Social Skills Building Blocks

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

At a glance

For children who have trouble making friends and managing relationships, social skills must be explicitly taught • Begin by focusing on awareness, then introduce the other skills sequentially, one at a time • TV, movies, sports, and people-watching provide excellent examples of how to act in social situations—and how not to act

Joyful friendsChildren are less likely to be happy and successful if they struggle with the social skills necessary to make friends and manage relationships. Below are six building blocks of social competency, along with simple teaching strategies drawn from everyday life. For the best results, introduce them to your child in the order they appear here.

1. Awareness

Children need to know the messages their body language, tone, actions, and words are sending. They also must be able to read the feedback of others. You can find examples of good and bad self-awareness and awareness of others in any movie or TV show. Good body language includes making eye contact, posture, gestures, words and tone of voice that send friendly messages.

To model awareness, point out body language. For example, “Look at Sandy. She really looks tired. This isn’t a great time to bring up that project.” In addition, look for chances to praise your child’s behavior when she shows awareness.

Keep in mind that your child is doing the best he can. Start with a skill at his level, help him to recognize each building block, and use baby steps to teach it.

2. Emotional Self-Control

Children need to be calm to think through social situations. TV, movies and sports are great for pointing out examples of people handling their feelings well or losing control. For example, use a basketball game to show how players collect themselves by bouncing the ball a few times before taking a foul shot.

Relaxation techniques and positive “self talk” can be used to stay in control. Identify predictable triggers, and help your child find strategies for handling these situations. Cue him to use self-control strategies before he’s too upset to think. A cue might be “keep cool.” Also model appropriate responses. For example, when stuck in traffic, “I could really get upset, but it’s not going to help. We’ll get there.”

3. Getting the Big Picture

This refers to social cognition—being able to think through a situation and recognize others’ points of view. Any show, from Sponge Bob through teen movies, has characters missing the point of what’s going on. Suggest that your child “check out the scene” before jumping in. Model talking through social situations such as handling a family get-together. Prompt him when needed and praise him as he gets it.

4. Adaptability

Once your child is aware, in control and knows what’s going on, he’ll need a toolbox of behaviors that he can rely on. Being assertive, listening well, compromising, joining, and follow-through are all important tools. Look for examples of people doing these behaviors well and poorly, role-play doing them well, and provide prompts as needed. Often, it’s necessary to break social behaviors down step-by-step so that the process is clear.

5. Predicting Outcomes

Predicting outcomes helps children use their experience to anticipate “what will happen if…” Children often make the same mistakes over and over, resulting in the same undesirable outcomes. But every child can tell us what makes Mom mad, and they can think about different approaches to deal with it. Analyze examples that they’re familiar with to help them see other options: “What could you do differently so that I don’t get annoyed when you turn off your alarm and go back to sleep on school days?”

6. Social Recovery

Children need to understand that we all make mistakes. It’s important to take responsibility for behavior. “It’s not my fault” is not as good as a sincere “I’m sorry,” even if the outcome was unintended. Talk about when to let things go, how to use humor, and how to move on. Cue the behavior needed, and as always, praise for doing it right, even if it takes prompting.

Patience is key to success. We all get frustrated, but anger backfires; prompting then praising works much better. Expect setbacks. Learning new skills takes time and practice. To help move the process forward, share your cue words with coaches, teachers and other adults who are working with your child. Ultimately, the new behaviors will become automatic.

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders. She and her colleague, Maureen Foley, developed this framework to help children with learning disabilities become more socially competent. 

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