By Alexa Joy Sherman
Every time my 4-year-old son masters a new skill—whether it’s spelling, counting to a higher number or reciting the days of the week—I, somewhat relieved, make another checkmark on my mental list of things he’ll be able to do when he hits kindergarten. I’m also conscious of how well he listens, what kind of a friend he’s becoming and how outgoing he is, but I haven’t exactly been keeping a running tally of those things. Turns out I might want to make a few modifications to my subconscious ready-for-school score sheet.
“Society values an individual’s cognitive capabilities, yet many people don’t stop to consider how individuals actually develop these skills,” says Pam Schiller, PhD, author of Seven Skills for School Success: Activities to Develop Social & Emotional Intelligence in Young Children (Gryphon House, 2009). “Children need to pay attention and listen so they can develop the thinking skills necessary to become successful students. Those things require children to control impulses, delay gratification and focus on a task—all of which are related to social and emotional development.”
Indeed, in a national survey of public school kindergarten teachers, few respondents considered knowing the alphabet or being able to count to 20 as critical for starting elementary school as being able to communicate needs verbally, show enthusiasm and curiosity about new activities, and take turns. Here’s how to nurture these secrets for social success in your child.
A social butterfly is born
The foundation of social and emotional intelligence is built during the first 48 months of life, says Schiller. During that time, there are phases when positive and negative experiences will impact how your child interacts with others later. For instance, attachment and trust are wired between birth and 14 months. “If a child cries and someone comes to help him, he will wire for trust; if no one comes, he will wire for lack of trust,” says Schiller. “If he is hungry and someone feeds him, he learns to trust; if no one feeds him, he learns not to trust. It’s as simple as that.” Later, this could translate into a child’s confidence, ability to resolve conflicts and more.
Seize every opportunity for your child to interact with others, whether it’s going to a restaurant or store, organizing playdates, attending birthday parties or enrolling in preschool or extracurricular activities. Model appropriate behavior—be kind to family, friends and strangers alike, exhibit patience when waiting and don’t let stressful situations get the better of you. “Plan interactions with people of all ages,” suggests Schiller. “Teach games that two or more children can play together. Develop a vocabulary about emotions and actions—like ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘take turns,’ ‘share.’” After you’ve engaged with others, talk to your child about what it means to be a good friend, how to get along with others, and how all of these experiences make him feel.
Of course, your child won’t always interact positively with everyone—but rather than reprimand him, it’s better to redirect or modify that behavior, explaining why it needs to be changed, and how to do so. “These are teachable moments, and sometimes we miss them because we want to be quick to discipline,” says Kathleene Derrig-Palumbo, MFT, PhD, founder and CEO of mytherapynet.com. If your child is on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, talk to him about hurt feelings and how things could have gone better. The more you provide chances for your child to make sensible choices, guide him in doing so, acknowledge appropriate behavior and correct inappropriate actions, the more likely it is he will learn to relate to others in positive, productive ways.
NEXT: The Dreaded Drop-Off