How to Develop Social Skills in Children

Five Methods:Instilling Social Skills in InfantsTeaching Toddlers to InteractPreparing Preschoolers for Social SituationsShowing Good Social Skills to School Aged ChildrenIncorporating Social Skills into the Classroom

Developing social skills in children prepares them for a lifetime of healthier interactions in all aspects of life. Social skills are an integral part of functioning in society. Displaying good manners, communicating effectively with others, being considerate of the feelings of others and expressing personal needs are all important components of solid social skills. Helping children to develop these important skills requires a different set of strategies in each stage of development.

Method 1
Instilling Social Skills in Infants

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    Respond to your baby’s needs. Babies are unable to tell you what they want directly. This means you will need to pay attention to the actions and non-verbal cues that your baby gives. When you know what your baby needs, give it to them. If that doesn’t work then you may have misinterpreted their needs, and you should try something else.[1]
    • For example, if your two week old is crying and isn’t soothed by their bottle, they may need to burp instead of eat. Try burping your baby, and if that doesn’t sooth them, move to the next thing (such as rocking), and so on.
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    Allow your baby to explore through play. Adults sometimes make the mistake of assuming children play just to pass the time. This is not true. In fact, children gain most of their skills through playing. This is how they explore the world around them, and it should be encouraged for them to learn new skills while playing.[2]
    • For example, you could play peek-a-boo with your child. While on one hand it is a simple game, on the other hand they learn that you will go away and come back. They also learn to be excited when they see you.
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    Acknowledge your baby’s accomplishments. While your baby is exploring their world through play, they will learn new skills. It is up to you as a parent to reinforce those skills by giving your baby positive feedback. This makes your baby feel confident and secure in their development.[3]
    • While it might not seem like much work to hold a bottle, it is quite the feat for your six month old. Tell them that you are proud of the things they are able to do.
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    Help your child push their boundaries. All of the skills we need in life have to be learned. Sometimes, this means pushing the limits a bit. You should play with your baby and challenge them to do something that is a little harder than they are used to. For example, if your baby likes to roll a ball, try making them roll the ball into a set of pins or a basket.[4]
    • Be sure to keep this light and do not make it competitive.
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    Nurture your baby. Babies thrive on attention from their parents. You should hold your baby, and talk or sing to your baby often. This interaction will help them feel loved. These things need to be done both when the baby is calm and cute and when the baby is crying and being fussy.[5]
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    Create a safe environment for your baby. Two key elements of making babies feel safe are to respond to their needs as soon as you can and to make their day predictable. By responding quickly when your baby cries, you are teaching them to trust you. Keeping a regular schedule for your baby helps them to predict their day and keeps them from being confused and frustrated.[6]
    • When you are dealing with a newborn, you typically need to respond in an “on demand” way. Babies usually do not adopt a schedule until sometime between three and six months.

Method 2
Teaching Toddlers to Interact

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    Teach your toddler about feelings. It is important to discuss feelings with your toddler. Through your discussion of how they feel, they begin to learn words associated with those feelings and can later use those words to talk out their feelings. This will help them transition to talking about feelings instead of acting out their frustrations.[7]
    • You might say something like “I know you are sad that it is bedtime, but we can play with your toys again tomorrow.”
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    Observe your toddler’s feelings. It is important to observe how your children play and act out to understand their feelings. By watching and understanding your toddler’s feelings you can more effectively discuss them. You can also teach your toddler to express their feelings in more socially constructive ways.[8]
    • If your toddler is angry, you might say something like “I know that you are upset that the candy is gone, but you cannot hit people. Instead, you can show us you are upset by taking a deep breath and just telling us you are upset.”
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    Discuss limits with your toddler. Toddlers need to understand what is expected of them. They will naturally push the boundaries, but if you set firm limits and give explanations for those limits, most toddlers will begin to respect the rules. This gives them the structure and boundaries they need to feel secure.[9]
    • Emphasize the positive aspects of rules with your toddler. For example, explain that the your child must get enough sleep tonight so that he or she can have more fun tomorrow.
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    Encourage your toddler to make friends. Babies do not interact very well with each other, but once children start to reach the toddler phase, they begin to socialize a bit with other kids. Encourage your toddler to make friends, and teach him or her how to do things like introduce him or herself. This is one of the early milestones in socializing your child.[10]
    • Do not be surprised if your toddler plays more “beside” the other children than they play “with” the other children. Parallel play is common in this stage.

Method 3
Preparing Preschoolers for Social Situations

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    Provide your preschooler with limits. During the preschool years, children really begin to explore the world around them. Their curiosity may seem to have no limit, so you must set the limits. Explain to your preschooler why they must stay in the yard and not cross the street alone, for example.[11]
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    Encourage your preschooler to be independent. While limits are important, so are expectations. It is okay to help your preschooler do things like button and zip their clothes. You should start expecting them to dress themselves, though (or at least try). Rather than making these tasks a chore, be sure to frame them in a positive way that keeps your preschooler excited about being independent.[12]
    • You can also set expectations such as helping to set or clear the table, picking up toys, and putting dirty clothes in a hamper.
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    Facilitate social interactions with children. At this age, children are beginning to take turns and play together even more than in the toddler phase. You should encourage this social interaction by letting your child play with neighbors and friends. This will begin to build their confidence to make more friends as well as their social skills.[13]
    • Once you have created the social environment (a play date for example) back away and let your child interact with the other children. Only intervene when necessary.
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    Interact with your child as a role model. While interacting with peers is an important part of learning social skills, it isn’t foolproof. Other preschoolers that your child plays with are likely to have roughly the same social skills as your preschooler. This means that more advanced social skills will come from modeling older kids and adults. As a parent, you should try role playing games and take charge in your helping your child learn to be social.[14]
    • For example, preschoolers may practice saying please and thank you while they play, but may need your guidance to understand that they should make eye contact when they do so.
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    Put your child in cooperative situations. This can often mean just letting your child play with other preschoolers, but it helps to be more intentional about it sometimes. Design scenarios where your child has to work with someone else to complete a task. Asking your child and a friend to do a chore together before they play can be a good way to teach cooperation and teamwork.[15]

Method 4
Showing Good Social Skills to School Aged Children

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    Listen to your child’s conflicts objectively. Do not get overly emotional when your child has a conflict with another child. If you react rashly, you will be teaching your child to do the same. Instead, ask questions or make statements about the situation that allow your child to see the conflict from both sides.[16]
    • You might say something like “I’m sorry that your friend took the ball from you. He must have felt like it was his turn to have the ball, but you felt like it was still your turn.”
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    Empathize with your child. While you do not want to give your child the impression that they are always right or that they have no fault in conflicts, you should show that you care how they feel. Do not dismiss your child’s feelings. Instead, relate to their feelings and help them relate those feelings to how others might feel.[17]
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    Help your child express how they feel without attacking someone else. Children are often confused and frustrated by their emotions. This can lead to hitting, yelling at, or blaming someone else for their frustration. Teach your child techniques like taking a deep breath and counting to ten, then saying what they need to say politely.[18]
    • If your child comes crying to you because a friend wouldn’t play the game they want, you could say something like “I know it’s hard when other people don’t want to do the things you want to do. That makes me upset sometimes, too. Do you think your friends feel upset when you don’t play their games?”
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    Teach self advocacy to your child. Part of teaching your child to cooperate with others is to teach them how to express their wants and needs. Whether in the classroom, at home, or on the playground, children will need to voice their wants and opinions. You must teach them to do this effectively and respectfully so that they may advocate for their own needs.[19]
    • This could be something like reassuring your child that it is okay to raise their hand and ask to go to the restroom in class, if that’s what the need to do.

Method 5
Incorporating Social Skills into the Classroom

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    Choose a social skill to work on. It is important to target specific things in the classroom. Choose a skill and set a goal for the children to reach. The skill might be something like waiting until discussion is finished to sharpen a pencil. While this seems trivial, it teaches children to respect and listen to what someone else is saying.[20]
    • Be sure that you are choosing skills that are within the children’s ability to understand. Skills for kindergarteners will be different from sixth graders, for example.
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    Make the skill into a rule. Children may not say that they like rules, but this is what they need to be successful. For the pencil sharpening example, the rule might be something like “You may only sharpen your pencils when everyone has finished speaking.” The children will understand the rule and begin to follow it, though they may need reminded from time to time.[21]
    • The “rule” takes the skill from being merely a suggestion of how to be courteous, to a clear message about what is expected.
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    Show the children how to follow the rule. The first part of this is to role play. Pretend you are one of the children you teach and show them what you expect. The other part is to follow the rule yourself. If the children are not allowed to sharpen a pencil while you are talking to them, then you may not sharpen a pencil when they are talking to you.[22]
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    Allow the children to practice the rule. Have some “test runs” with your new rule. For example, you might give out a few unsharpened pencils and let the children try to sharpen them at appropriate times through the day. Do not punish them for mistakes, but coach them through what should have been done.[23]
    • It is important that the children are comfortable with the rule. If it appears that they do not understand after the first practice run, give it some time and do another one.
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    Communicate with parents about what their children are learning. Parents can do a lot to reinforce what is going on in the classroom. Most parents genuinely want to see their child do well. If you keep them informed about what is happening in the classroom and why, you’ll find that some of those behaviors will be modeled at home, too.[24]


  • Talk to your child’s doctor during visits to assess any missed or exceeded milestones.
  • Remember that children mature differently.
  • Do not expect perfect social skills from a child.
  • Understand that children are mentally and physically different from adults, and operate differently. For this reason, a child should not be thought of as a “miniature adult” capable of doing adult things.


  • If your child has developmental delays or special needs, they may develop social skills at a different pace than other children.
  • If your child does not appear to be developing the same set of social skills as their peers, you should bring this up with your doctor. There may be underlying medical or mental health issues.

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Categories: Raising Children | Conversation Skills