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How to Help Your Child Practise Social Skills During a Lockdown

child social skills development in lockdown

Takeaway: Don’t want to let your child’s social skills waste away? You can keep her socially engaged by playing games and teaching her lessons even when she’s at home. Just learn which skills to encourage, which to discourage, and how to find teaching moments while talking and playing games. 

Children explore the world by playing with their friends.

As adults, it’s quite possible to lock ourselves away with work or a conference call and ‘get on’ with our day. Things are slightly different for our children. They learn and grow by playing, by exploring the world around them. And it’s how they spend a significant portion of their time.

This playing also helps them develop important social skills.

What would happen if your child didn’t learn to wait her turn? Or, if she began manipulating friends? Or wasn’t tactful about expressing how she feels? ‘Play’ and engaging with other children gets your child ready for life in a larger community. And often, her success in life (socially, emotionally & academically) is directly connected to how well she masters key social skills.

You’ll notice these skills develop in stages. And you can help nurture them.

It’s intriguing to watch your child develop the essential skills of courtesy, respect, honesty, and kindness. For example:

  • 2- to 3-year-olds begin to show the skill of connecting with people. They’ll engage with them by saying ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’, pay attention to them when they’re talking, and enjoy laughing with them at the funny things that happen in their lives.
  • 3- to 4-year-olds will start using actual words when talking and can take turns while playing games.
  • 4- to 5-year-olds begin to work well in groups, chat a lot, ‘pretend play’, and start making requests — for example, to ask friends to stop doing something they don’t like.
  • 5- to 6-year-olds spend more time ‘getting along’ with friends by developing the manners they’ll need later on. So, they’ll apologise, say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, and start being nice when playing more complex and competitive games.

So, what do you do when your child can’t meet her friends?

What happens when her play time disappears during, say, a lockdown? How will she develop her social skills without friends to practise with?

The trick to helping your child practise social skills while at home

Luckily, you can help her develop the skills she needs, even without her friends.

1. Learn about the range of skills your child will need to develop.

They broadly fall into these categories.

  1. Being polite: Waiting her turn, saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, not interrupting, giving people personal space, developing good manners while eating, or helping friends tidy up after playing with them.
  2. Expressing herself well: This means not hitting people when she’s frustrated, asking for toys instead of just taking them, or talking about her feelings
  3. Being empathetic: This includes things like noticing if her friends are happy or sad, and helping them. Or realising that what she says and does will affect her friends’ feelings. Or respecting that her friends are different to her and that she’ll need to learn about them.

2. Start spotting behaviours to discourage.

Problem behaviours would be rudely grabbing toys, interrupting others, throwing tantrums when she doesn’t get her way, not tidying up, lying or being mean, or not caring if she hurts other people.

3. Talk to your child about social skills, and play games that have teaching moments.

Here are some skills to work on and games you can play to develop them

A) Following directions

She’ll need to learn how to follow directions to complete tasks. This is crucial for school assignments, and later, for work projects. If she’s young, you can play games like ‘Simon Says,’ ‘Red Light, Green Light,’ or ‘Freeze’. Or give her directions to make a peanut butter sandwich and encourage her to follow them. If she’s older, just make the tasks more complicated. Or give her more traditional classroom-style assignments.

B) Having good manners

She’ll need to learn how to get along with groups. And this means starting conversations, joining children who are already playing, engaging with a new friend, and so on.

  • Using polite words. If she’s young, you can help her make posters with ‘polite words’ like ‘Please,’ ‘Thank You,’ and ‘You’re Welcome.’ It’s a fun project and they’ll make good reminders. Or, you could role-play different social situations and have her practise her polite behaviour. If she’s older, talk to her about how words and actions affect other people, and how being polite will help her make friends.
  • Taking turns and getting along. Play the storytelling game. First, draw pictures of fun objects, on cards. And then take turns telling a story. The catch is that you have to keep picking up cards and including whatever’s drawn, in your story. This improvised storytelling encourages your child to work along with you to develop the plot and build on each other’s ideas.
  • Respecting personal space. Talk to your child about the invisible bubble we all have around us — what we call ‘personal space’. And explain how respecting it helps other people be more comfortable. Then, teach her how it’s polite to stay about an arm’s length away from people. And explain how we violate personal space by, say, giving a stranger a hug without asking them.
C) Being resilient and optimistic

Children who are ‘good sports’ get along better with others. So, talk to your child about how to deal with life when things don’t go her way. Give her examples. Like, “I was hoping to have ice cream today but couldn’t get any. I feel bad, but maybe I can have some tomorrow.” Then encourage her to talk about things that haven’t gone well for her in the past, and help her switch from the negative to the positive. This resilience is important when it comes to games and sports. She’ll need to learn how to lose without feeling like it’s the end of the world. So, play a board game with her and teach her how to focus on having fun, rather than on winning.

D) Showing empathy

It’s so important for your child to know how to respect other people’s feelings and be empathetic. Here are some things you could help her with.

  • Giving people her full attention. Have her practise looking you in the eye when you’re speaking, and putting away anything that’s distracting her. If she’s older, teach her ‘active listening’ skills like rewording what someone’s just said — just to make sure she’s really understood it.
  • Talking about emotions. Get her comfortable identifying, talking about, and dealing with emotions. Try reading a story and asking her about the emotions it covers. For example, perhaps the main character got angry? Ask her why he got angry, and then ask her about a time she got angry. Then ask her how she calmed herself down. Keep switching back and forth from the story to her experiences, so that she can internalise the lessons she’s learning.
  • Recognising emotions. Talking about emotions is important, but so is recognising them in others. So, you could play ‘emotions charades.’ If she’s very young, act out a simple emotion (‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’, etc.) and ask her to guess what it is. Then switch roles. If she’s older, try a Pictionary version of this. Get her to draw an emotion, but without using a face. So, for happiness, she could perhaps draw herself playing with friends on a sunny day. This way, she’s learning to understand the more subtle tells of emotions in social situations.
  • Understanding someone else’s point of view. If she’s old enough, try developing her thinking skills by having a mock debate with her. Choose a topic and decide who is arguing ‘for’ and ‘against.’ Then, after having debated it, switch sides. This will encourage her to see different perspectives, which is essential when she’s trying to get along with friends.

For more targetted teaching, you could try a social skills group.

If you feel your child needs more focussed attention, you could put her in a social skills group once she’s back to school. These groups offer structured sessions where children can learn to get along in a supervised, therapeutic environment. This is especially useful for children with ADHD, learning differences, or who are on the Autism spectrum. The sessions will be led by a qualified professional like an educational psychologist and can be the nurturing environment your child needs. Plus, you’ll be taught the skills and strategies as well, to help complement what your child learns in the group.

Interested in finding a London-based social skills group?

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges.

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