How to Improve Your Child’s Social Skills

Good morning, everyone. Speech-language pathologist/momma here. If you clicked on this post, you’re most likely worried about your child’s social skills. Maybe they’re a toddler and don’t show interest in playing with others. Perhaps you have a child in school and they have difficulty making and keeping friendships. Maybe they have difficulty with even the simplest task of saying “hi” to another child or perhaps they are “over-friendly” and have trouble discerning when someone does not want to be hugged, for example.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that this post is not intended to help your child win “Most Popular” or even become a social butterfly. Some children gain energy from keeping their group small and having lots of alone time (introvert…like me!) or they become energized by being surrounded by people and are always seeking out to establish more relationships (extrovert). There is a difference, however, between a child that CHOOSES to not socialize much and a child that DOES NOT KNOW how to socialize. This post is for anyone: those who have a child that do NOT understand social skills, perhaps due to a diagnosis, and for those who just want to ensure their child has the right foundational social skills in place.

First, Where Does Your Child Fall on the Social Skills Developmental Charts?

I really like the following chart, which came from https://childdevelopment.com.au/resources/child-development-charts/play-and-social-developmental-charts/

Look at the chart and determine your child’s “Social Developmental Age.” So, if they are three years old, but the developmental milestones they have met correspond with 1-2 years old milestones, their social developmental age is 1-2 years.

Before you find where your child falls on this chart, know that this is NOT a means to diagnose your child with anything! The chart does not list every single milestone in the provided age groups (few rarely do or can!), but it will show you the skills your child needs to be socially successful.

Age  Developmental Milestones  Possible implications if
milestones not achieved 
 0-6  months
  • Establishes eye contact for a few seconds
  • Responds with a smile when socially approached
  • Recognises parent visually
  • Discriminates strangers
  • Laughs in response to play
  • Distinguishes between friendly and angry voices
  • Manipulates and explores objects
  • Manipulates a rattle
  • Imaginative play actions are absent or random
  • May lead to poor muscle development
  • May lead to a delayed ability to play independently
  • May lead to delayed sensory development due to delayed interaction with toys and other sensory objects
  • May lead to poor emotional development (e.g. may cry easily)
 6-12 months
  • Plays peek-a-boo
  • Participates in clapping when prompted
  • Lifts arms to parent
  • Responds to facial expressions
  • Extends toys to others
  • Manipulates and explores objects
  • Imitates an adult’s actions
  • Places doll with head upright and vertical to the ground
  • Imaginative play actions are absent or random
  • May lead to delayed sensory development due to lack of sensory play experiences
  • May lead to delayed fine motor skills due to lack of practice manipulating toys and objects
  • May have difficulties socialising with parents and joint attention
  • May struggle to copy and learn from others due to poor understanding and attention
 1-2 years
  • Has toy preferences
  • Identifies self in mirror
  • Imitates adult behaviour
  • Likes repetitive actions such as putting objects in and out of boxes and scribbling on many pages
  • Imitates a pretend play action (e.g. giving a drink)
  • Demonstrates play related to their body (e.g. sleeping, eating)
  • Spontaneously performs one action with a doll (e.g. hugs doll)
  • Uses a similar looking object for the needed object (e.g. uses paper as a blanket)
  • Is unable to share and competes with other children for toys
  • Looks for hidden objects
  • Begins to play next to other children
  • Observes other children playing around them but will not play with them
  • Engages in imaginative play
  • Says “hi”, “bye” and “please” without prompting
  • May lead to delayed fine motor skills due to lack of practice manipulating toys and objects
  • May have difficulties socialising with parents and joint attention
  • May struggle to copy and learn from others due to poor understanding and attention
 2-3 years
  • Has a strong sense of ownership
  • May begin cooperative play
  • Treats doll or teddy as if it is alive
  • Plays alongside others but will not play together with them
  • Begins to use symbols in their play such as a stick becoming a sword
  • Play themes reflect less frequently experienced life events (e.g. visiting the doctor)
  • Play actions are detailed and logical with “No”
  • Uses or plans story-line
  • Has an awareness of a parent’s approval or disapproval of their actions
  • Will express emotions
  • Will verbalise their desires/feelings (e.g. “I want a drink”)
  • Begins to obey and respect simple rules
  • May have difficulties socialising with peers and joint attention
  • May struggle to copy and learn from others due to poor understanding and attention
  • May lead to delayed fine motor skills due to lack of practice manipulating toys and objects
  • May lead to delayed manipulation of small objects such as toys, pencils and scissors
  • May result in frustration when manipulating small toys and objects
 3-4 years
  • Plays with mechanical toys
  • Takes turns with other children
  • Plays with 2 or 3 children in a group
  • Play themes expand beyond personal experience (e.g. fireman rescuing people)
  • Talks about their feelings
  • Feels shame when caught doing the wrong thing
  • May have difficulties socialising with peers
  • May struggle to copy and learn from others due to poor understanding and attention
  • May have difficulties expressing wants, needs, thoughts and ideas
  • May display frustration when manipulating small toys and objects
 4-5 years
  • Begins taking turns and negotiating
  • Plays together with shared aims of play with others
  • Usually prefers playing with other children than playing by themselves
  • Plays imaginatively (e.g. playing in the home-corner, dressing up, cooking)
  • Enjoys playing games with simple rules (e.g. hide and seek)
  • May change the rules of a game as the activity progresses
  • May have difficulties socialising
  • May struggle to copy and learn from others due to poor understanding and attention
  • May have difficulties expressing wants, needs, thoughts and ideas
  • May lead to poor self-esteem due to difficulties interacting with other children
 5-6 years
  • Play themes include themes never personally experienced (e.g. going to space)
  • Plays and negotiates with others during play
  • Play is well organised
  • May have difficulties socialising
  • May have difficulties retelling events
  • May have difficulties following routines
  • May have difficulties expressing thoughts and ideas verbally and in written form
  • May lead to poor self-esteem due to difficulties interacting with other children
 6-7 years
  • Enjoys playing in small groups and making up their own games with rules
  • Enjoys playing co-operative games but has difficulties coping with losing
  • Likes to play with other children of their own gender
  • Enjoys using and understanding rules in play
  • May have difficulties socialising
  • May have difficulties following instructions at home and at school
  • May have difficulties retelling events
  • May have difficulties expressing thoughts and ideas verbally and in written form
  • May lead to poor self-esteem due to difficulties interacting with other children

Where to Begin – The Steps

So, if you are familiar with any of my other blog posts, you know that I love … lists!

#1) Prepare for a marathon, not a race. Maybe they’re two years old, but according to the chart, fall in the 6-12 month range. I know I just used numbers, but do NOT pay attention to the numbers. DO pay attention to progressing from one level to the next. If they are socially DELAYed, remember, it’s a DELAY. If your flight is delayed, you don’t stay at the airport forever – you eventually leave the airport, but it does require your patience. And in this case, also continuing your efforts to help your child improve.

#2) Make your goals by focusing on the section that directly follows where your child currently is. For example, if your child’s social development skills fall in the 0-6 month range, help them meet any remaining milestones in that section and start working on the skills in the 6-12 month range. Be careful to not set your goals on your child’s actual age, unless that actually IS the very next section.

#3) Determine the cause of the symptoms. Very important and step, because we want to TREAT THE CAUSE in order to REDUCE THE SYMPTOMS. For example, does your child have the symptom of not playing with other children unless they are invited? I know that sounds like a petty example, but for the sake of making a point, stick with me. The cause may be not knowing HOW to ask if they can join in. Perhaps they have difficulty putting the thoughts in their head into spoken words (receptive and/or expressive language difficulty), maybe they don’t know the right words to use (vocabulary), or maybe your child is “shy.” Bah! Hate that word! If curious about the story behind that one, please see Why I Stopped Calling My Child Shy and the Steps I’ve Been Taking to Reverse the Effects Anyways, the “cure” in this case may not be as simple as telling your child that “You just have to be brave and ask them if you can play!” Keep in mind that everything in our bodies and brains are connected. If one area is affected in some way, another area is most likely affected as well.

If you think the cause behind your child’s social skills “symptoms” may be due to having difficulty expressing themselves, please click here and scroll down the list and read the posts that apply to your child.

Activities and Suggestions to Help Improve Your Child’s Social Skills

Since this post is about how to help your child improve from one stage to the next, my suggestions will be for each developmental milestone age. So if your child’s social skills correlate mostly with the 6-12 months section on the chart, please read the suggestions for 6-12 months and 1-2 years. A lot of these suggestions are ones that you are probably already doing. If so, keep at it!

The most important thing to do when using these suggestions, is be consistent. It may take weeks or months to see progress, but progress is progress, no matter how fast or how slow.

Talk! Talk talk talk to your child. This suggestion is for now and always and for all the ages, no matter if your child is hours old or years and years old. Their social skills start within their family unit. When a month old watches your face or appears to listen when you are talking to them, that is a social skill. 

Suggestions for Meeting 0-6 Months Milestones

This milestone group is all about you as the parent doing a lot of talking and using “animated” voices and facial expressions. It’s one of the simplest phases, because it’s all about what YOU do.

Close face proximity. Put your face close to your child’s while interacting with them. Basically, give them no choice but to look at you.

Use VERY animated voices and faces. We all know the ones. The eyebrows raised, wide eyed, mouth wide open all while bobbing your head and talking in your alternate ego voice. (The ones I swore I would never do, but couldn’t help but do when mine were born). I know I was trying to make a joke out of it guys, but it’s important to go over the top in order to get and keep your child’s attention. I’m not suggesting to do this every time you speak to your child, but use it randomly so it takes them by surprise.

happy clap GIF by The Boss Baby

Read books and point out pictures. Point to the faces that look happy and say “happy” while using a “happy” voice and point to the sad faces, while saying “sad” in a “sad” voice. An important social skill is being able to discern between different facial expressions and emotions. This is a very difficult area for some children, so it’s a skill that your child needs early and frequent exposure to. Be animated while reading. If a character in the book is sad, use your “sad” voice.

Expose them to other children. If your child does not attend school yet or daycare, take them to a children’s hour at the library or the park. Even if they don’t interact with the other children, point out the other children and talk aloud about what they’re doing. For example, “Look! That little girl is swinging” or “That boy wants to have a turn playing with the ball.”

Suggestions for Meeting 6-12 Months Milestones

Creative Peekaboo. We all know the traditional peekaboo game, but get creative with it. Hide behind a couch or a blanket and then pop out and say, “Peekaboo!” Take your child’s hands and place them over their eyes or eyes while playing the game. Play the game while looking in a mirror.

Talking and the “hand over hand” technique. This technique can be applied to almost any of the 6-12 months developmental milestones. If you’re not familiar with my other blog posts, I’m a big advocate of this technique. I use it frequently in my own therapy sessions. Hand over hand is where you place your hands over your child’s hands and move their hands to help them perform the action. If you were doing “Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man….” for example, you would put your hands over your child’s hands, say the nursery rhyme in time with hand motions, clap your child’s hands together, roll them around, and then make a pitching motion with their hands when they “pitched the cake” in the pan. When it is a question-answer type of activity, say the question, and then give the answer while performing hand over hand. For example, if you and your child are working on lifting their arms to parent in request for the parent to pick them up, you would say (in the cutesy-voice of course!), “What do you want?” Then IMMEDIATELY raise your child’s arms while saying, “Up” or “Pick me up.” Even if your child is not old enough to talk or is not yet talking, it’s important to pair that language with actions so they can continually be expanding their receptive vocabulary (receptive – what you KNOW; expressive – what you SAY).

Gradually fade out the hand over hand technique. If your child is showing signs of being able to perform the milestones more independently, then gradually fade out the use of “hand over hand.” For example, if your child looks up at a parent expectantly when they approach, instead of raising their arms for them, say, “What do you want?” Ask 2-3 times and if they do not respond by raising their arms or telling your what they want, repeat the question, and then IMMEDIATELY do hand over hand technique while saying “up” or “Pick me up.”

Get on their physical level. If able, physically get down on the floor and play with them as often as you can. I don’t get down on the floor everyday at school (I’m a school-based speech-language pathologist), but when I do, I don’t regret it. Their eyes light up and I have their FULL attention. I can’t say that in 100% of cases, but you never know how much they are hearing or learning, even though they are not looking at you.

Act their age, not your’s. Get the toys and play with them like a child their age would. Make the Barbie stand on her head or build the block tower just so you can knock it down. Remember to talk about what you’re doing and what they’re doing. Use the “talking and hand over hand” technique if necessary. “I’m going to jump off the red block into the swimming pool!” and “You’re building a red tower.”

Suggestions for Meeting 1-2 Years Milestones

Look in the mirror together. Doing this helps your child recognize their own reflection and become aware of their own face and it’s expressions. Take different objects and place them on your head or your child’s head. Show them the object in your hand and then have them watch in the mirror while you place it on their head. Take some yogurt (be cautious if your child has allergies to any foods) or a similar consistency and place a little on your child’s nose or feed them while they watch themselves in the mirror. Talk about what you’re doing and what your child is doing during the actual moment.

Teach them how to imitate. Children learn by observing and doing. They watch what other kids do or their caregivers, and they try to do the same. Starting out, choose some particular songs, toys, or actions that you want to use repeatedly during this step. When a song comes on,  do a little dance or put your hands in the air in the wave them around and encourage your child to do the same. Use hand over hand if necessary. If a toy makes a certain noise, make a certain facial expression every single time. Another suggestion is to cook alongside each other (nothing hot, of course!) Put in a cup of flour and then help your child fill up the cup with flour so they can pour it in.

Act their age, not your’s (you may see some of the suggestions appear across the different milestone suggestions). Get the toys and play with them like a child their age would. Make the Barbie stand on her head or build the block tower just so you can knock it down. Remember to talk about what you’re doing and what they’re doing. Use the “talking and hand over hand” technique if necessary. “I’m going to jump off the red block into the swimming pool!” and “You’re building a red tower.”

Mimic the desired social behavior. If your child will not sit next to other children, sit down next to a child during Story Hour at the library and set your child in your lap. If this does not work initially, gradually move closer the other children with your child in your lap or next to you. This may take days or weeks, but the goal is to make your child more comfortable being close to other children. If at a park or a birthday party, toss a ball back with another child and encourage your child to take your place in the game.

I hate to put this in here, but given the circumstances of this day and age, I feel like I have to. I suggest asking the permission of other parents if you can play with their child while their parent is present. Communicate to them what you are trying to teach your child so they are assured that you are not intending harm. I really hated having to say that! But I feel like I have to watch everyone nowadays whenever my children are present and I safely assume others feel the same way. 

Teach them to say “hi” and “bye.” Use the hand over hand technique to pick their hand up and say “hi” and “bye” as people come and go. While playing with toys, “walk” or “drive” a toy into sight and use the hand over hand and talking technique to say “hi.” “Walk” or “drive” the toy out of sight and do the same thing while saying “bye.” As they become more independent, fade out hand over hand and say, “Say ‘hi'” or “Say ‘bye.'” If they do not respond appropriately, do hand over hand. Your child will most likely be more hesitant to say “hi” and “bye” around people they are not very familiar with, but be consistent and they will get it.

Important Note About Saying “Hi” and “Bye” : If your child is nonverbal is not talking yet, I suggest doing the above activity anyway. Even if they just wave their hand “hi” and “bye,” that is a form of communication and socialization. Think baby steps.

Expose them to other children. If your child does not attend school yet or daycare, take them to a children’s hour at the library or the park. Even if they don’t interact with the other children, point out the other children and talk aloud about what they’re doing. For example, “Look! That little girl is swinging” or “That boy wants to have a turn playing with the ball.” Remember, your child learns by watching others and imitating.

Suggestions for Meeting 2-3 Years Milestones

See the suggestions above in “Meeting 1-2 Years Milestones.” A lot of the milestones are similar, but a 2-3 year old would demonstrate the milestones more frequently and with more confidence.

Help them communicate their wants/needs. A lot of the “terrible twos” and “tiresome threes” sayings stem from the fact that 2 and 3 year old’s have a lot of thoughts going around in their head, but don’t know how to effectively verbalize their thoughts. If your child is nonverbal, please read How to Teach Your Nonverbal Child to Communicate Without Using Words,  or Everyday Activities to do at Home to Help Your Child Start Talking, and How to Expand Your Child’s Vocabulary to Improve Their Communication. As always, (my favorite quote!) be consistent! That is the main thing I want you to take from this post and the posts I recommend in this paragraph.

Teach them how to express their emotions. This is definitely an important one. As your child gets older, you want them to be able to say to a friend, peer, grown-up, whatever have you that, “I am angry, because … ” or “It hurt my feelings when you … ” as opposed to clamming up or throwing a tantrum. I know adults that haven’t mastered this one yet (I plead the 5th on this one)

angry the craft GIF
I don’t expect a child who is 2 or 3 years old or developmentally at the 2-3 year old level to express themselves so plainly or effectively. However, exposing them to the different emotions through books, observations, talking about the feeling they are expressing at the moment, and explaining the reason behind those emotions is where it needs to start. They need to be able to at least identify pictures or people that are sad, happy, mad, sleepy, etc. in order to have those building blocks in place.

Suggestions for Meeting 3-4 Years and 4-5 Years Milestones

The 3-4 year milestones and 4-5 year milestones are similar. Expect more of your child as they progress through the milestones. A child at a socially developmental level of 4-5 years, for example, would be expected to tolerate turn-taking and require less encouragement to share and turn take than a child at a 3-4 year developmental level. Also, a child at social level of 3-4 years will need more parental assistance and guidance when learning how to play with other children as opposed to a child at the 4-5 social developmental level.

Teach them how to express their emotions. Again, if you read the above section, this words in bold are a repeat. It is worth repeating, however. Please read this suggestion in the section above if you haven’t already. This is an important skill for a child to have because suppose your child is having or will have a situation where another child is bossy or controlling of them. In this situation, your child knows it makes them feel bad to be treated this way, but they will have a hard time successfully getting a parent’s help or advice if they don’t know how to explain WHAT is making them feel bad and WHY. A few details can change the whole story.

Turn taking. Play a game with your child or sit close by while they play with a sibling. Tell them beforehand that this is a game where you take turns or share your toys. Let them know a few moments ahead of time that it’s “almost my turn.” For example, “Trevor, your turn is almost up and then it will be my/your brother’s turn.” In the beginning for a lot of children, they are going to get MAD!! So, in the beginning, make their turn longer and your turn/sibling’s turn shorter. If they are playing with a sibling that is old enough to understand, explain to them why you are allowing this and get them on board with teaching them. As time goes on, and it will take some time, gradually even out the playing field by having similar turn taking and sharing times.

Playing with others. If your child is enrolled in daycare, preschool, regular school, ask the coordinator or teacher if you can volunteer and tell them why. Just be sure to ensure them that you will not be trying to “make” friends for your child. If that is not an option, take them to Children’s Hour at the library, or sign them up for a weekly sport or activity in the community. If it’s something you think your child will be interested in, that’s even better because they are more likely to have something in common with the other children there. Somewhere or something you can attend to serve as a social guide for your child. Sit next to other children while your child sits in your lap. If you’re somewhere and you don’t think your child will ever see those other children again (play area while on vacation), help them to play with the others, even if they will probably will never be friends. If your child is not ready to talk or ask others to play, start with having them smile at another child, wave at them, or give them the ball back if it accidentally rolls towards your child. Think baby steps toward social self-confidence.

So How Do I Help My Child Play With Others Without Being Overbearing or Creepy?

Keep your child close. You don’t want other parents to think you’re a creep. Comment on what the other children are doing. If you’re at a park, place your child in a swing next to another child swinging. Talk to your child and encourage your child to smile at the other child or, if they’re willing, to ask the other child their name. Lead by example by talking to other adults while your child is present. Here’s the flip side to helping your child socialize: some children socialize better when their parents are NOT around. If this describes your child, I suggest acting different social situations out at home (this one helps my oldest the most), reading books with your  child about socializing, watching videos, and making social stories. A social story is a short book where your child is the main character of the story and the purpose of each story is to help your child understand or become more comfortable in certain situations. It’s like they get to experience the situation and get a child friendly guide as to how they should react in that situation. You can create your own or make one on the Internet. https://www.andnextcomesl.com/2018/03/free-social-story-template.html is where you can create your own social story. Or you can find a list of social stories at https://www.pbisworld.com/tier-2/social-stories/

Suggestions for Meeting 5-6 Years Milestones

The big thing about this stage is being able to effectively communicate with those your are socializing with. Children often talk about what they are “doing in outerspace” for example, as well as using their words if they want to play something different or if they disagree with something their peer said or did. Not so much fun in that instance, but it’s part of it. This stage is where all the other developmental milestones really come together.

Teaching your child effective communication. Think back to when you were little played with siblings or friends or observe the social skills of 5-6 year old’s. Write down the different types of communication. Examples are asking someone to play, telling someone politely that you don’t want to play that game, making up stories as you play, disagreeing with someone if they broke the rules … a lot goes into effective communication skills. First, you need comprehension skills. Such as, the ability to comprehend yes/no questions, who, what, where, when, how, and why questions. The ability to organize your thoughts is crucial. If you ever listen to a child with typical expressive language talk, their thoughts are a little disorganized, but it improves with age. The ability to problem-solve is a biggie, as well as the ability to “read” people’s emotions and knowing what to say or what not to say to them. Attention span is also important. If your child has trouble focusing on one task at a time, they may have trouble following the rules of the game or engaging in play with other kids for a length of time if the game is not constantly changing or physically engaging. Please read the following posts if your child has difficulty with comprehension, organizing their thoughts, or expressing their thoughts.

What Does It Mean if My Child Has A Language Delay or Disorder?
Is Your Child Having Difficulty Communicating? It May Be Due to a Limited Vocabulary Bank.
How to Expand Your Child’s Vocabulary to Improve Their Communication
How to Teach Your Nonverbal Child to Communicate Without Using Words
How to Improve Your Child’s Attention Span
How to Improve Your Child’s Ability to Answer and Ask Questions
Setting Goals for Improving Your Child’s Communication
Teaching Your Child to Communicate When They Are Sick or Hurt if They Are Communication Impaired

Suggestions for Meeting 6-7 Years Milestones

This developmental section is very similar to the 5-6 Years Milestones. Please read “Suggestions for Meeting 5-6 Years Milestones” if you have not already done so. As your child ages or as the progress through the social developmental milestones, their social skills improve. You can not demonstrate 6-7 year social developmental milestones without having first developed 3-4 years social milestones. Think in terms of building blocks. 

Learning how to lose. Ouch! I’m in my 30’s and I don’t like to lose! Just ask my husband about it after a game of chess.

chess table flip GIF                                                          Not really, but I want to.

Kids need to learn how to lose before they are 6-7 years old, but by 6-7 years old, they are typically expected to lose more gracefully. Start at home with this skill. Play a simple game of GoFish, Candy Land, or Chutes or Ladders. Before the game starts, talk with your child about how they may or may not win. If your child wins, voice that you wish you would have won, but congratulate them also. For example, “Aw! I wanted to win! Congratulations!” If you can “sneak” and let them win the first round, you can show them an example of being a “good sport.” Another suggestion would be to play with dolls or toys. Have 2 toys race each other and demonstrate one being a good sport if they lose.

I hope everyone finds something in here that is helpful. If you do not see something that relates to your child, please leave a comment below or email me at reachthroughspeech@outlook.com and I will do my best to create a post, no names mentioned of course, that will hopefully help your child.

Disclaimer Statement

This article was written by a speech-language pathologist, but is not meant to replace a speech-language evaluation or speech-language therapy. If your child is already receiving speech-language therapy at this time, please continue to work on improving your child’s communication at home. Therapy is so much more effective when we all work together with the same goal in mind!

 

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