The toddler years are crucial when it comes to the development of social skills. Children learn the basics of conversation as well as how to process and express their feelings.
Some children seem to fare better when it comes to interacting with others. However, these skills can be learnt, practised, and improved. One of the best places for children to hone these skills is at childcare, where there are other children of the same age around.
What are social skills?
Social skills are skills that we use to communicate with each other. Human beings have developed many ways to communicate, with interactions being verbal and nonverbal.
Verbal communication includes words, as well as tone and volume of our speech. Nonverbal communication is conveyed with body language, gestures, and other methods. Social skills help us to be aware of how we communicate with others.
Good social skills allow children to have better relationships with their peers. It may seem that some children are just more socially adept while others are less so.
However, social skills can be learnt. With effort and practice, children can develop the ability to communicate with others effectively.
Why are social skills important?
Social skills are needed for individuals to build and maintain positive relationships with others. They are crucial when it comes to making and sustaining friendships.
It is these skills that will help a person overcome relational difficulties when they come up. For example, conflict resolution skills might be needed if there is a disagreement among friends or colleagues.
For children, early social interactions can help in their development. The toddler and preschool years are essential for children to develop confidence and help boost their self-esteem, the ability to cooperate and communicate as well as curiosity that will drive them to explore.
Social skills that young children acquire during this age will help them in the years to come.
Social development in young children by age
Children mature and develop at different paces. However, here are general social skills milestones that your child should meet according to their age.
Social development in infants
In their first year, infants will develop the following social skills:
0 to 6 months
- Establish eye contact for a few seconds
- Smiling when approached socially
- Crying and settling
- Laughing in response to play
6 to 12 months
- Play peek a boo
- Recognize parents and other caregivers
- Spontaneously lift arms to parents
- Able to extend toys to others
- Respond to facial expressions
- Imitate actions
Social development in toddlers
Toddlers learn fast and you will see them developing the following social skills:
1 to 2 years
- Establish eye contact
- Identify self in mirror
- Role play simple actions they have seen
- Say simple words or have actions for words such as ‘hi’ and ‘bye’
2 to 3 years
- Verbalize desires or feelings; for example, ‘i want cookie’
- Play beside other children
- Simple imaginative play, such as using a stick as a sword
3 to 4 years
- Playing with 2 or 3 children in a group
- Learning to take turns with other children
- Able to talk about their feelings
- Feel shame and may hide when caught doing the wrong thing
Social development in preschoolers
In the preschool years, children will continue to develop their social skills. They learn how to:
4 to 5 years
- Play with other children
- Play imaginatively
- Follow simple instructions when engaging in play with other children. For example, playing hide and seek or musical chairs
5 to 6 years
- Engage in play with other children with themes never personally experienced
- Negotiate during play
- Able to engage in well organized play
- Some may be able to play cooperative games but are unable to cope with losing
How to teach my toddler social skills?
If you work with young children or have kids of your own, you’ll know that it’s not easy to teach toddlers social skills. Toddlers are still trying to make sense of their emotions and are unable to properly express their needs and feelings. Here are some excellent tips to help you help your child develop social skills:
- Model empathy. Children who receive empathy from adults are in a better position to develop empathy for others. Empathy is important for successful interpersonal relationships.
- Stay close when at playgroups. Many children get overwhelmed and do not know how to react. You can help your child along when you are close by.
- Introduce the concept of taking turns to your child, rather than forcing your child to share. Toddlers need to feel secure in their ownership before they share. Forcing young children to share may, in fact, be counterproductive when it comes to the development of sharing skills.
- When playing with other children, allow the child to decide how long his or her turn lasts. If you snatch away the toy, you’re actually modeling grabbing.
- Help your child to wait. Toddlers may have meltdowns when waiting for their turn to play with a toy. It’s a good time to empathize and hold your child while she cries. You might find that your child may not even want the toy anymore after she lets out her emotions
- Intervene when children grab, if needed. Sometimes children may not be bothered if another child grabs their toys. Other times, they may cry. Observe before you intervene. However, if there is a child who is constantly grabbing, you will most likely have to help them process their feelings with compassion.
- Teach children to be assertive. Practice assertiveness by teaching your child to express that he or she is still playing with a particular toy. This may take some time as toddlers may not yet have the language skills to speak up for themselves.
- Give toddlers language for their feelings. Many times children are unable to express their emotions appropriately. Giving them the language to do so helps them to process feelings verbally instead of physically.
- Introduce the concept that other people have feelings too. For example, you could ask your child questions such as ‘That little boy looks mad. I wonder what happened to make him feel that way?’ or ‘Jessica is crying because she fell down. Is there anything we can do to help her feel better?’
- Set limits. While we acknowledge their feelings, setting limits and boundaries will teach toddlers healthy self-management techniques and appropriate behavior.
- Stay calm. Young children need to know that their parents or caregivers are a safe place that they can run to. As you stay calm and soothe your child, you are helping your child to manage his/her feelings and to soothe him/herself.
- Remember that toddlers are toddlers. Just because they misbehave doesn’t mean that they are bad or naughty. Offer them understanding and build their confidence as they learn to process the feelings when they are around other people.
Social skills activities for toddlers
Social skills can be learned and developed. Here are some games and activities that you can play with toddlers:
Have a staring contest!
Young children may have trouble when it comes to maintaining eye contact during a conversation. A staring contest can help toddlers keep eye contact without having to talk at the same time.
This allows them to focus on the task. For children who do not feel comfortable during a staring contest, you can start by placing a sticker on your forehead and have them look at it instead.
Red light, green light
Games like red light, green light are not only fun but help children to pay attention, listen, stop and go accordingly. It also teaches self-control, which is an important skill for successful relationships.
You might already be playing this simple childhood game with the toddlers in your class. This game is excellent for children to learn how to listen and follow simple instructions. For older children, you can even have children take turns to give the instructions.
Pop them, don’t pop them
This game allows children to practice self-control. Blow some bubbles and give instructions to your class of toddlers to pop as many as they can. After a few minutes, change up the rules and tell them that they have to let the bubbles pop on the floor or pop away.
Self-control might be hard for young children, but this social skill will help them throughout their life. This activity also allows children to better understand what self-control is as well as what it feels like.
My turn, your turn
This activity helps toddlers learn the concept of taking turns and sharing. Give the child an object to hold. Say ‘my turn please’ to the child and have your hand placed out to receive the object.
You will most probably need to guide your child to place the object in your hand the first few times. Praise them and say ‘thank you’ when they do so. Say ‘your turn’ and put the object back in their hands.
Have silly conversations
Pick a silly conversation topic and ask questions. Come up with answers to the silly and/or imaginative questions together. Allow your child to use their imagination with the questions and answers. You can add words such as ‘also’, ‘then’ and ‘next’ to keep the conversation going.
This activity allows your child to practice their listening skills, engage in conversation, and expand their vocabulary. You’ll also have loads of fun and laughter with this activity!
Books are a great tool to help children recognize facial expressions and emotions, both of which are important when it comes to social skills development. You can point out the smile on a child’s face in the book and label the emotion.
You can mimic the expression and ask the toddlers to do so as well. You can also start a discussion on why the child is smiling. There are many books available that are specifically designed to help children learn social skills. Reading aloud to children also has plenty of other benefits.
Social skill development for toddlers in childcare doesn’t have to be boring. There is plenty of fun and exciting activities that will help children learn skills such as sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening, and verbalizing their thoughts and feelings.