A new school year usually means new teachers, new classmates, and new friendships. For most children, making and keeping friends is essential to building confidence and having a sense of well-being at school.
Although the connections happen at school, there is a lot that can be done to facilitate awareness, knowledge, and growth behind the scenes at home during routine activities. Here are some tips that we share with families at Communication Works to help build social competence and Make Social Learning Stick at school, at home, and beyond:
1. Play Time
Designate certain times during the week for play dates or hangouts. Create a simple visual schedule to help the child transition to play time and then transition from playing to cleanup to snack time to goodbyes. Find an easy way to get things started, keep the visit short, and do whatever you can to end on a positive note so everyone will want to play again soon.
Make cards listing different social situations (e.g., a birthday party or inviting a friend to join a playground game) and role-play them with your child. Try exchanging roles so your child can experience another person’s point of view. Role-play using puppets or stuffed animals is very effective with some children.
3. Reading Visual Cues
Picking up on nonverbal cues is essential for social success. Practice this skill while watching a TV show or movie with your child. Pause the frame when a character shows a strong emotion through a facial expression or body language, and talk with your child about what the character is feeling. When the child is ready, move to real life and do some people watching.
4. Wonder Questions
Create a visual prompt with words like “What,” “Where,” Who,” and “When?” (1) to help your child ask questions about others. Use the visual prompt only if needed to generate questions, and try to decrease use of the prompt when your child can more independently ask these types of questions and build curiosity about others.
5. Choosing Friends
Practice observing other kids at the playground or park, so your child can become aware of kids with interests similar to his own. This activity builds observation skills and lessens the chance of rejection when your child asks another boy or girl to play.
6. Friendly Greetings
Walk in your neighborhood and have your child practice greeting neighbors with a warm smile or a verbal “hello.” With neighbors you know, the child can inquire about their pet or ask how their day is going. Practice ending the conversation with “Nice to see you” or “Have a good day.” If your child isn’t ready to speak up, you can model the conversation for the child.
7. Perspective Taking
Help your child step into someone else’s shoes and consider what other people like to think about and do in their spare time. This can be done by discussing the interests of other family members, classmates, and/or friends. You can even take a pair of another family member’s shoes and actually put them on while thinking about that person. Discuss what the person might do on the weekends or during down time. Before hanging out with other people, discuss what they like to talk about and might want to do. This will help your child take another person’s perspective and be able to better relate to that person. It might even help the child partake in conversation or play they are not completely interested in, which is essential for building friendships!
Use the opportunity presented by a new school year to help your child develop the social competence that supports friendships. Some children may need to focus on building conversation skills while others may need more work on managing their emotions or being able to take someone else’s perspective. My new book, Make Social Learning Stick, demonstrates easy ways to use family routines to provide opportunities for your child to grow in these areas. Daily activities and routines are filled with teachable moments in which you can practice with your child and provide coaching. My goal is to provide information to inspire families to embrace these moments in a fun and playful manner. As your child becomes more socially adept and aware, it will become easier to make friends and to be happy and successful at school and other aspects of daily life.
(1) Sautter, Elizabeth. “Chart.” Make Social Learning Stick!: How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence through Everyday Routines and Activities. Shawnee Mission, Kan.: AAPC, 2014. 74. Print.