Teaching Social Skills Early Supports School Success

Policy makers and educators are eager to understand school readiness, particularly in Memphis where many children start school at-risk for poor academic performance. Unfortunately, much of our focus has been on cognitive skills, and we have tended to ignore social development, a key aspect of early brain development and a powerful predictor of success in school, and in later life.

Ideally, during early childhood, children learn to interact with one another in ways that are positive and successful 1. But where children lack positive social interactions early in childhood they are more likely to suffer negative consequences later in life, such as withdrawal, loneliness, depression, and feelings of anxiety. How can we pay more careful attention to the development of social skills in our youngest children?

Early childhood educators can do many things to promote and support the development of positive social interactions. Most importantly, they can develop positive relationships with each child, structure the physical and social classroom environments to support positive interactions, and teach individual children specific social skills that they lack. The classroom itself is an environment that is very conducive to fostering positive social interactions among young children. Teachers need to ensure that the classroom is a place where children want to be, and can do so by creating classrooms that are well-planned and well-stocked learning centers 2. This will increase the likelihood that children will engage in playing and learning with each other, especially in the following ways:

  1. Placement- set clear boundaries to let children know where a center begins/ends, prevent overcrowding, and separate noisy centers from quieter ones so children can concentrate on their play and learning.
  2. Number- make sure there are enough centers to accommodate all the children, but not so many that children play by themselves most of the time.
  3. Materials- offer items that promote social play, such as dramatic play props and dress-up clothes, art materials for collaborative projects, and toy farm/zoo animals and diverse family figures. Provide enough items so children can carry out their plans and do not get frustrated waiting for what they want to use.
  4. Images- display posters and photographs of children and adults shaking hands, hugging, and otherwise enjoying each other’s company. Include books that reflect the diversity of the community and highlight important social emotional skills.

Teachers can also help promote social interactions by observing natural interactions among children who seek out each other as play partners. This is an excellent way to collect information on an individual basis, and use later to foster peer interaction. Grouping children who are outgoing with peers who tend to be more introverted and shy can facilitate interactions and the development of relationships 3. Placing children with less developed social skills alongside or near more socially skilled children during large and small group activities is a minimally intrusive way to encourage interaction.

Obviously, teachers are not the only source from which children learn early social skills, and much of this begins in the home as early as birth and infancy. Children learn the most basic concepts of social interaction during play. A variety of activities such as peek-a-boo can spark this kind of social development. Mimicking expressions in a mirror is a great source of entertainment and social stimulation for babies. Time spent with your infant in play helps them develop self-esteem and confidence. These traits are the basis for the relationships they will build over their lifetime.  For older children, parents can arrange play dates, model how to interact with others, and spend time with their children in places where other children and families participate in enjoyable activities, such as parks, museums, or sports events. These are all opportunities parents can take to model positive social interaction, and help develop these skills within their children.

Social development is a key aspect of early childhood brain development. Early educators can help to strengthen this aspect of early childhood development by arranging the physical environment of child development centers and by focusing on children’s skills and strengths, and regularly celebrating these strengths. We are able to support the development of young children in childcare by reflecting on our own behavior and evaluating the physical and social environments of our care settings.

  1. Bovey, T.; Strain, P. (2003). Using Classroom Activities & Routines as Opportunities To Support Peer Interaction. What Works Briefs. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED481993.pdf
  2. Ladd, G.W. (1999). Peer relationships and social competence during early and middle childhood. Annual Review of Psychology 50: 333–59.
  3. Sugai, G., & T.J. Lewis. (1996). Preferred and promising practices for social skills instruction. Focus on Exceptional Children 29 (4): 1–16.