakes along the way. But with continued practice children become more proficient.

When a child struggles to learn to tie her shoes, we take some extra time to clarify the process and coach her through. We teach social skills in the same way:  give extra support and extra practice, clarifying and coaching until that skill becomes second-nature. It will take time and multiple failed attempts for a child to independently tie her shoes. Likewise, it will take time and multiple failed attempts for a child to master the world of social graces.

Conflict Is a Necessary Evil

As parents, we often try to free our homes of all conflict. We dream of days with no fights over toys, no arguments about who gets to be first, and everyone says “thank you” for the delicious dinner we’ve prepared.  A nice dream, but an unlikely reality.

Conflict should be managed, but should not  (and realistically can not) be eliminated. It is through social conflict that children learn to move beyond egocentrism and learn to adapt and problem-solve. So when the next shouting match or toy tug-of-war occurs, take a deep breath and recognize those conflicts as teaching opportunities.

Photo by hortongrou

Once we have those precepts in mind, there are a few good places to start building social skills in preschoolers.

Verbalize Emotions

Young children have the capacity to feel all the turbulent emotions we feel as adults, but a limited ability to verbalize it. When they can’t adequately communicate with words, they turn to behaviors. Then comes the kicking, the tantrums, the biting, etc. We see it as a failure to behave properly, when often it is a failure to communicate properly.

While this belief does not exonerate them, our first step is to validate and verbalize those emotions. We need to give them the words for what they are feeling, and help them to know that those feelings are OK,  the behavior is not. This process gives them the tools to express their emotions verbally in the future. It also helps them to know that they’ve been understood, which is often all they were looking for in the first place.

Be a Super Model

Because social skills are learned, it is important that we be very aware and deliberate in modeling positive social skills. We do this first of all by building a positive relationship with our children. They will learn to treat others by the way they are treated. Take note of your own behavior. Is it being reflected in your children? Model the behavior you would like to see.

For example, if your child is having tantrums, model calmness – especially during the tantrum. If you want your child to look at people when he speaks, don’t talk to him over your shoulder as you multi-task. If you have a shouter, reply with a soft voice. Find opportunities to teach through modeling, both explicitly (as in role playing) and implicitly in your everyday encounters with your children.

Photo by Mrinkk

Plan and Practice

Discuss and practice social situations separate from confrontations, free from the stronger emotions of a volatile circumstance. Thirty minutes into your daughter’s tantrum is probably not her most receptive moment. Be proactive. Read and discuss books with social situations. Experiment with social roles and dilemmas in dramatic play. Use puppets to act out a social problem your child can solve. Give children a script for specific social situations.

Play is a Child’s Work

Children need time and opportunities to practice their social skills in the real world. Remember that adults and older siblings often compensate for a younger child’s lack of social skills. Playing with peers is where the true tests come!

Solve Problems Together

Parents of young children are notoriously good problem-solvers. When discontent arises, we swoop in, assess the situation, then set timers, create turn-taking lists, or grab another item for sharing. We are so adept at problem solving because we get so much practice!

To truly benefit children for the long run, involve them in the problem solving process. It may slow things down a bit, but eventually you will find that you are “swooping in” less and less as the children become more independent in their social problem-solving skills.

Choose discipline over punishment

Now, I’m not trying to instigate a war of words here, just a shift in perspective. When the focus is on punishment as a reaction to improper behavior, we are only teaching the child not to “get caught” being “bad.”

When we choose proactive discipline, we teach moral decision-making. Instead of trying to control our children, we teach them to control themselves. Rather than governing out of anger, we guide out of love. Instead of punishing mistakes, we use those mistakes to teach awareness and accountability.

The bad news is kids don’t come to us with a complete set of social skills. The good news is they do come to us.

And with our help, they will learn to be polite when they play at their friends’ houses, they will behave appropriately at school, and yes, one day, they may actually stop fighting.