Friendship skills in the early years

Andrea Cooper
Senior Speech Pathologist

In my previous Go Kindy blogs I have highlighted the importance of your pre-schooler’s ability to speak clearly, be understood by others, follow directions, answer questions and express their ideas, wants and needs. It is also just as important for young children to learn how to use language to communicate with other peers, children and adults.

Social language (also known as pragmatics in the speech pathology world) refers to the way we use language to communicate with others, such as greeting others, requesting, protesting, asking questions to gain information, taking turns in conversation, using and reading appropriate body language, staying on topic, developing friendships, changing language according to the setting or different people we are talking to.

Learning positive friendship skills in the preschool years is vital for children to have and maintain positive interactions with others. Social interactions do not always run smoothly, and your child needs to be able to use appropriate strategies, such as conflict resolution when difficulties in friendships arise. It is also important for individuals to have ’empathy’, by recognising the feelings of the other child and respond in caring and understanding way.

In the preschool years it is important for your child to have the following foundational skills, that are required to develop social skills:

  • Attention and concentration: It is important that your child can sustain effort, complete activities with limited distraction and hold that effort long enough to get the task done. This skill will transfer to your child’s ability to sustain attention for interactions, ensuring that they are able to take turns in conversations and maintain conversational topics with others.
  • Receptive (understanding) language: Your child must have good comprehension of language, as they will be required to follow conversation topics and answer a range of questions.
  • Expressive (using) language: Your child must have good expressive language skills, using speech, sign or alternative forms of communication to express their wants, needs, thoughts and ideas. This skill will transfer to their ability to share ideas, opinions and ask others for help.
  • Play skills: In order to develop good social skills, it is important that your child knows how to play appropriately with items and can play cooperatively with others.
  • Non-verbal language skills: Your child should be able to communicate without using words. Non-Verbal language skills include things such as gestures, facial expressions, imitation, joint attention and eye-contact.
  • Self-regulation: The ability to obtain, maintain and change your own emotions, behaviour, attention and activity level is important. This will help your child adapt in a socially acceptable manner when completing a task or when in a situation.
  • Executive functioning: Higher order reasoning and thinking skills are important when developing social skills, especially when children interact with adults.

Social skills can be separated into 7 main categories. It is important for school success that your child has the following social skills:

  • Communication
    • Takes turns in conversation
    • Makes eye contact when talking
  • Cooperation
    • Follows directions
    • Follows classroom rules
    • Able to play and work well with others
  • Assertion
    • Asks for help from adults
    • Questions rules that may be unfair
  • Responsibility
    • Respects the property of others
    • Takes responsibility for own actions
  • Empathy
    • Forgives others
    • Feels bad when others are sad
    • Shows kindness to others
  • Engagement
    • Makes friends easily
    • Invites others to join in activities
  • Self-Control
    • Makes a compromise during a conflict
    • Stays calm when teased
    • Ignores peer distractions

Some children and adults may have difficulty understanding and applying the rules of social language especially if they have a language disorder or a disability associated with social communication difficulties, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Delays or disorders in pragmatic skills can cause problems with:

  • conversations and social interaction: e.g. poor listening, difficulty starting or ending a conversation, or keeping a conversation going, poor turn-taking, inappropriate or irrelevant questioning and responses; an inability to fix a conversation when something goes wrong (such as confusion or interruption); and an inability to switch styles in different settings (e.g. playground vs library; or workplace vs pub);
  • the way we talk: e.g. speaking too loudly or quietly, speaking too quickly or slowly, mumbling or stumbling over words, or speaking in a monotone or over-excited voice;
  • body language: e.g. poor eye contact, poor facial expressions, poor hand gesturing, standing too close to others, inappropriate touching, fidgeting, poor posture and personal appearance;
  • assertiveness: being too passive or aggressive in expressing feelings, standing up for yourself, making suggestions, refusing, disagreeing, complaining, apologising and requesting explanations.
  • understanding and picking up the cues that tell us what the other person is thinking or feeling. People with pragmatic disorders may have difficulty using language in different social contexts. They may have trouble understanding figurative language (e.g. finding a needle in a haystack) by taking the phrase literally, telling jokes and stories.

Speech-language pathologists are trained to assess social language skills; and to help people with social language problems by explicitly teaching them the skills they need to communicate and use language in the settings most important to them.

You should see a speech pathologist if your child:

  • finds making eye contact difficult
  • has difficulty taking turns in play and conversation
  • has difficulty using greetings
  • finds reading the facial expressions and body language of others difficult
  • is often inappropriate in a variety of situations
  • has difficulty staying on topic in conversation
  • finds developing friendships difficult
  • has difficulty understanding jokes and humour
  • has difficulty responding to questions

Whilst speech pathologists work on the communication and language skills of social interactions, occupational therapists can also target a person’s social skills by focusing on the way the child:

  • plays with others in a purposeful way,
  • processes sensory input (e.g. some children may find certain environments that are noisy or crowded challenging)
  • understands the progressions of play and recognition of social cues (an OT promotes children’s learning by breaking down tasks or activities and educating them about what is expected or appropriate in the particular social activity)
  • understands, recognises and regulates their own emotions, and responds appropriately to the emotions of others.

Here are 5 fun ways you can help to develop and strengthen your child’s social skills:

  1. Arrange play dates and go to play groups and to the playground. Giving your child the opportunity to interact with other children regularly will provide them with lots of opportunities to take turns, share, and play together.
  2. Give your child simple responsibilities like helping you to set the table for dinner or simple cooking, cleaning and tidying. These activities will also help build your child’s confidence, an understanding of roles, plus topics for conversation.
  3. At home, be consistent about simple rules your child must follow, such as making the bed or putting their toys away. This will help them to understand how rules work in other settings, such as the classroom.
  4. Model appropriate social interaction and politeness, help them to remember “please” and “thank you” in appropriate moments/settings, and model behaviour and language that shows them how to share, wait their turn, and work with others. Playing board games together and taking turns talking about your day at dinner time are two great ways to begin teaching how to take turns.
  5. Help your child learn how to express their emotions, understand them, and learn self-control. Help your child realize and understand their own emotions – feeling sad, mad, happy, excited — and talk to them about what makes them feel that way. Provide them with ideas on how to best communicate those feelings with others. In addition to you modelling healthy ways to express emotions at home, reading books together about characters who are learning about their emotions and talking with your child about the characters’ actions is another great way to help your child begin to understand their own emotions. Asking questions like, “How can we tell the character feels angry?” or “Why did she feel upset?” and “What would you do if you felt angry?”.

If you are looking for book ideas; I love ‘The When I’m Feeling Collection’ book collection that I recently purchased from Kmart. The book collection contains the following titles: ‘When I’m Feeling Scared’, ‘When I’m Feeling Sad’, ‘When I’m Feeling Loved’, ‘When I’m Feeling Lonely’, ‘When I’m Feeling Kind’, ‘When I’m Feeling Jealous’, ‘When I’m Feeling Happy’, and ‘When I’m Feeling Angry’.

For more information follow the links below:
https://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/144_Teaching_Social_Skills_to_Children.pdf
https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/play-and-social-skills/social-communication-pragmatics/
https://www.youthlivingskills.com.au/ot-for-social-skills-in-children/

Happy Talking,
Andrea

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