Social skills are just as important for children as learning how to take a test or brush their teeth.
Beyond better communication and improvements interacting with peers and leader figures, social skills have far-reaching benefits for kids. Research has shown that social skills in youth often forecast future success. Children, even adolescents and young adults, with strong social skills have more confidence and are better able to overcome adverse situations. They are more likely to finish work and tasks successfully.
The restrictions and limitations brought on by COVID-19 have made it difficult for children to work on or practice social skills in a safe setting. While schools have set up remote learning plans and hold regular video chats and lessons, these are rarely focused on social skills.
Texting may be a skill, but it’s not a social skill. Zoom calls will never completely replace the verbal and non-verbal communication necessary to work in a group setting. The behaviors and social norms we take up with immediate family are different than those we use in a classroom, sports team or other setting.
That’s not to say we can’t help nurture those skills even when quarantining and spending time at home. Research has shown that social skills can be taught and, with a little planning and creativity, we can supplement social skill training for kids even during these difficult times.
We’ve assembled a few activities you can use to develop social skills for kids (and adults). Not every activity here will be appropriate for every child. Younger children may need to have the activity set up differently, and older children may be reluctant to participate.
Look at testing out these activities during family social times, like at the dinner table or on a car ride. Make it fun and keep an eye out for opportunities to roll out an activity. Even a few short sessions will give kids an opportunity to gain experience and learn something new.
Let’s get started.
This is a quick and easy activity that can often be dropped into casual conversation or when mediating an argument.
Whenever there is a disagreement, a discussion, or even when you are watching TV, take a moment to ask, “What do you think they are feeling right now? Why do they think that?” Let the child put themselves in the perspective of the character or the other person. Let them talk through their thoughts and feelings and give them a chance to discuss why they feel that way. Often, this can turn into a great conversation for you and the child.
Thinking from another perspective isn’t easy for kids, even older kids. Taking on another perspective, or putting yourself in another person’s shoes, is a skill that’s worth working on.
One of the most important things a child learns at school or in a group setting is having patience and taking turns. Working from home and outside of a group, the child can quickly learn there’s no reason to wait. There’s no need for turns.
Especially for younger children, it’s important to give them the opportunity to learn about turns. Play a game or set up an occasion where the child has to take a turn. A gaming system, or a special toy, is a great opportunity for taking turns if you join with them in the activity. Offering a reward after the game is a great way to reinforce the importance of taking turns.
Board games aren’t nearly as popular as they once were, but they are still a great way to teach social skills. Board games teach patience, they force the players to take turns, and often concepts of fair play are built into the game. Setting the rules, or agreeing on house rules, helps promote negotiation. Even selecting a color or a game piece requires agreement and compromise.
Set up play dates for a child and their friends to play a board game virtually. This helps foster a sense of togetherness even when friends are apart. Many games also have an academic element, teaching math, reading and analysis. Older kids will enjoy more complex games, or games that fit their interests.
One area where kids, even older kids and adolescents, may struggle is with overcoming personal bias. It can be difficult for kids to see beyond their own likes and dislikes or recognize that other people may see things differently. Kids and young adults have a tendency to see everything, even neutral facts, through a personal lens. Being able to recognize and accept differences is a component of empathy.
Debating, or working to communicate an idea or convince someone of your opinion, is a critical social skill. Having the child play devil’s advocate in a debate teaches persuasive skill and helps break the personal bias habit. It exposes the child to diverse viewpoints, builds empathy, and fosters critical thinking. Younger children may struggle to understand how “devil’s advocate” works, but you can set it up as a role playing activity with them.
Before saying yes to a request, let them debate or have them play devil’s advocate to convince you to honor the request. This gives the child a reward after the activity.
Social activities and group games are exceedingly difficult when social distancing. Setting up a virtual activity time can give kids a social connection. Scavenger hunts are a great activity you can play in your home and with others over a virtual call. Rather than listing out items for the kids to find, provide clues they can work through together.
Virtual scavenger hunts are a great way to get kids working together as a team. Everyone plays an important part in the game regardless of skill level. Because there is less personal investment in the game, there is a lower chance of hurt feelings or poor sportsmanship. The clues may require a little more work for the parent, but they can add an element of fun and academics to the game. Provide a reward at the end of the game that the team can (virtually) share.
Communication is at the foundation of social skills. Having a child or adolescent simply tell a story stretches the social skill muscles. As they tell the story, they can watch and observe the audience and see what works and what doesn’t during the story. They learn how to use verbal and non-verbal cues to work with listeners. For younger kids, a made-up story based on imagination is great. Older children may respond better to talking about an event or something that happened during the day.
Charades is a great game for telling a story and building social skills. The child can see the gestures and cues that best convey critical information. The game also pushes kids to see things from a different perspective and keep their audience in mind as they communicate.
COVID-19 and the restrictions on society have put pressure on all of us.
Social skills like storytelling, debate, persuasive speech, empathy and social awareness are all skills that children and adolescents work on in the classroom, on a team, or in a social activity. Storytelling over a video chat is not the same, and persuasive speech in a text message doesn’t work like it does in a social setting.
Simple activities like the ones above are quick and easy ways to stretch the social muscles for kids and gives them an opportunity to work on skills they may not normally have the opportunity to work on right now.
Even during these difficult times, we need to make social skills and social activities a priority!