Developing Social Skills in Young Children

Social skills are the ways we use our language skills in social situations. Social communication is important in developing effective interpersonal skills and is critical to various aspects of our daily life. Social skills are important in childhood and adulthood. What is the relationship between social skills and speech-language skills/disorders?

Navigating social interactions is one of the most complex tasks in which human beings participate. Social communication involves many psychological systems, such as visual and auditory perception, receptive and expressive language and problem-solving skills. These systems develop throughout childhood into adulthood and are influenced by our personality (nature) and the environment and interactions around us (nurture). When these systems do not function properly, social exchanges may not go smoothly. For example, a child with a language deficit affecting social communication may not be able to understand or respond to verbal or nonverbal social cues such as when to end a conversation or how to change topics during discussion.

There are many different types of social skills deficits. Some examples include children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), who tend to have deficits in understanding another person’s perspectives. Many individuals with ASD do indeed desire social involvement; however, these individuals typically lack the necessary skills to interact effectively. Children with the hyperactive and impulsive subtypes of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to have poor impulse control and social problem-solving skills. Socially anxious children are overly cautious, in part due to fears of what others will think of their actions, which may result in avoiding social situations.

Research presented at the 2007 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development by a team of Michigan State University researchers indicate that a child’s social skills at age 3 could predict his or her future social and academic performance. Important social skills in early childhood include emerging abilities to manage feelings and behaviors, recognize social cues from others and engage in positive interactions with peers.

Young children who experience problems with social-behavioral adjustment often have co-existing deficits in early language and literacy skills. These deficits may compound the challenges they face and place prospects for success in school and in positive social relationships at risk (Bos, Coleman, & Vaughn, 2002; Hinshaw, 1992; Kaiser, Car, Hancock, & Foster, 2002; McGee, Prior, Williams, Smart, & Sanson, 2002; Tomblin, Zhang, Buckwalter, & Catts, 2000).

What do social skills include?

Social skills include:

  • using eye contact
  • greeting others
  • taking turns in conversations
  • starting and ending conversations appropriately, not abruptly
  • staying on topic or appropriately changing topics
  • using the correct tone of voice for the situation
  • using the appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures
  • sending the message as it was meant (e.g., was it a joke or a request or a way to disagree)

How are social skills evaluated?

Evaluating a child’s social skills is best done by observing a child in a variety of contexts or having the caregiver report about their skills, as well as some formalized testing and checklists. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) will observe a child during a speech-language assessment and record his/her responses. These responses are then reviewed and analyzed for accuracy and appropriateness of each of the skills listed above. The SLP may also ask the parent to complete a checklist of skills the child has demonstrated or to describe difficulties the child has when interacting with others.

How are social skills disorders treated?
Social skills disorders are best treated in a group setting to provide a variety of partners and situations to practice learned skills. Our groups provide direct instruction through a variety of teaching techniques that include modeling, role-play activities, coaching and games. Group lessons address specific goals identified for the group members, such as paying attention to others, holding a conversation, understanding turn-taking, interviewing, problem solving of daily issues, compromise and self-evaluation. A successful group includes plans for generalization and maintenance of newly learned skills outside the training environment. We use group activities to create opportunities to practice real-life skills, and homework is assigned to increase the generalization of skills beyond the group session. Parents and teachers should be involved to ensure carryover of skills to natural settings.

Social skills options at Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center (CHSC)

CHSC is able to design a social skills group based on a client’s age and skill set.  Please contact Barbara Choudhury at (216) 325-7532 or Linda Lange at (216) 325-7531 for more information.