Seven Tips to Build Your Child’s Social Competence Through Everyday Activities

Have you ever been concerned about your child’s or student’s social abilities? Do they seem younger or more immature than other kids?  Maybe they don’t get invited to birthdays or hang outs? Do they struggle to get along with other kids or work in small groups? Do they gravitate towards adults instead of their peers?  Or prefer to hang along and read or play video games?

If so, he or she  might need a little extra support with learning and practicing these skills.  Although social competence is a complicated process, there is a lot you can do to help. Let’s start by talking about what’s involved and where many kids struggle.

To start, it encompasses multiple skills and aspects of regulation, language and executive functioning including:

  • Being aware of emotions and managing them according to the situation at hand (emotional regulation).
  • Awareness/attention of social situations and the people involved. 
  • Being able to understand what is going on verbally and non-verbally, follow the rules of language, and understand that others have different thoughts than you (perspective taking).  
  • Being able to listen, attain information, and use language to express yourself.  
  • Hold information in your brain, initiate conversation, and plan ahead (executive functioning), and much, much more.

It’s like a complex waltz, and it is no wonder many children (and some adults) struggle with it.

If your child has a delay with emotional intelligence (see past blog), they most likely will struggle with social situations and relationships, so this is exactly where you can start. Emotional regulation is part of social competence and can’t be separated.  If emotions don’t match the social situation at hand, it will change the outcome of the interaction and can have a negative impact. At the same time, a social situation can alter or affect how one feels and evoke emotions, positive or negative.

A really good example of this is taking your child to a birthday party for a classmate. Many children struggle to understand the nuances of celebrating for someone else, putting themselves and their needs  on the back burner stepping into someone else’s shoes and helping them celebrate their big day, all while putting their own emotions aside to focus on the “birthday boy” for the day. This can result in big emotions and even change the situation if a child has a meltdown because they want to open the birthday girl’s present or blow out their candles. Or maybe your child struggles to pick up on subtle social cues, take turns in conversation or play, understand sarcasm, hold personal information about others or work in groups – those are all social communication skills too.

All of these situations require social competency – which is the dance of understanding social communication, applying emotional intelligence and using the skills to meet the social-emotional goals from situation to situation. 

All behavior observed by others is, in fact, social behavior, as the behavior impacts how observers feel, think, and possibly react and respond. 

– Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP 

The key to helping kids really grasp these concepts and carry them into natural situations is to teach and practice them within daily routines and activities. I write about this in my book, wherein I give practical ideas for everyday life that work for YOUR child(ren). You can learn more here.

Here are seven simple tips to help build your child’s social competence from my book to try today:

Tip #1:

Plant yourself and your child in a public place and observe others and people watch – help him identify emotions, read social cues and figure out what is going on.  This is a great activity for a coffee shop, busy train station or a park.

Tip #2:

When your child asks “what’s for dinner?” Or “what should I wear today?” don’t give the specific answer.  Provide coaching by asking her to look around to find the clues and see if she can make a guess by noticing what she sees, smells, and already knows about the situation. Help her learn how to look for context clues and make inferences. 

Tip #3:

Prime your child by telling him what is expected ahead of time.  Teach him the hidden social rules to be aware of. A good example of this is when my son was young, he would have a lot of anxiety going into new situations. So I would explain to him, to the best of my ability, what to expect. I’d tell him who would be there, how long we were planning to stay and what was expected of him. If possible, I might even provide a photo or visual. It helped him prep his mind for what was coming, and plan ahead. 

Tip #4:

Do a practice run/role-play/rehearse before the actual situation. This is a great way to help kids be ready for anything that comes their way.  This can be done proactively for planning or reactively to process what already happened and learn from past experiences.

Tip #5:

Read books and watch movies and discuss what is going on with the relationships and social situations.  “How does Charlie Brown feel? What should he do?”  This is another great way to teach kids to be aware of context clues and build up a mental library of experiences.

Tip #6:

Play nonverbal games such as Simon Says to help build awareness of nonverbal language or Telephone to practice listening and turn taking. Kids learn best when they don’t realize it’s a lesson.  Have fun and use play as much as possible.

Tip #7:

Practice conversation in a structure setting such as the dinner table to build skills in real time.  Make sure to model the skills you want to see in your child and let them know that you also make mistakes – it’s not easy and we can all learn and make improvements.

It’s easier for kids to practice when they feel safe – which is what this tip is all about. You are the person to help make them feel safe and can provide the place(s) to make that happen you are the best teacher they’ve got.

Although these skills are vast and complex, there is a lot we can do to help! The best way to for children to flex their social and emotional muscles and develop these skills is with an adult who understands their needs and provides teachable moments in a compassionate, fun and supportive way.

If you know other parents, caregivers or educators who might be interested in this topic and how to support children, please share this information.

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