What Are Social Skills? & Why Are Social Skills Important?

what are social skills-2 young brothers building together with magnetic tiles

How to define social skills, not to be confused with social competence, can be complicated. As just one component necessary for social competence, social skills are the foundation of connecting with others! Let's dive deeper into why they are essential and how to develop them in toddlers and preschoolers.

What Are Social Skills?

Basically, social skills are the tools we use to communicate, interact, and build healthy relationships. Furthermore, social skills are interdependent with emotional skills, and together, they create social-emotional skills. Also, social-emotional learning skills both influence and build on one another. For example, your emotions affect how well you relate to others.

Social and emotional development requires an extensive set of skills for success. To begin with, a child learns to identify, express, and self-regulate their emotions. This includes utilizing emotional vocabulary to voice their feelings. Additionally, using nonverbal cues like gestures, facial expressions, and body language.

Similarly, social-emotional development includes the awareness and appreciation of others' emotions. This is where children learn to feel empathy. For example, understanding that a friend is sad and comforting them.

Furthermore, it is about exploring, experiencing, and interacting with their environment. This includes your child's ability to adjust their reactions and behavior to a specific social situation. For instance, learning to be quiet in a library or church.

Most important social-emotional development is all about relationships. Building and maintaining positive connections with family and friends is critical. As kids interact more with other children and adults, they increase and improve their social skills.

To simplify matters, we will refer to social skills and social-emotional skills interchangeably throughout the remainder of the article.

Examples Of Social Skills

Social-emotional development includes a set of skills that are key to having and maintaining healthy relationships. The ability to balance personal needs and wants while appropriately getting those needs met is essential. Below are some examples of social and emotional skills for toddlers and preschoolers.

Social And Emotional Skills:

  • Appropriately Asks For Help
  • Awareness of Others' Feeling
  • Begins to Understand and Follow Rules
  • Cooperates
  • Displays Affection to Familiar People
  • Follows Directions
  • Listens
  • Make Friends
  • Makes Eye Contact
  • Positive Self-Image
  • Pride In Accomplishments
  • Protects Themselves
  • Puts Their Feeling Into Words
  • Respects Personal Space
  • Shares
  • Takes Turns
  • Uses Manners

These social and emotional skills are the foundation of your child's acceptable social behavior.

Why Are Social Skills Important?

Ultimately, we all desire to live in a harmonious society; of course, we also want this for our children.

Social and emotional skills are imperative in helping children adapt and become comfortable in social situations. As a matter of fact, they develop feelings of pride, confidence, trust, affection, humor, and friendship. Having excellent social skills makes both getting along with others and becoming more independent easier. Friendships and peer relationships are more enjoyable and stronger, with good social skills.

Many studies support the long term outcomes of developing social-emotional skills at an early age. As adults, they become better equipped to handle stress and get through tough times. However, short-term benefits are relevant too. It is not just about social acceptance and being well-behaved. Above all, it is about relationships. Childhood friendships are beneficial to mental health and allow kids to practice their social skills.

Parents play an essential role in nurturing their children's social and emotional development since children are not born with these skills. Surprisingly, teaching social and emotional skills to your child is more than just good manners. Children need to grasp how to be good listeners, make eye contact, follow directions, exhibit self-control, and not interrupt conversations. Effective teaching of social-emotional skills usually occurs when you interact and play with your child.

Social And Emotional Development In Early Childhood

Children grow and develop at an unbelievable rate during the first five years of life. As a parent, you are vital to developing social and emotional skills in the early years. Most importantly, your engagement models communication and interaction for your child.

For example, they watch how you respond to their emotional and social needs. Do they feel safe? Are their needs being met? Furthermore, by emulating your behavior and how you treat others, they learn empathy.

One of the easiest ways to model good social skills is to play with your child. During play, your child builds cooperation, learns self-control, and increases empathy. Developing social-emotional skills requires time and continual practice. Look for occasions where you can help kids improve their social skills, starting with the basics.

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was instrumental in teaching kids vital social and emotional skills that are still relevant to adults today.

"When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary."  - Fred Rogers

How To Develop Social And Emotional Skills In Toddlers

Developing social-emotional skills for toddlers can be exhausting. Toddlers are still going to have temper tantrums and push the boundaries, both normal and healthy. It is how they eventually manage those feelings, match the appropriate level of emotion, and calm down. Here are some social-emotional activities for toddlers to help you develop their skills.

  • Find ways to acknowledge your toddler's good behavior. Such as, when they share something with a sibling or friend. Say things like, "That was very thoughtful of you to let your sister play with your blocks."
  • Use positive statements when talking to your toddler. For instance, "Please help me put away your blocks?" rather than "Go put your blocks away."
  • Toddlers have BIG emotions. So, help them talk through what they are feeling and how to express those feelings.
  • Include daily play in your toddler's routine. For example, if you have to go to the dry cleaners, why not allow some time to stop at the park. Also, set up playdates for interaction with other children. Play is imperative to happiness and building relationships.

Social And Emotional Development In Preschoolers

Understanding and developing social skills for preschoolers can be complicated. For example, kids have to be able to lose without a tantrum before they can be a "good sport." Or know when and how to be assertive, like if a friend is getting pushed around by other kids. Here are some social-emotional activities for preschoolers you can use to develop their skills.

  • Show love using your words and physical affection to model appropriate affection with others.
  • Choices are the name of the game!  When possible, allowing your child to make choices is vital to developing social skills. For instance, allow them to choose whether they want the green cup or the blue cup today. Making choices builds independence, confidence, and a healthy self-image.
  • Engage in pretend play. It helps children practice social skills by discerning what to say in a variety of situations. For example, you could make-believe your going to get ice cream. Pretend to be the person scooping the ice cream or the cashier. Imagine what you would say. Help your child decide how to respond. This gives your preschooler real-life experiences in a safe environment.  
  • Preschoolers love to help! So, by giving your child some responsibilities like simple household chores, you can build prosocial skills. For instance, preschoolers can help take their dirty dishes to the sink. Or help bring in and put away the groceries.
  • Demonstrate examples of trust, both with your child and other relationships.
  • Use social stories to illustrate difficult social-emotional skills that may be confusing. A good example is when to be assertive and speak up to protect themselves or others. 

The Role Of Play In Social Development

Do you remember when preschools and traditional kindergartens had block play areas? The were always next to the play kitchen and the dress-up space. As a matter of fact, these play areas were vital to developing social and emotional skills in the early years.

Did you know that play and social-emotional development go hand and hand? As it turns out, block play supports social-emotional development and aids physical and cognitive development. Furthermore, pretend play is not only interactive but fun. It gives kids opportunities to try on different roles, preparing them for social situations.

What social-emotional skills are enhanced through play? Children come by play naturally. Children at play, they learn how to regulate their feelings and use self-control. While at the same time building self-esteem, self-confidence, and their sense of autonomy.

Play and social development help kids to express themselves and learn to make good choices. Like a moral compass, they develop character traits. For example, they learn to be respectful, trustworthy, responsible, fair, and kind.

Social and emotional development through play should not be overlooked. Through play, children connect with others, learning to process their emotions.

"The ability to play is critical not only to being happy but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person."  - Dr. Stuart Brown

Provide The Right Tools For Developing Social Skills

Make readily available both open-ended toys and household items. Things like wooden stacking blocks, balls, play-dough, or wooden spoons are ideal. They spark imaginative play, social play, and are essential to group play. With their no "right" way to play, they provide hours of exploration and discovery for your children. Below is a sample of some toys that promote social development.

One of the first encounters a child has playing with others is block play. Whether they build together or alongside one another, they must share, take turns, and respect others' personal space. Additionally, working in small groups requires them to cooperate, negotiate, and compromise. For example, what if they both want the same block?

Furthermore, building a structure together requires children to work towards a common goal. What will they build? How will they make it? What is the role of each child? The collaboration will be a give and take. Sit back and watch them navigate these issues; it will be like a front-row seat at the theater!

Finally, playing games give children the experience of winning and losing, understanding rules, and playing fair.

Are Your Child's Social And Emotional Skills Progressing?

Positive social and emotional development is critical to our children's health and happiness. However, not addressed as often as their physical and cognitive development. We forget how necessary these skills are to the well-being and life-long success of our children. So for guidance, we have provided a list of social-emotional milestones. Try to remember, this is intended for informational purposes only. Some children may accomplish them earlier and others later. However, please contact your pediatrician if you feel your child is not progressing accordingly.

2-Year-Old Social Skills

  • Awareness of Self as Separate from Other Children
  • Begins to Show Defiant Behavior
  • Enjoys the Company of Other Children
  • Episodes of Separation Anxiety
  • Expresses Anxiety or Fear
  • Imitates Adults and Friends
  • Increasing Independence
  • Likes Pretend Play
  • Plays Alongside Other Children

3-Year-Old Social Skills

  • Easily Separates from Parents
  • Exhibits a Wide Range of Emotions
  • Focuses on Personal Needs - Appears "Selfish"
  • Greater Independence
  • Imitates Complex Tasks of Others
  • Increasingly Inventive Fantasy Play
  • Interested in New Experiences
  • Likes Routines – May Get Upset with Change
  • Negotiates Solutions to Problems
  • Openly Shows Affection for Friends
  • Shows Concern for A Crying Friend

4-Year-Old Social Skills

  • Articulates Likes and Dislikes
  • Cooperates with Other Children
  • Enjoys New Things
  • More Creative with Imaginative Play
  • Often Cannot Distinguish Between Fantasy and Reality?
  • Plays "Mom and "Dad"
  • Prefers Play with Other Children Than Alone
  • Shows More Independence
  • Uses Words to Communicate Needs
  • Works Through Conflicts with Others

5-Year-Old Social Skills

  • Aware of Gender
  • Comprehends the Difference Between "Real" and "Pretend"
  • Desires to be Like Friends
  • Develops Friendships - Maybe  a "Best Friend."
  • Follows the Rules More Easily
  • Gender-Specific Play
    • Boys are More Likely To Engage In Rough and Tumble or Physical Play
    • Girls are More Likely to Engage in Social or Imaginative Play
  • Likes to Dance, Sing, and Act
  • Recognizes and Responds to Others' Feelings
  • Sometimes Demanding and Sometimes Cooperative
  • Wants to Please Friends

A child's positive relationship with caring and trusting adults is vital to successful social and emotional development. Why not grab a set of wooden building blocks, or some play-dough and start building connections!

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