A Case for Teaching Social Skills at an Early Age

By Susan L. Mulkey

Many teachers (including parents) witness children who lack social competence, which includes critical, life-enriching friendship skills. As a result, these students often not only have difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships, but are poorly accepted by their peers, and may later engage in more serious and violent acts when their discourteous and disrespectful behaviors persist over time. Furthermore, social competence opens doors for academic success.

The following and similar examples support the premise of the importance of social competence in everyone’s life, both young and old:

  • “She just ignored me and looked away when I asked her to put her things away.”
  • “He walked right by me and didn’t respond when I said hello to him this morning.”
  • “Every time they want something, they just say, ‘gimme this’ or ‘gimme that.’ ”
  • “The words, please and thank you must not be in their speaking vocabulary!”
  • “I have students that refuse to work together when I put them in pairs.”
  • “It’s hard to get their attention when they are texting all the time.”
  • “Their idea of sharing materials is grabbing and pushing.”

The levels to which children learn to develop, establish, and maintain appropriate interpersonal relationships represent the core of social competence. Unfortunately, many children are not being taught these important skills in the home environment, and many established social skills programs in schools do not deliver the needed long-term results.

Social competence includes skills such as giving and accepting compliments, taking turns, including others, making friends, accepting “no,” cooling down when upset, apologizing, disagreeing, and problem solving. Other skills include:

  • Greeting—e.g., saying “Hello” or “Hi” to friends and familiar adults
  • Looking and listening—e.g., making eye contact when others are speaking directly to you and then acknowledging that you heard the speaker’s message by saying, “Yes, I see,” or “Yes, I understand”
  • Following directions—e.g., saying, “Okay” or “Sure, I will”
  • Making polite requests—e.g., saying “May I …,” or “Please”

Often, with many of these skills, children and frequently adults do not have the language for using social skills competently. These skills must be directly modeled, practiced, and reinforced.

There are few programs in this area that are developed specifically for preschool, kindergarten, and first grade students. It is crucial that all students (not just those with special needs) are taught these important life skills beginning at a young age. Early intervention pays big dividends in the long run. Furthermore, when generalization strategies are incorporated in the teaching process, students are more likely to maintain the social skills over time and use them across multiple settings throughout their school and postschool careers.

SMART Kids is one program that was clearly designed for teaching social competence to young children (preK-grade 1). SMART is an acronym that stands for Social Grace, Manners, And Respectful Talk. Embedded evidence-based practices help teach social skills as well as techniques for assisting students in maintaining and generalizing these crucial life skills across different settings.

It makes sense to focus on social stories beginning with a context and describing a sequence of positive steps and simple commonsense gestures that young children can understand, follow, and learn. Descriptive positive feedback, along with dignified and gentle corrective feedback, is also a crucial element in teaching social competence.

SMART social skills are taught within the context of the daily curriculum so that students have the opportunity to learn these skills during a calm, neutral, and relaxed time. The skills include verbal and nonverbal communication skills:

  • Verbal skills include being able to determine the appropriate thing to say at the appropriate time, being able to communicate and talk in ways that are engaging, having a range in one’s vocal tone and quality, and being able to speak in an understandable manner
  • Nonverbal behavior is estimated to convey up to 38% of a person’s communicative intent; behaviors such as eye contact, use of gestures, facial expressions, good posture, leaning toward the person being spoken to, and smiling constitute good nonverbal social skills when used appropriately (while taking into consideration cultural and regional differences)

These vital behaviors must be taught when children are still young and learning how to interact with other people and the events that occur around them. In a sense, effective social skills are judged by what we say, when we say it, and how we say it.

Susan L. Mulkey is an author and trainer in social skills, behavior management, effective instructional practices, reading strategies, classroom coaching, and collaborative teaching. She has more than 30 years of experience across several educational settings, including elementary, middle, and high school. Susan spent six years conducting training for Department of Defense schools in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Her works include: SMART Kids; Teach All, Reach All (Elementary and Secondary); TGIF: But What Will I do on Monday?; TGIF: Making It Work on Monday; Cool Kids: A Proactive Approach to Social Responsibility; and Working Together: Tools for Collaborative Teaching.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

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