Mind your manners. Be polite. Practice good etiquette. Many people think these are the hallmarks of good social skills. Social skills, in fact, are the tools we use to help us get along with others, as well as forming and maintaining relationships. While these skills come naturally to some, many children struggle to relate to others in meaningful ways.
Some children learn to observe and then imitate others during play, school and other social situations. Other children require direct instruction in order to obtain these necessary skills. For example, what sometimes looks like misbehavior could be a deficit in social development. Unrelated to IQ or general intelligence, some individuals do not naturally acquire the skills needed to play and interact appropriately.
Using social skills involves the ability to observe environmental and social cues. Further, it requires the ability to understand and interpret these cues. Finally, it entails the ability to act upon that information in order to interact with others in positive ways.
Children with ADD/ADHD, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders, for example, tend to have significant social deficits. These children often struggle with impulse control, maturity and the ability to understand the perspective of those around them. This can lead to difficulty with peers, parents and teachers. It can cause isolation and ineffective relationships. It can ultimately lead to difficulty in the workplace.
Often, social skills training focuses on turn-taking, sharing, recognizing emotions, memorizing appropriate questions and responses, etc. Other programs focus on perspective-taking, that is, the ability to figure out what other people think and feel. Some courses teach self-awareness. This helps children understand their own feelings, motivations and behaviors.
One way to undertake social skills training at home for young children is with facilitated play dates. During short sessions (1-1 ½ hours), parents can help children navigate one-on-one interactions with a peer. With facilitation, a child has the opportunity to work through interactions with support. For some children, these interactions would not be difficult. However, for others, even the act of attending to a particular activity with another child for any period of time could be difficult. With subtle coaching, parents can help their child to “stay in the game” and converse with another child. In time, the child can learn to play with another for sustained periods without support.
Social skills groups can help children learn to navigate social situations through direct instruction, role play, social stories, games and a variety of other techniques. Groups are typically set up based on age and skill level, and sometimes gender. Goals are established based on group needs. Treatment plans can be approached from a variety of specialty areas including psychology (behavior management, play therapy, cognitive behavioral approaches), speech therapy (social communication) and occupational therapy (sensory integration), among others.
Individual social skills training can be used in a variety of settings to help children navigate social situations through video modeling, direct instruction, social stories and facilitated play. School and camp are particularly good settings for this type of intervention. Office based one-on-one therapy can be useful, but must be generalized into natural environments where social interactions take place.
Ultimately, social skills allow individuals to take in and process information about how they interact with others. This includes how they think about other people and how others think about them. It includes how one behaves towards others and how they behave towards each other. It helps individuals to build meaningful relationships and lead fulfilling social lives. Helping children acquire the tools that will help them to approach social situations appropriately benefits them at home, school and eventually the workplace.
Dr. Wodinsky is a social skills therapist working with children in groups and individually at Teaneck Speech and Language Center. She can be reached at a.wodinsky_teaneckspeech.com.
By Avigael (Stephanie) Saucier Wodinsky, Ph.D., M.Ed., MBA, GAC-AI, GAC-ABA