Social Skills Defined
By: Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.
Everyone needs friendly relationships in order to build the social skills they need, like learning appropriate communication and regular play. Finding people that have common ground with you helps build confidence and self-esteem, and allows you to let your guard down. Finding acceptance in a social circle can do wonders for a child’s attitude and self-worth.
But what are social skills? Everyone talks about needing them and how important they are but defining what social skills actually are is crucial to teaching children how to act in certain social circumstances. By definition, social skills “facilitate interaction and communication with others.” Every social exchange has a different set of rules for the participants while friendships are forged, and can consist of both verbal and non-verbal exchanges while in a social environment.
Connecting with people through verbal exchanges is a great way to break the ice and explore the possibility of friendship, but this can be difficult for some children with special needs. Anxiety, stress or other communication barriers might prevent a child from knowing the appropriate action to take during a social interaction, which doesn’t come naturally for some. While creating new friendships isn’t always easy, there are tips and techniques to help children with special needs who struggle making friends.
Non-verbal social skills consist of actions, hand gestures or overall movement while in a social setting. A large part of part of communication consists of body language, which is how we act in different environments. Smiling, eye contact and friendly hand gestures signify you are warm and open to social contact; turning away from a person, keeping your arms to your side or not looking someone in the eyes while they speak serve to show you are uncomfortable with the social situation. Most non-verbal social skills happen without us knowing, so it’s important to be aware of your actions while handling social events.
Even your tone of voice shows your emotional state, and you might not even know it. Speaking very softly or in a monotone can signify you are shy, unhappy or uncomfortable with where you are, and people react to your actions. When a child with special needs is confronted with a social situation, they may create a defense barrier and struggle to find a way to connect with other children.
Communication in any language, both verbal and non-verbal, is the essential building block to human interaction all around the world. It is what all social skills are based from, and without functional communication methods the world would not run smoothly. Most often, children with special needs view social situations and circumstances differently than other people. Before exposing your child to a social group, make sure you know the specifics of what the event will be. This will help you identify potential stressors for your child, and allows you to either modify the environment or prepare them for what will be coming.
Disabilities come in many forms, and each one presents its own set of unique challenges especially during social interactions. Physical issues, mental disabilities or behavioral problems can prevent a child from performing the necessary non-verbal communication in order to bond with their peers. Social skills are gleaned over time as we watch our parents, caregivers and teachers interact with us and other children, but for a child with special needs these skills are not picked up as quickly. It typically takes time, patience and consistently appropriate behaviors in a one-on-one setting in order for a child with special needs to see improvement in social interactions.
Tips to Improve Social Skills
There are many tactics to improve social skills, and the method of treatment should be tailored to fit each child’s individualized abilities. Let’s take a look at some ways to improve these much-needed social skills.
• Parallel play – In this exercise, your child will be playing with another child but side-by-side. This allows them to get used to the idea of other children being around them without actually interacting, and each child is playing with a separate toy or object.
• Sharing – Yes, what your mother has been yelling at you for years is actually a fundamental part of learning social skills. This means doing something with another child at the same time, with each child getting equal participation.
• Taking Turns – Once your child with special needs is comfortable with the idea of sharing, it’s time to allow them to take turns playing with another child. This gives them an opportunity to use appropriate actions and adjust behavior as necessary.
• Cooperative Play – This allows you to set rules for a game to help your child learn to play within the requirements of the game. Everyone will follow the same set of rules, which shows the child the correct way to interact with other children.
There are other subtle ways a child can learn social skills. These consist of tone of voice and volume, waiting your turn to speak and reciprocating behavior in a social setting, and can be frustrating for children with special needs. Start slowly and have patience – you will have to reiterate actions and behaviors over and over before the concept has been set, which isn’t always easy for everyone involved.
Social skills can be learned over time with stringent therapy, but it can be a difficult road to travel. You might feel stressed, angry, anxious or lonely while teaching your child with special needs, like you have no support. That’s a perfectly natural reaction to the situation, and it requires discipline on your part to keep up appropriate actions to help your child learn how to behave on their own.
Special Education Resource offers individualized special education tutoring to work with your child’s specific learning needs in a one-on-one setting. No matter where you are in your special education journey, we have the information you need to make informed decisions regarding your child’s care and education, as well as provide a much-needed peace of mind.
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