Social Skill Development in Children
A child’s early years are not only a time for taking their first steps or saying their first words. It is also a time when a child is learning to develop their social and emotional skills to build their sense of self and to connect with other people. Through interactions with family members, teachers and friends, children are taught about the social world. By participating in these interactions, a child also has an impact on the way other people feel about them, relate to them and bond to them.
Why is social skill development so important
Social skill development plays an important role in reaching positive developmental outcomes including:
- language development;
- establishing friendship groups;
- developing self-esteem; and
- handling conflicts with peers.
Babies are not born with social skills – social skills have to be learned – and different social skills are acquired at different ages as a child grows and develops. This means that our teaching of social skills should also look different across different age groups.
For a 2-year-old, it might be teaching how to ask for help or how to express feelings using words such as ‘I’m sad’, ‘I’m happy’, or ‘I’m mad’.
For a 12-year-old, it might be explaining why we treat others how we would like to be treated.
Teaching and encouraging social skills leads to healthy social and emotional behaviours that support children to have reciprocal interactions with others and adapt to their environment.
To teach social skills well, it is important to know what social skills are expected at different ages.
What do we expect in infants and toddlers?
During your childs’ first 2 years, their social skills are expected to develop in the way of:
- smiling and reacting in a positive manner to yourself and caregivers;
- showing affection to familiar people and pets;
- bringing items to ‘show’ other people;
- being able to play alone with toys; and
- imitating adults’ actions such as chores and initiating helping behaviours around the house.
What do we expect in pre-schoolers?
As preschool begins and your child’s interactions with other people apart from family begin to expand, their social skills are expected to develop in the way of:
- initiating interactions with other children;
- transitioning from independent play alongside other children to joint play with other children;
- working together with other children on a common activity; and
- enjoying simple group games such as “Simon Says”, “Musical Chairs” and “Duck Duck Goose”.
What do we expect in school-aged children?
By 4 years of age and throughout the early years of primary school, your child’s social skills are expected to develop in the way of:
- pretend play becoming more social and your child enjoying make-believe play with story lines and character acting;
- your child engaging in rule-based competitive games;
- your child developing knowledge of fair play and turn taking with other children; and
- empathy and negotiation skills beginning to emerge as children may want to please their friends.
Throughout the later years of primary school, you may see your child:
- considering the social values of others and determining their friendships;
- recognising bullying behaviours and understanding when someone is being socially excluded from a group;
- demonstrating more conversation-based interactions with other children;
- putting themselves into someone else’s shoes and recognising their feelings to allow them to respond in an understanding and caring manner; and
- being able to solve problems and resolve conflict using verbal language with less adult support.
By high school, your teenager’s social development begins to reach new levels. You will find that your teenager will spend more time with their peers. It is normal to expect your teenager to begin:
- seeking new experiences;
- engaging in risk taking behaviour;
- building a stronger sense of identity;
- having increased conflict with family and peers;
- becoming more aware of their body language and how they may present themselves to others; and
- developing abstract thinking and social reasoning skills to make independent decisions.
Social skills in children are constantly changing and developing. Understanding your child’s social development is vital so that your child can thrive across the early years and into adolescence. Socially and emotionally competent children are confident, have good relationships, persist with challenging tasks, and develop the necessary skills and relationships to succeed later in life.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Australia’s children. Cat. no. CWS 69. Canberra: AIHW
Soto-Icaza, P., Aboitiz, F., & Billeke, P. (2015). Development of social skills in children: neural and behavioral evidence for the elaboration of cognitive models. Frontiers in neuroscience, 9, 333. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2015.00333