One of the things children learn as they grow is to use language appropriately in a social context (when around other people). The ways in which both language and non-verbal communication such as eye contact, facial expression and body language are used is referred to as social skills.
Social interaction refers to the ability to engage in reciprocal interaction with others, either verbally or non-verbally, and be able to recognise and follow social norms such as greetings. Well-developed social interaction skills are vital for developing positive relationships and positive self-esteem.
These skills help children to establish friendships. Understanding and using non-verbal communication, such as, facial expression and body language are critical social skills in expressing one’s emotions and feelings.
Some children can find social interaction and skills difficult and may interact in a different way that may be considered inappropriate.
It is hard for them to understand how others are feeling or thinking and they may also have a difficult time knowing what to say or how to act in different situations.
Because we don’t live in isolation, it’s important to support children with these difficulties.
Good social skills
• Focuses, smiles to acknowledge, ask questions when others are talking – Active listening
• Allows others have their turn to talk
• Starts a conversation with others
• Maintains topic of conversation
• Does not interrupt others when they are talking
• Polite and uses manners such as ‘please’, ‘thank you, ‘excuse me’
• Knows when to play and when to be focused
• Pays attention to others' facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to understand how they are feeling (emotions).
• Uses words to express a feeling
Signs of difficulty
• Difficulty working collaboratively with others
• May be perceived as rude/cheeky/disrespectful/bossy or unfriendly as they may address people inappropriately for example, not using their manners when they should. For example, not saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’ etc. when they should.
• Difficulty initiating or sustaining conversation
• Poor topic maintenance and turn-taking, for example when discussing an issue about the climate, Kofi will suddenly begin to talk about colours.
• May interpret language literally, for example, understand the saying “Raining cats and dogs” as cats and dogs falling from the sky.
• Difficulty interpreting social situations. For example, Adwoa is unable to tell from her mum’s facial expression that she is not happy that she took an apple from Mrs Owusu’s kitchen without her permission.
•Difficulty expressing feelings and may use some behaviours to express self, such as throwing tantrums
• Be specific – avoid ambiguous language.
•Be explicit about classroom rules and social expectations –use posters and cue cards.
• Organise adult-led small group work focusing on foundation skills (with games/activities that allow children to practise the skills with adult feedback).
• Be explicit about turn-taking. Let the child know you will take turns to do an activity.
• Give immediate specific praise – good looking/listening/turn-taking.
• If the child deviates from topic – use explicit cues e.g. ‘we’re talking about …… now’.
Teaching children about empathy will help them understand how others feel. Using empathy will help them better get along with others as they begin to see things from the perspective of others. Helping children have confidence about themselves is also important in building good social interaction skills.
Some kids have negative thoughts about themselves whenever they are with others. Caregivers need to be careful of what they say to them when they are unable to achieve a goal.
Using words such as “Good try”, “Good attempt”, “You are such a strong boy” etc., go a long way to boost their confidence. Speech and language therapists are communication specialists who help children with social interaction skills.