21 ways to help your child develop their social skills

Most children develop social skills much like ducks learn to swim. Simply by being immersed in interactions with others they learn how to interpret messages they receive from other people and to respond appropriately. From birth most babies are hard-wired to focus on, interpret and respond to social interactions from others. Some children, including those on the autism spectrum find developing these skills challenging and require specific support to learn how to interact well with others.

Social skills are important in speaking with others, sharing activities, taking turns, developing friendships and relationships. They are important at home, at school, in the community and in play situations. Children who have difficulty interpreting social information, thinking in social way and responding appropriately in social situations often have difficulty making and maintaining friendships and being accepted by their peers. This can impact on emotional development and educational success. If social skills continue to be an area of difficulty, adult relationships can also be affected.

Many children with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, communication difficulties and attention deficits may find developing social skills difficult. Research has shown that without effective teaching of social skills to children with social skills difficulties these children are at risk of emotional and mental health problems as they get older. The need for friendships and the need to feel accepted by others is significant in every child’s development.

The good news is that social skills can be taught. While some children don’t just absorb social skills from interacting, they can learn these skills with specific teaching.

Here are some things that families can do to help children develop these skills:

Learning to relate to others

1. Help your child learn how to talk about their feelings. Let your child know that it is okay to be sad or angry and that this happens to everyone at times. Watch your child's behaviour and give them a word for the way they are feeling. Link it to their experiences. "I can see you feel angry that your sister broke your car". Talk about your own feelings openly too when appropriate so they can see that talking helps people manage their feelings.

2. Give your child opportunities to play with others. Children these days have less opportunities to play unsupervised with friends and neighbours. It is important that parents make time to provide their child with opportunities to play with others. Structured activities such as sports and clubs are good but include less structured activities such as play dates, or a picnic in the park with other families so that children learn to play spontaneously, negotiate and problem solve.

3. Model appropriate social behaviours for your child. Allow your child to see you managing feelings and social situations well. Think out loud about how you are managing your feelings, "I am angry about the errors in this electricity account, but I will ring them and speak calmly about it". Explain your reasoning around social interactions "It is a lot of work to have Aunt June over for dinner but she really likes to have some time out of the nursing home".

4. Allow your child the chance to make age-appropriate choices. Allowing your children to make decisions some of the time (such as whether to do the the park or the beach) means that they will have a sense of control and be more likely to behave in an appropriate way and be accepting of times when they are not able to make a decision (such as going to the dentist). Choices also help to learn about consequences of decisions, such as choosing the beach on a cold day may mean no swimming.

5. Develop your child's confidence. Confident children tend to relate in a more positive way to others. Give your child honest feedback about their efforts and successes, encourage them to try and let them know that everyone makes mistakes at times.

6. Develop your child's problem solving skills. Don't jump in and fix everything for them straight away. Ask questions, describe the problem and help them suggest solutions.Talk through together the likely outcome of each solution and help them choose the best option.

7. Allow your child to practice social skills in real situations. Teach your child how to answer the phone, ask for directions in the shopping centre, order a drink at the cafe and then let them have a try at doing it in the real world. Let them know what they did well and what to try differently next time and encourage them for having a go.

Learning to play with others

The ability to play together with other children is a skill that children develop over time. Some children such as those with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorder may find this particularly challenging. Children with ASD in particular often show a preference for playing alone while their peers enjoy playing together.

This does not mean that these children cannot learn to play with others and enjoy it. Social play has many benefits from children such as developing language, communication, social and problem solving skills. Children with special needs can learn this and often then do find it fun. Some develop a desire to play with others but may be unsure about how to go about it. They may need support to learn to enter play and play cooperatively with others in a way that works for them and for their peers.

Do remember though that all children engage in some solitary play and this has value too. Some children need more solitary "down time" than others, especially children who find social interactions challenging and their need for this should be respected.

If your child has difficulty playing with others some things that you can try include:

8. Offering a range of age appropriate toys and activities. If your child has very specific and limited interests try offering some things that are similar to what your child enjoys but perhaps are also things that other children may enjoy. For example if your child is fascinated with garbage trucks try introducing garbage trucks and also diggers and dump trucks into the sand pit. Later introduce a child who enjoys this type of play to play alongside or with your child.

9. Encouraging your child to imitate actions with objects. Expand your child’s actions by copying them then adding an extra action to the sequence and see if they will copy you. Then involve another child such as a sibling, copy the other child and encourage your child to do the same.

10. Talking about your child’s play by acting as a narrator. “Look teddy is eating his tea, he likes that food, now he is getting full”. Include another child and talk about what they are doing also to help draw your child's attention to the other child's actions.

11. Providing opportunities to play with children of a similar developmental level, who also have some shared interests. You may need to play with them initially to support them and cue your child about what to do.

12. Developing your child's ability to take turns. Initially play games with short simple turns, such as rolling a ball or car back and forth or taking turns to put a piece in a puzzle or shape sorter. Introduce another child into these simple activities initially, "let's do the puzzle, together with Jack". Gradually move to more open ended and less structured activities. You may need to use visual cues, hand over hand support, verbal cues and gestures to cue your child's turns to start with. Gradually remove these cues and wait for your child to respond.

Remember to set your child up for success in playing with others. This may mean:

13. Keeping play sessions short initially, watching for signs when your child has had enough and offering a solitary activity for each child to give your child a break when they need it.

14. Supervising closely while children are playing together to manage any problem behaviours.

15. Discussing with the other child's parent that your child finds playing with others tricky and that they may need some extra help and support. You may discuss this with the other child too if it is appropriate for their age and maturity level.

16. Removing any very special toys that your child has that they may not like other children to touch, prior to the play session to avoid conflicts.

17. Carefully selecting play partners initially. Same age peers with similar interests can be good, however some children may respond better to slightly older children (who are more patient and understanding) or slightly younger children (who are closer to their developmental level) if they are socially immature.

Learning to understand others

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have different knowledge, thoughts and feelings to our own. Theory of mind is important for communicating effectively, developing social skills and empathy. Children develop theory of mind over time and this can be particularly difficult for children with autism.

Understanding theory of mind requires a number of skills:

• understanding facial expressions and emotions

• relating what is seen or said to the context in which it happens

• relating previous experience to what is happening

• taking into account what you know about the other person and their knowledge and life experience

Even with all this information there is an element of "filling in the gaps", inferring information that is not known as a fact that typically developing children do with little effort but those on the autism spectrum find very difficult.

To help your child develop theory of mind, teaching your child to understand emotions and facial expressions is helpful. See tip 1 above.

Other ideas include:

18. Using barrier games to help your child develop an understanding that other people's knowledge is different to theirs and that they need to take this into account when giving information to others. You can download information and printable barrier games from our website.

19. Talking aloud to your child about your thoughts and feelings and comparing it with theirs. "I am feeling hungry because I did not have a snack. You had a snack, are you hungry?" Use lots of "cognitive verbs" when talking to your child, watching movies or reading stories together. These are words that describe what is happening in your head or that of another person or character, like think, feel, wonder, decide.

20. Talking to your child about how different people have different thoughts, feelings and interests. "You like trains so you are having fun, but your sister does not like trains so much so she is a bit bored with this long trip". Draw faces and thought bubbles with older children to show that people have different thoughts about the same thing. You can draw a face with a thought and speech bubble to show your child that people can think and say different things, such as you may say "I like your hat grandma" while thinking "Grandma will feel hurt if I say I do not like her new hat".

21. Participation in group programs such as ‘What’s the Buzz’ and ‘Me and My emotions’ can also greatly benefit your child further develop their social skills.

Are you concerned about your child's social skills? Talking Matters provides diagnosis, speech therapy and occupational therapy for children on the autism spectrum in Adelaide, South Australia. We also have an autism consultant to help with behaviour in school. We offer a range of group programs for social and play skills including social skill programs after school and in school holidays. Browse our website to find out more, or contact our staff for further information.

More information about autism is available to download from the download section of our website. Check our Pinterest page for activities, information and ideas. Check the Talking Matters website for other useful resources. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter so you don't miss out on what's happening.

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