From Parenting 24/7: University of Illinois Extension


Importance of Teaching Social Skills to Children

Posted Apr 19, 2007.

Importance of Teaching Social Skills to Children
As children get older, they become part of a larger social world. Many parents are concerned about their child’s relationships. This includes relationships with other children and adults in school as well as outside of school. How can parents help their children to develop good social relationships?

Each child has his/her own temperament. Some children enjoy higher levels of social activity while other children prefer less. While this may be a preference children are born with, much of what experts call ‘social competence’ or the ability to get along with others is skill-based or learned. This means that it can be practiced and improved upon, especially if the child’s parent is a patient coach.

Children don’t need to be the most popular in their class, but they do need good social skills. Being sociable helps us with resilience (the ability to withstand hard times). Children who are constantly rejected by peers are lonely and have lower self-esteem. When they are older, these children are more likely to drop out of school and use drugs and alcohol. Parents can help their children learn social skills so that they are not constantly rejected or begin to bully and reject others.

Social skills include our emotions, intellect, ethics, and behaviors. Emotionally we learn to manage strong feelings such as anger and show empathy for others. Our intellect is used to solve relationship conflicts and make decisions. Ethically we develop the ability to sincerely care for others and engage in socially-responsible actions. Behaviorally we learn specific communication skills such as turn-taking and how to start a conversation. 

Parents can act as coaches for their children to develop these social skills. Children learn a lot from how parents treat them and when they observe how parents interact with others. Parents, like other coaches, will need to be creative and specific in teaching social skills. Beyond saying “You need to be better at X,” good coaches teach concrete skills and then support the use of these skills across a variety of situations. The goal should be not just to teach children to “be nice” but also to help them to advocate for themselves as well as care for others.

Most children experience occasional rejection, and most children are sometimes socially clumsy, insensitive, or even unkind. Signs that a child may need some social coaching include:

  • Lacks at least one or two close mutual friends
  • Has trouble losing or winning gracefully
  • Doesn’t show empathy when others are hurt or rejected
  • Acts bossy or insists on own way a lot
  • Can’t seem to start or maintain a conversation
  • Uses a louder voice than most children
  • Seems constantly ignored or victimized by other children or constantly teases or annoys other children

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents use a 4-part strategy when helping their children develop social skills: Practice, Praise, Point out, and Prompt. These four steps can be used when parents notice that a child needs to work on a particular social skill. Before using them, however, the parent should point out the problem area sensitively and privately (not in front of others) to the child.

Practice: A parent can help a child substitute a specific appropriate response for a specific inappropriate one. This might mean brainstorming with the child about different alternative responses and then practicing one or more with the child. Practicing can involve mapping out actual words to say or behaviors to use, role-playing, and using the newly learned skills in real situations.

Praise: Often children are not eager to work on new skills so parents must reward their children with praise when the new skills are practiced as a way of helping the skills become habits. This might be a specific verbal statement (“You did an awesome job of X instead of Y when you got angry at the store”), a nonverbal sign such as a thumbs up, or even a treat (10 minutes extra fun time before bedtime).

Point Out: Parents can use opportunities to point out when others are using the desired skills. It might be a specific behavior of the parent, another adult, a child, or even a character in a book or on TV. The idea is to give children examples and role models of people engaging in the appropriate social skill.

Prompt: Without nagging, parents can gently remind their child to use a new skill when the opportunity arises. This might be verbal (“Now might be a good time to count to ten in your head”) or nonverbal (a nonverbal cue such as zipping the lips when a child is about to interrupt).

Any good coach knows that patience is important because learning new skills takes time and practice. And everyone differs in how long it takes to learn something new. Coaches often have to be creative in their teaching strategies because children have different ways of learning.

The important thing to remember is that the ability to have good social relationships is not simply about personality or in-born traits. People who get along with others have learned skills to do so, and they practice these regularly. Just like a good coach can make the difference for a budding soccer player, parents can help their children become socially skilled.


Borba, M. (1999). Parents do make a difference: How to raise kids with solid character, strong minds, and caring hearts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Christophersen, E.R. & Mortweet, S. R. (2002). Parenting that Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime. Washington, DC: APA Books.

Peterson, G. W. & Leigh, G. K. (1990).The family and social competence in adolescence. T. Gullotta, G. Adams, & T. Montemayor (Eds.) Developing social competency in adolescence, pp97-138. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

American Academy of Pediatrics

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