By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)
My four-year-old is exceptionally smart but has a tough time with social relationships due to developmental delays spurring from prematurity. In fact, she’s in a special school program designed to teach her social skills such as initiating interaction and maintaining conversation with peers. Some progress has been made, with much more to be done before she goes to Kindergarten.
Some people don’t understand why I put such emphasis on her social development, especially since academically she is well above her peers. But I remember having a tough time in school because of my lack of social skills, and I want my children to avoid that by learning all they can when they’re young. The ability to make and keep friendships is a life skill that will go on to determine part of their adult happiness.
Research (Hartup, 1990) shows that friendship serve many purposes, including:
- Emotional skills for having fun and adapting to stress.
- Cognitive skills for problem-solving and acquiring new knowledge.
- Social skills for communication, cooperation, and group entry.
- A precursor to future relationships.
Borrowed from the Appelbaum Training Institute, there are four steps to helping children become comfortable at developing friendships:
- Ask the child to smile at other children.
- Teach the child to welcome other children by saying “hi,” “hello,” hugging, or giving a high five or another appropriate greeting.
- Teach the child to make a polite comment to other children, such as “I like your shirt.”
- Teach the child to ask polite questions of other children, such as “How are you?”
Once step #4 has been mastered, the child’s interactions with others tend to develop positively. Children who still need help anywhere in this process may benefit from having play dates with other children, going to preschool, or other situations where they encounter other children. With my four-year-old, I began by taking her to Sunday School every week and then enrolled her in a preschool program. While she still needs assistance with social relationships, she has greatly improved already — and the reason is because of the increased exposure to social contexts.
Social development is largely an individual measurement, but you can determine if your toddler or preschoolers is on the right track if your child:
- Is usually in a good mood.
- Is not overly dependent on an adult.
- Usually manages slights and setbacks properly.
- Demonstrates ability to establish rapport.
- Has positive relationships with one or two companions, shows ability to truly care for them, and misses them when absent.
- Displays a sense of humor.
- Has no severe or constant complaint of feeling alone.
- Approaches others in a positive way.
- Expresses needs appropriately.
- Expresses anger and frustration effectively, without harming others or property.
- Takes turns easily.
- Shows concern for others, shares, and accepts information from others properly.
- Does not display inappropriate attention-seeking behavior.
- Accepts and enjoys peers, adults, and ethnic groups other than their own.
- Can gain access to play and work groups that occur in the preschool classroom or play dates.
- Interacts nonverbally with other children with smiles, greetings, and statements.
- Usually accepted and not ignored or rejected by other children.
- Sometimes invited by other children to enjoy the game, friendship, and work.