Ages and Stages: Nurturing Social Skills

What makes one child a social butterfly and another more reserved? While temperament can account for different ways of socializing, all children can learn skills that help in getting along with others, from the playground to the classroom and beyond. As key parts of Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.), the abilities to understand and to work cooperatively with others are vitally important social skills throughout life. According to a ReadyNation report, kindergartners with higher social-emotional skills were far more likely to graduate from high school and college and have full-time employment at age 25.

Here are some ways to nurture those abilities, starting at birth.

Ages 0–12 Months: When you bond with your baby, you foster and teach trust. Holding your baby, smiling at them, talking, reading and singing to them, and meeting their needs all help to build attachment and security. Early experiences build the foundation for social skills and healthy relationships with others. While babies under the age of one aren’t able to control emotions or fully cooperate, they can express a variety of feelings and desires. Smiling, responding to a baby’s efforts to communicate, and validating feelings aloud so they feel understood, builds confidence, empathy and kindness. To nurture social skills, play sharing games with your baby (roll a ball back and forth, take turns pressing buttons on a toy), and offer praise when they do something kind.

Ages 1–3 Years: Toddlers often engage in “parallel play” with others, which means that they enjoy being around others even if they are not always interacting with them. At this age, children begin to express strong emotions — both positive and negative — and may become aggressive when frustrated. “No” may become a favorite word; help children find words for feelings to build a vocabulary for self-control. Starting at around 24 months, children become more aware of a variety of feelings (their own and others’), expressing both compassion and frustration. To develop cooperation and sharing skills, monitor play, keep expectations reasonable and playdates short, and do a “time in” to discuss feelings if frustration erupts. Set clear expectations for behavior. When your child cooperates, shares, or controls impulses, take notice.

Ages 3–5 Years: During preschool, children become intensely interested in others, forming friendships, initiating play and learning more about cooperating in larger groups. As vocabulary and emotional maturity grows, children are more able to express their feelings and start to control impulsive behavior. Developing rapidly are skills in listening, following directions and rules, and taking turns; positive behavior is reinforced by peers and others. To help nurture preschoolers’ social skills, talk to children when they misbehave, explaining the reasons for rules. Ask how they might have behaved differently. Create opportunities for activities that involve cooperation or sharing, such as building something with friends or making something to give.

Did You Know? Higher Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) is linked to greater success in life. Developing E.Q. includes skills of self-awareness, self-regulation, awareness of others and empathy, as well as social skills.

“Antisocial” Media? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, early interaction with other people is key to the development of social skills. With the exception of video chatting, they recommend avoiding exposure to digital media for children younger than 2 years old, and limiting screen time to an hour a day for children ages 2 to 5. Watching with a parent or caregiver is best for young children.

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