By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Social skills are tools that we use to interact with and understand others in our social environment. These skills are not innate, but are learned through our interpersonal experiences. Unlike “abilities”, which we are born with, “skills” can only be learned through practice. For example, some people are born with the ability to sing beautifully, while the skill to write one’s name must be learned. In addition, social skills can be lost if not practiced. It was found that prisoners of war, who were in isolation for long periods of time, actually lost their social skills and had to re-learn them. Children who are shy or socially withdrawn have less opportunity to practice and improve their social skills. Similarly, children with undesirable social behavior may be avoided by others and excluded from social events. Consequently, they are at-risk for falling further and further behind same-age peers in terms of their social skills development. Good social skills are necessary for positive emotional adjustment and successful functioning at home, school, work, and other social settings. Not surprisingly, research shows that people with poor social skills have more problems in school, at home, at work, and with the legal system.

As a parent it is important to provide opportunities for your child to interact with others. Whether it is participating in structured extracurricular activities or just getting together with friends for play dates, regular ongoing opportunities to socialize are important. If your child is reluctant to engage in these activities, use empowerment strategies by giving them choices and a major voice in all of the decisions, but let them know that they need to do something that requires them to interact with others.

Another way to help increase social competence is participation in a social skills training program. This training has been shown to be an effective way for children to learn needed strategies and “catch-up” to their peers in terms of their social competence. These skills can be taught individually or, better yet, in a group setting. The specific social skills that are taught typically involve: non-verbal communication (e.g. eye contact, nodding, smiling), social perspective taking (getting a better sense of how others’ are thinking and feeling), empathy, asking questions, dealing with peer pressure, etc.

As we try to focus on the whole child, nurturing our children’s social development, along with their academic and emotional development, will help them be successful in life.