Why It's Important To Develop Your Preschooler's Social Skills
Preschoolers are just beginning to navigate the world of friendships and peer relationships. Help your child develop key social skills that will boost her confidence & help her achieve success in life
By Leena Ghosh • 20 min read
Meera stood outside her 3-year-old daughter’s classroom and peeked in through the glass window. She observed her little girl, Sandhya, sitting alone in a corner, building trains and rockets with different-shaped coloured blocks, while her peers were laughing and playing together on the other side of the room. Over the past few weeks, Meera has been observing a similar pattern, where her daughter always played by herself. Meera was concerned that her daughter was not interacting with her peers.
Worrying questions raced through her mind - Why is Sandhya not mingling and interacting with her peers? Is she finding it difficult to make friends? Is she just shy? Is she being rejected by her peers? Is she feeling lonely at school?
At the next parent-teacher meeting, Sandhya’s class teacher confirmed Meera’s fears. Her teacher explained that Sandhya was a kind child, very creative and academically sound. But, yes, she was finding it difficult to mingle and interact with other children.
Back home, Meera asked her little daughter, “Sweetie, who are your friends?”
Sandhya perked up and replied, “Mamma, you are my best friend!”
While the answer made her happy, Meera persisted, “But, what about your friends at school?”
Sandhya fell silent. Despite prodding, she didn’t look up from her toys.
So, what can Meera do? How can she help her daughter make friends and be more social?
If you, as a parent, are also struggling with such questions, be assured you are not alone. Preschool children are still developing many social skills. They are learning to make friends, cooperate with peers, share, take turns and be more sensitive to other people’s feelings. Some children may be extroverts, who naturally like to interact and socialise with others. Other children may be introverts or socially awkward and may not be very comfortable interacting with their peers.
If your child is an introvert, it only means his temperament (which is biologically based) is such that he needs quiet, me-time to recharge and energise. But this doesn’t mean he lacks social skills.
However, some children, who are socially awkward, may be lacking necessary social skills. They may not know how to behave in a social setting, how to express themselves, how to cooperate and take turns, how to share, how to communicate with empathy, or how to resolve conflicts. Because of this, these children may struggle to make friends.
So, as a parent, it’s very important to understand why your child has difficulty making friends, so you can support him as necessary to strengthen his social skills.
Importance of Early Development of Social Skills
Social skills are intrinsic to a child’s overall well-being. Research shows that good social skills in a pre-schooler contribute to positive behavioural, social, and academic outcomes in later childhood. Specifically, young children’s social skills are an important precursor to their development of school readiness and peer acceptance.
Children who are socially competent:
- Have increased socialisation opportunities with peers
- Develop more friendships
- Have better relationships with their parents and teachers
- Enjoy more academic and social successes
Children who lack social and emotional competence:
- Are at risk for reduced socialization opportunities
- Face rejection from peers
- Display behavioural issues
- Suffer from achievement problems
While research demonstrates that early development of key social skills translates to academic and career-related success, here are other important reasons why you need to pay attention to your little one’s social skills. It:
Builds social competence: Better social skills automatically translate into better relationships with peers. When your child is eager to talk, share, and play with other children his age, it will pave the way for stronger friendships. This makes the whole school-going experience a pleasure for the child. His ability to make friends boosts his competence to handle even the tricky peer interactions.
Increases social awareness: Her ability to socialise easily makes your child a keen learner as she becomes more aware of her social surroundings. The more your child interacts with other children her age, the more she becomes aware of different cultures, preferences, traditions, and beliefs. From tasting a new dish during lunch hour, to learning a new custom or tradition, the preschool social experience is an enriching one for your child.
Helps build empathy: A socially competent child not only communicates better, he is also able to better understand the perspective of his peers. He will show more empathy, kindness, and tolerance as he understands the feelings of others through his observations and interactions.
Sharpens language skills: When your child is exposed to different languages during her interactions with her friends and caretakers, she will pick up new words and learn to communicate, sometimes in languages other than her mother tongue.
Builds self-reliance: The ability to communicate effectively is key to facing and solving difficult situations. If your child is able to express herself effectively to her caretaker or teacher, she will be better able to build a healthy bond and trust with her teachers or caretaker. This teaches her that when faced with a problem, talking to others about it can help her solve the situation. This is a great step towards making a child self-reliant.
Paves the way for better mental and physical health: Better social skills lead to better mental and physical health. A study titled ‘Indirect Effects of Social Skills on Health through Stress and Loneliness’, published in the Journal of Health Communication (2017) shows that poor social skills are not only linked to poor mental health, but it also affects an individual’s physical well-being.
Can preschool education develop your child's social skills?
Yes, preschools definitely have an impact on your child’s social skills. A playschool is a place where children are encouraged to interact in an organised and safe setting. This simply means, that there are rules - you have to share, take turns with the swing, and learn to say words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ while expressing yourself.
5 WAYS TO HELP YOUR PRESCHOOLER BUILD SOCIAL COMPETENCE
Listed below are some strategies to boost your child’s social skills:
1. EXPOSE YOUR CHILD TO VARIOUS SOCIAL SITUATIONS: Play dates, hobby classes, activity centres, or simply the good old playground are all great places to introduce your child to peers his age. This will help him practice and learn interpersonal skills. Try to observe your child interacting with his peers. This will help you understand your child’s personality, social skills and what you can do to support him.
2. HELP YOUR CHILD EXPRESS HIMSELF USING WORDS: At this age your child is still developing his vocabulary and language skills. Often, he may not know what to say or how to express himself. Because of this, he may hesitate to interact with people. Teach your child words and phrases he could use in different situations to help him overcome some of his social awkwardness.
- Encourage him to answer questions directed at him: Even if your child is feeling shy and clinging to you., avoid answering the questions on his behalf, and if he doesn’t answer, don’t force him.
Aunty is asking your name. Would you like to tell her?
Looks like this young girl wants to play with you. Would you like to play with her?
- Role model: In everyday conversations, let your child hear you use words like - Please, Sorry, Thank. He will learn from you. Other phrases you could teach your child to use include – I like this, You are right, You’re welcome, It’s okay, I forgive you. It’s also a good idea to model asking questions such as - Could you please help me? Will you please share it with me?
3. TEACH EMPATHY: When you help your child to become sensitive to another person’s feelings and emotions, you are building empathy in your child. Being empathetic is key to building strong relationships. Children who receive empathy themselves are more likely to be empathetic toward others.
- Be attuned to your child: Being aware of your child’s needs and feelings means you are providing space for your child to interact with her peers, without pressuring her to socialise. Some children, especially introverts, may be uncomfortable playing with a large group of children. Such children may do well interacting with only one friend at a time. As an example, when you organise a birthday party for your child, a good rule of thumb is to invite one friend for every year of your child’s age. So, if your child is turning three years old, invite no more than three friends to her party.
- Acknowledge feelings with words: When you acknowledge your child’s feelings with words, you are teaching him to respect others and not dismiss their needs and feelings. You are also teaching him to name his own emotions. Learning to name one’s emotions is an important part of emotional regulation in children and adults alike.
You could reflect back your child’s feelings by saying, “I’m sorry that your tower broke. You must be feeling so disappointed! Do you want my help?”
If your pre-schooler says, “I hate Sasha. I’m never playing with her again” resist the urge to delve into an explanation about why she shouldn’t use the word ‘hate’. Good feelings won’t come in until the bad feelings are let out. Instead, try saying, “Sounds like you’re really angry with Sasha right now!”
- Teach empathy: Help your child understand how other people may be feeling in different situations. Here are some other ways you can inculcate empathy in your child:
Read books and share stories with your child. Discuss the different characters and what they may be feeling as they experience different situations through the story.
Point out instances of kindness on the playground or in her playschool, ‘”You saw how Sheila helped Rahul climb up on the monkey bar. How do you think Rahul is feeling right now?”
4. TEACH COOPERATION: At this age, children are still learning to share and cooperate with other children. Here’s what you can do to help your child with cooperative play:
- Sharing: In your child’s mind, he feels entitled and everything is still ‘mine’. When your child learns to share his toys and other things she learns to cooperate and build good relationships.
If your child tries to snatch a train that his friend is playing with, you could say, “Misha is still playing with her train. Misha, after you are done playing with the train, could you give it to Muhil? Thanks so much Misha! Muhil, let’s find something else to play with. Would you like to slide your cars down this slope?
- Taking Turns: While playing with other children, help your child understand the concept of taking turns, as opposed to forcing him to give up what he is doing.
If your child is playing on the swing and another child wants to also play on the swing, you could say, “Saana would like to play on the swing too. After you play for five more minutes, it is Saana’s turn on the swing.”
- Showing kindness: Encourage your child to help a friend in need – helping soothe a friend who is hurt, sharing his pencil if the other child needs one, helping a friend build a sandcastle and so on.
5. TEACH CONFLICT MANAGEMENT: How your child responds to peers in times of conflict can make or break his friendships and relationships. Here are some ways in which you could coach your child to handle conflicts effectively.
- How to say it: When your child is facing a conflict situation, coach your child on what she should say to her friend to diffuse the situation. Role play is also a great way to help your child learn how to deal with peers in different situations.
Dr. Laura Markham, creator of AhaParenting.com, and author of bestselling book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, recommends, “If your child grabs his peer’s toy, see how the other child reacts. If she doesn’t get bothered, drop the issue.” If your child does object, here’s what you can gently say to her, “We don’t snatch. If you’re not okay with Misha taking your train, you can tell her, “My Train! Please give it to me.”
If another child is pushing your child playfully and your child isn’t enjoying it, teach your child how to stand up for herself and be assertive: She could say, “I don’t like being pushed. Can we play something else?”
- When your child is having a difficult time: There will be times when your child is the one causing trouble or misbehaving with his peers and refusing to cooperate.
Your child is throwing sand on his friends while playing in the sandpit. What can you do? Here are some strategies to get him to stop, while ensuring cooperative play:
a. Describe how you feel: This way you avoid blaming the child while sharing your concerns in a respectful manner. It models a vocabulary of emotions that your child can use when she is frustrated, upset, or scared. It also helps your child understand how others may be feeling.
I’m worried about the sand hurting other children’s eyes.
b. Give information: It’s more effective to give your child simple information rather than giving an order. When you share information it allows your child to figure out for herself what to do; it helps avoid your child’s natural resistance to a direct order. It also helps your child develop self-control.
When sand gets in our eyes, it hurts a lot and it can damage our eyes.
c. Be playful: Turning something into a game or a challenge has the power to transform an uncooperative or disruptive child into one who is eager to try the challenge.
Let’s see who can build the tallest sandcastle!
d. Offer a choice: Give your child choices and some control over her life, instead of just giving instructions and commands. This teaches her that she can make her own decisions and it builds self-reliance.
I see you’re in a throwing mood. What can you find that’s safe to throw? Would you like to throw leaves or flowers?
e. Take action without insulting: When nothing else works, without scolding or accusing the child, you can stand your ground and enforce a limit.
I’m taking you home. I can’t let children get sand in their eyes. We can come back another time.
- Handling Meltdowns: In spite of all your efforts to distract and diffuse a conflicting situation, your child may end up having a meltdown. Meltdowns are a way for children to express their overwhelming feelings (No, your child is not ‘misbehaving’. He’s unable to contain his big feelings). This is not an opportunity to discipline; a distressed child is unlikely to register your instructions or reprimands. “Your acceptance of his feelings is what will help him calm down and feel accepted, and make it less likely for him to grab again,” says Dr Markham.
Connect and calm your child. So, if there is a meltdown, pause to calm yourself down first (a frustrated parent can’t calm a frustrated child). Connect with your child by letting him know you understand how he feels. Then, allow your child to let out his big emotions and settle down before you try to teach him how he could better handle the situation: You could say, “You really wanted to play with that train! Do you want a hug? I’m here for you…” Then when he has calmed down, ask him how he could have handled the situation better, “How could you have told Misha that you also wanted to play with the train…”
A pre-schooler is like a sponge. He absorbs and imitates whatever he sees in his immediate environment and in his social circles. Your child observes how you socialise and interact with others and learns from you. You as a parent, play a very important role in helping your child develop key social skills that will last him a lifetime. So, go ahead and let your child play, interact and have fun with his buddies!
In a Nutshell
- Preschoolers with good social skills develop more friendships, have better relationships with their parents and teachers, and enjoy more academic and social successes
- Children develop social skills when they get opportunities to interact with their peers and have a parent to guide and teach them the skills to communicate, share, take turns, show empathy and handle conflicts
What you can do right away
- Observe your child playing with her friends and see how she interacts to understand her social skills
- Teach your child to take turns
- The next time your child gets upset, acknowledge his emotions and help him name his feelings – ‘I can see you are upset..’
About the author:
Written by Leena Ghosh on 13 March 2020.
Ghosh is a journalist with over 12 years of experience in the field of feature writing, reporting, editing, and managing edit teams. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 16 March 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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