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How to Nurture Social Skills for Children

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Written by
Voyager Sopris Learning
Supported with input from
Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson
Updated on March 27, 2024
Quick Takeaway

Educators can foster social skills in students through engaging activities, including role-playing, board games, playdates, and problem-solving scenarios. Teamwork and cooperation skills are cultivated through collaborative projects, classroom discussions, and peer teaching. Effective communication, both verbal and nonverbal, is crucial for navigating social situations. Emotional skills in social-emotional learning (SEL) contribute to reducing negative social interactions and enhancing overall well-being. Explore these strategies and more to promote successful social interactions in students from preschool to K–12.

Educators understand that besides academics, social skills are crucial for a child's overall development. These skills, including emotional regulation and building positive relationships, significantly impact a child's well-being and success in school and life. From preschool to K–12, developing strong social-emotional skills is vital for mental health and equitable learning. This post explores practical strategies for educators to nurture social skills in students of all ages.

The Foundation of Social Skills in Young Children

Humans naturally acquire social skills from a very young age, often expressing emotions through babbling, hitting, pushing, crying, or screaming. These early behaviors serve as non-verbal communication, laying the groundwork for later social development. Fundamental skills like body language, eye contact, facial expressions, and personal space mark crucial milestones in child development.

  • Body Language: Nonverbal communication conveyed through body movements or gestures.

  • Eye Contact: The act of looking directly into someone's eyes during communication.

  • Facial Expressions: Nonverbal signals conveying one's feelings.

  • Personal Space: The immediate space around an individual.

Children who struggle with these foundational skills may encounter challenges in effectively engaging and communicating with their peers. However, social skills are teachable and educators can integrate various hands-on activities into their teaching methods. As Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson puts it, teachers should “be curious about the skill or skills that may be underdeveloped and need more instruction and guidance.” The responsibility of instilling strong social skills in students will be more fruitful when teachers approach it from this frame of mind. 

It’s important to note children with autism may face specific challenges in interpreting and responding to social cues. Engaging in eye contact might cause discomfort, and some may express emotions through physical actions or loud vocalizations due to a lack of verbal language. Recognizing and addressing these challenges is crucial to providing tailored support for their effective social development.

Activities to Enhance Nonverbal Communication Skills

As discussed, nonverbal communication is a key component in building strong social skills. That is why it’s so important to incorporate interactive and engaging activities in a dynamic learning environment for preschool and K–12 students. Here’s a look at some activities educators can implement to enhance students’ nonverbal communication:

  • Role-Playing for Practical Learning: Incorporating role-playing into practical learning is a hands-on approach where scenarios mirroring real-life situations are created. Students have the opportunity to practice and refine their understanding of body language and facial expressions. In this context, educators serve as role models, demonstrating appropriate behavior and social skills. Games like Simon Says or comprehension questions after reading a story promote active listening skills. Additionally, educators can model proper responses to reinforce manners. John Hattie, an education researcher, has extensively studied the impact of various teaching methods on student learning. His findings emphasize the positive effects of role-playing in education, highlighting its contribution to active engagement and skill development among students. 

  • Board Games for Fun Learning: Utilizing social skills board games provides an enjoyable way for students to practice and enhance their nonverbal communication skills. Games requiring the interpretation of visual cues create a playful learning environment, alleviating potential anxiety associated with social interactions. This approach fosters an atmosphere where mistakes become learning opportunities.

  • Playdates: Playdates offer natural settings for children to practice and refine their nonverbal communication skills. Structured playdates focusing on cooperation, sharing, and understanding cues can be seamlessly integrated into classroom activities, whether during small-group sessions or whole-group lessons.

  • Being a Good Sport: Creating opportunities for students to practice good sportsmanship in both verbal and nonverbal communication is essential. Acknowledging and respecting cues, even in competitive situations, plays a crucial role in social interactions. Facilitating these scenarios allows educators to explicitly teach appropriate behavior and model teamwork.

  • Utilizing Stuffed Animals for Comfortable Exploration: Stuffed animals can be used as a tool for introducing nonverbal communication concepts in a nonthreatening manner. These soft companions can serve as a bridge for shy or anxious students to practice expressing themselves or practice other social skills like active listening, personal space, or maintaining eye contact.

Problem-Solving and Conflict-Resolution Skills

Problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills can help students achieve social competence and self-confidence. This thought and communication process starts in preschool but continues through high school and, eventually, the workforce. Educators can implement practical strategies including:

  • Problem-Solving: Teaching students problem-solving skills in various everyday scenarios will help them become more resourceful, patient, and situationally aware. Educators can do this through role-playing activities, skits, or group games. An example is creating a role-playing activity where students encounter a situation of having limited snacks to share during a class celebration. This prompts them to problem-solve and find creative solutions for fair distribution among classmates. It’s also worthwhile to regularly expose students to diverse challenges, allowing them to adapt their problem-solving approaches.

  • Conflict Resolution Through Turn-Taking: Turn-taking activities such as popcorn reading or having a different line leader each day provide students with opportunities to practice conflict resolution. They will learn to be more empathetic and collaborate better with peers. The ability to wait, take turns, and share resources is fundamental to resolving conflicts and promoting harmonious interactions with peers, and, eventually, coworkers or colleagues. 

  • Conflict Resolution Through Active Listening: Active listening is a powerful tool for conflict resolution. Active listening builds trust between communicators and can help identify and solve problems during conflict resolution. Educators can teach and reinforce active listening skills among students by having them ask questions during guided peer interactions, summarize a story after listening to it aloud, or play an old-fashioned game of telephone.

Developmental milestones can be indicators of improved social skills. Notice when students begin to resolve conflicts with peers instead of tattling, control their emotions when they would normally have an outburst, or try to solve a problem on their own or appropriately ask for help. Celebrate and acknowledge students' progress, no matter how small, and reinforce positive behaviors.

Fostering Teamwork and Cooperation Skills

Teamwork and cooperation skills are important social skills teachers have the opportunity to develop in their students. They can be cultivated through activities that involve shared responsibilities and working toward a common goal, providing students with opportunities to work as a team and practice cooperation while contributing to the group's success. Here are some practical and tangible methods:

  • Group Projects: Assign collaborative group projects where students need to work together to achieve a shared objective. Ensure the tasks require communication, division of responsibilities, and a final presentation or outcome that reflects the collective effort.

  • Classroom Discussions: Facilitate classroom discussions on relevant topics. Encourage students to express their opinions, actively listen to their peers, and find common ground. This promotes respectful communication and understanding of diverse perspectives.

  • Peer Teaching: Implement peer teaching strategies where students collaborate to explain concepts to each other. This not only reinforces their understanding of the material but also develops leadership and cooperation skills.

Enhancing Communication and Language Skills

Effective communication, verbally and nonverbally, is intricately linked to social skills, forming the foundation for students to have successful interactions in various settings. Educators play a pivotal role in reinforcing this connection by integrating language development into activities that enhance social skills. Practical strategies within the classroom can include fostering an environment that encourages verbal expression, active listening, and an appreciation for diverse communication styles.

Language development is a crucial component in navigating social landscapes. Helping students acquire a rich vocabulary and the ability to articulate thoughts will contribute significantly to effective communication skills, fostering positive social interactions. Educators should emphasize the nuanced nature of communication in different social settings, highlighting the value of adapting language to suit diverse situations as a valuable skill. An example of demonstrating this would look like working on a collaborative project with your students. In collaborative projects, effective communication is vital. Clear instructions, active participation, and open dialogue are essential elements contributing to successful teamwork. 

Emotional Skills in Social-Emotional Learning

Emotional skills play a pivotal role in social-emotional learning (SEL), contributing to a reduction in negative social interactions and enhancing students' well-being. When students experience a positive environment that encourages open communication and diverse perspectives, coupled with techniques that promote thriving, the likelihood of social problems diminishes. Negative behaviors like bullying, defiance, or emotional outbursts are more likely to subside when students actively participate in appropriate, nurturing social situations.

SEL activities integrated into teaching methods offer a platform for students to explore and express their emotions, creating a safe space that fosters emotional skill development. Empathy, a fundamental emotional skill, enables individuals to connect emotions and experiences with others. Understanding and managing emotions is vital for effective social interactions. Guiding students in recognizing their emotional states and employing healthy coping mechanisms, such as deep breathing exercises or positive self-talk, contributes to emotional skill development. SEL and emotional skills extend beyond the classroom, serving as lifelong tools for navigating various social situations.

Conclusion

Effective communication, the ability to problem-solve, and work in a team are all essential for successful social interactions. To promote social skill development in students, educators can explore the recommended activities mentioned in this post and incorporate them into teaching practices. For more resources, insight, and tools to implement these strategies effectively, browse proven education solutions from Voyager Sopris Learning®.

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