Do you feel like your child has missed out on social interactions and opportunities since the pandemic started? If you do, you are not alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted this important part of life by putting a pause on many vital sources of social exposure. Children have experienced a multitude of missed social opportunities like playdates, birthday parties, participating in team sports and engaging in routine school day activities. All of these social opportunities play a crucial role in helping children master necessary life skills like making friends, taking turns, sharing, cooperating, problem-solving, and perspective-taking.
Despite all the missed opportunities since the pandemic began, the good news is this… Parents have so much power when it comes to building a solid social language foundation. Yes, many social skills are learned through real life social interactions which our little ones have missed out on, but there is so much that you can do at home with your child to get them up to speed! Here are four ways that you can help to support social skills and build social resilience for your child:
1. Model Appropriate Social Skills
As the caregiver, you have the opportunity to model various social skills during your everyday routines. Research proves that showing, rather than telling, can be one of the best ways for kids to learn a new skill. You can model social skills while interacting with others in front of your child or while interacting directly with your child. The more you model these skills during your everyday routines, the more your child will become familiar with them and in turn, begin to generalize them independently! Here are some of our favorite social skills to model:
- GREETINGS: Try to be friendly and wave to others when saying “hi” and “bye”.
- PERSONAL SPACE: Demonstrate appropriate personal space.
- TOUCH: Physically demonstrate appropriate ways to be close to or touch others. You can also explain this verbally, “Hands are not for hitting, but hands can give a high five!”
- POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: When you tell your child, “Great job!” or “Yay! You did it!” or “I like the way you ____!” Then your child is more likely to repeat these positive statements to others.
- FEELINGS: Label how you, your child or others are feeling and explain why. Make sure to “ok” the feelings so your child knows it is ok to feel that emotion and it is ok for others to feel that way too! “You fell down. You are feeling sad. That is ok to feel sad. Can I give you a hug?”
- BACK AND FORTH INTERACTIONS: Practice having back and forth reciprocal interactions from early on by asking and answering questions. The sooner you start this the sooner your child will understand the idea behind reciprocity. You can start this when your child is a baby (We have a resource to show you how to start this early on!), If your baby babbles…babble back and see how long you can keep the back and forth interaction going! The ultimate goal is to have back and forth conversations (down the road) because this is such a critical social skill in life!
- SHARING/TURN TAKING: Practice turn-taking during playtime or game time. The best way to model this is to use the words “my turn” or “your turn” while also using a visual cue like tapping your hand on your chest to show it’s your turn. This can be a tricky one for kids but the more you model it, the sooner they will understand the concept!
- USING MANNERS: Model saying “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, or “I’m sorry” when the opportunity arises. The more you model and repeat these manner words in the right context, the sooner your child will begin to understand the power behind these socially important words.
2. Pretend Play It Out
Using pretend play to demonstrate social scenarios can be conducted in two ways. First, you can use toy characters to act out a variety of social scenarios. You and your child can each pick one “character” and use that character to act out different social situations. Secondly, you may also choose to ditch the small toy characters and just role-play using yourself and your child! Through play, you can demonstrate socially appropriate interactions while helping your child navigate countless social opportunities. Some of our favorite social scenes to pretend play are:
- GREETINGS/ PERSONAL QUESTIONS: Practice saying “hi” and “bye” and also asking each other personal questions like “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” and “Do you like______?” This allows children to practice asking and answering personal questions which helps to get to know someone better.
- SHARING OBJECTS: Sharing is hard but sometimes practicing this skill can make it easier when the situation arises in real life. Grab one object and have each person/character take a turn with the preferred object. For example, your character may grab and kick a small ball, and then your child’s character can ask for a turn with the ball. This is a fun one to practice saying “my turn” and going back and forth!
- GETTING HURT: Pretend that one character falls down and gets hurt. The other character can ask “Are you ok?”, “What happened?” and/or “Do you need help?” This is a great way to act out empathy and talk about feelings.
- PROBLEM SOLVE TOGETHER: Identify a problem during your pretend play routine and have the two characters (or two people) solve the problem together. Maybe the character’s dog is lost and they need to find it, or they burnt the cookies and need to make new ones, or something is broken and they need to fix it!
- ASKING A FRIEND TO PLAY: Use your character and ask your child’s character, “Will you play with me?” or “Do you want to play?” followed by, “What do you want to play?”. If the two characters want to play different things the characters may have to negotiate and compromise. “I think we should play ball first and then do the puzzle! What do you think?”
- PLAY OUT DIFFERENT REAL LIFE SCENARIOS: You can play “Family” or “School Day” or “Doctor’s office” to simulate various social exchanges that happen during these real-life events.
3. Use Books
You can also socially prepare your child by reading books that display a variety of social encounters. Talk openly and directly about what you see in the book, the emotions that characters experience, and encourage your child to ask any questions. We’ve done the research and compiled some of our favorite books (in order by age) for teaching social pragmatic language skills:
- “I Can Share” by Karen Katz: A cute book for younger toddlers, focusing on teaching early sharing skills.
- “Kindness Starts With You” by Jacquelyn Stagg: This book is great for introducing important concepts under the kindness umbrella, such as helping, inclusion, showing respect, and having empathy for others. It is ideal for children ages 2-5.
- “How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends” by Jane Yolen: Designed for preschool children, ages 3-5, focusing as a guide on how to play nicely with peers.
- “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain: This book teaches children about emotions and feelings using clear and easy-to-understand language and colorful illustrations. It is ideal for children ages 3-8.
- “What Should Danny Do? The Power Of Choices” by Ganit and Adir Levy: This book helps teach children the understanding that choices will shape their days, and ultimately their lives into what they will be. It is ideal for children ages 3 and up.
- “Join In And Play” by Cheri J Meiners: This easy to follow book, teaches the basics of cooperation, getting along, making friends, and being a friend. It is ideal for children ages 4-8.
4. Play Dates
Whether it is with a cousin or a child of a trusted friend, you can get involved during a playdate to help facilitate certain social interactions and exchanges. You can naturally model and guide your child through the multitude of social opportunities that naturally arise when two (or more) children are together. As speech-language pathologists, we often facilitate social skills playgroups by doing exactly this and also training parents how to get involved too! You can be a guiding light in helping your child navigate social scenarios, negotiate, show empathy/kindness, be flexible, share, and problem-solve when the opportunity is right. Pro Tip: Offer both children in the playdate praise when they attempt to engage in social interactions. For example, you may say, “Ben I love how you shared the train. You are such a good friend!” OR “Jack thanks for helping Ben. That was very kind and loving. You made him feel better!.”
As mothers and speech-language pathologists, we have watched our own children and clients navigate these challenging and uncertain times. We have seen the negative impact that lack of socialization has had on children’s social skills but we are here to let you know that YOU as a parent can also play such an important part in helping to build and maintain a strong social and emotional foundation for your child. Yes, real-life, in-person social opportunities are crucial in helping children grow and develop in so many areas, but their social pragmatic language journey starts at home with you. So use these tips to provide your little one with a strong foundation so that they will be resilient with whatever life throws their way!
For more information on how you can build your child’s language skills and help them meet language milestones check out our online resources here!