Social relationships are integral to our wellbeing and self-confidence.. We need social interactions to form positive, rewarding relationships, have a successful career, and negotiate problems and conflict in all areas of our lives.
As a result, soft and social skills are an important element of a child’s development. A child is not born with social skills, other than the very basic ways to communicate their needs with their caregivers. Yet, a few years later, that same child will start school. By this time, it is hoped that they will have a range of elementary social skills, such as basic manners and an understanding of sharing. A lot of learning must take place between birth and starting school, and then beyond this point.
So, how can we help our children improve their social skills? A good place to start is to understand how toddlers typically develop their social skills and how they interact with their peers in a toddler nursery.
What is normal social development for young children?
No two children are the same, and all toddlers will learn and develop at their own pace. The typical social and emotional development in a young child happens approximately like this:
Babies learn social skills through interactions with others. Eye contact and smiling are learned by studying and copying their carers’ facial expressions.
In a nursery setting, babies play alone. They may watch other children occasionally and may mimic conversation by babbling. Separation anxiety is common in older babies who often show a clear preference in interacting with people they know well.
As a child reaches toddlerhood, they become increasingly aware of other children playing and will watch them more intently and for longer periods. They may also imitate other children playing.
Separation anxiety may continue to affect children at that age. Undesirable social behavior such as biting and kicking is also common at this stage. Language skills are usually still very limited at this age, so children often struggle to express their feelings and may do so through unwanted physical behavior or tantrums.
Past the age of two, toddlers will typically start to make more interactions with other children and will enjoy the company of others. Toddlers may play with others in the sense that they share materials, like the same box of blocks, but will not usually decide on a common goal for what to do with these materials.
This is a time when children begin learning to cooperate and share. For instance, they may instinctively snatch toys from one another but will then learn from the reaction of the other child. This stage may take some time.
Self-centered behavior at this age is still common, but by a child’s third birthday, they will often have an increasing sense of other people’s feelings, be able to wait briefly for their turn, and sometimes show kindness to others.
Three and beyond
It is not normally until at least the age of three that children form genuine friendships. At this age, they may start to play cooperatively, with shared goals and a desire to problem-solve together.
What are the most important social skills to focus on?
Here are seven of the most important, age-appropriate skills for your toddler to work on:
- Following directions
- Making eye contact
- Good manners
By the age of three, most children will start to demonstrate these basic skills. However, there may be factors that can prevent these skills from developing normally.
Factors that may hinder social development
You’ll notice that the above skills are closely linked with language and communication skills. Emotional development is also related to social skills development. Your child may experience problems in these areas that may also cause problems for social development.
Other factors that may affect a toddler’s social development also include their overall physical health and disabilities that affect communication, such as visual impairment or hearing loss.
There are environmental factors, too, such as whether they have positive role models and a safe, nurturing environment.
How can parents help with toddler social skills?
If you are worried about the development of your toddler’s social skills or if you are interested in helping the normal social development of your child, there are plenty of activities you can do to help. As your child’s primary role model, you are in the perfect position to model good social skills.
Here are five ideas:
1. Turn-taking games
There are lots of games where you can model turn-taking and help your child acquire these skills. Older babies can begin work on this by playing a simple game with a toy. Hand your baby the toy, then hold your hand open and ask for the toy back. Any time your baby succeeds with this, really applaud them.
As your child develops increasing motor skills, you could try rolling or kicking a ball back and forth. Once your child reaches toddlerhood, your child may be able to participate in basic board games, specifically designed for young children. Look out for domino-style games or pair-matching games, for example.
Music plays an important role in every culture. Making and enjoying music together is an important social activity.
For young children, banging a drum or shaking a maracas alongside peers and caregivers is one of their first truly cooperative experiences. They can learn that it’s rewarding to be part of a team and that their individual contribution is valued. So, make music together at home or attend a toddler music class.
3. Cooperative play
Constructing something as a team, using blocks, for instance, takes cooperation, negotiation, and good communication. By building something together with your toddler, you can model all these skills and the language needed in these situations. Ask questions such as, “ What shall we build today?”, “Or we could do it this way, what do you think?” and “I prefer this color, what do you think?”.
At first, your toddler may not want to compromise. However, you are promoting cooperation and are teaching the language they will need to do so themselves. Over time, they will begin to emulate your behavior both with you and with their peers.
4. Reading together
Understanding that other people may feel differently to you is an important concept for toddlers to eventually grasp. Carefully chosen books and stories can open a window on the thoughts and feelings of characters and help develop valuable empathy skills.
Aside from this, storytime is a wonderful, positive, and rewarding social activity for parents and children to share.
5. Encouraging eye contact
Eye contact is so important for good communication and understanding other people’s feelings. Many toddlers need encouragement to make eye contact, and being a good role model can really help. Anytime your child speaks to you, make a real effort to look up from what you are doing and make eye contact until the exchange has finished.
A fun game that may help is to hold staring contests with your toddler, too. Often, you’ll both end up laughing hard, so it’s such a positive affirmation of maintaining eye contact.
Making time for these five simple activities will be so rewarding for you and your toddler. Even the most basic social skills will help them form friendships, enjoy their time at nursery and help them be school-ready when the time comes.
Alan Williamson is the Chief Education Officer at Kings’ Education, a premium school brand in Dubai which leads a fantastic group of premium UK curriculum schools, including Child’s Play Nursery. As well as being passionate about teaching and learning, Alan has been actively involved in school leadership related to Special Educational Needs.