Encouraging Social Success

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Ages 4-5

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
The Dreaded Drop-Off

Soon enough, your child will start kindergarten—and the reality of spending several hours away from you could bring on separation anxiety. Once he gets comfortable with his teachers and classmates, it should subside—but that may take time. To ease the transition, explore the classroom, playground and other school areas with your child in advance. “If possible, go and have lunch during the spring semester with an older friend or sibling,” suggests Schiller. Introduce your child to the teacher and administrators and make them aware of any fears your child is experiencing. Schiller suggests reading The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn a few days before school starts and again the night before the big day. “On the first day of school, put a kiss on an index card and send it to school with your child,” she says.

Above all, don’t dismiss or become angry about your child’s anxiety. Talk calmly about positive experiences to come—from making friends to learning new things. Tell your child how soon you’ll see each other again and how excited you are to hear about his day at school. “Make sure your child knows how he will be picked up and give a time related to events instead of the clock,” notes Schiller. For instance, say, “I’ll pick you up right after story time.”

Finally, make sure that you’re emotionally prepared; it won’t be easy to walk away if your child is crying, but staying will only make the situation harder. Never let your child stay home because of separation anxiety or sneak away when he isn’t looking. Simply say good-bye and that you’ll see him soon.

NEXT: Safety versus courtesy

Safety versus courtesy

Fears about how your child will interact with strangers when you’re not around can be stressful—not just that he might not be polite, but worse, that someone will take advantage of his sweet disposition. Disconcerting as that can be, don’t make strangers out to be scary for your child, says Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower International (kidpower.org), headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif., and author of The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Self Protection, Personal Safety, Advocacy and Confidence for Young People. Instead, teach him boundaries and how to advocate for himself early on.

“If you try to hug your child and he backs away, notice and support it,” explains Abby L. Bleistein, MD, a board certified pediatrician in Lafayette, Colo. “Say, ‘You don’t want a hug today, and that’s okay.’ Let him know he’s allowed to make that choice.” This goes for other family members, too. “Let him choose whether he wants to be hugged or kissed, even by Grandma,” says van der Zande. Teach him to move away from unwanted touch and say, ‘Stop. I don’t like it.’” Ask other children and adults to respect your child’s wishes.

Talk with your child about his interactions. “Teach him that problems should not be secrets,” says van der Zande. Even if his worries sound trivial, get him into the habit of talking with trusted adults and believing that he will be listened to with respect and love. Ask plenty of questions about his day—what happened, who he played with and, occasionally, if there’s anything he’s been wondering or worrying about that he hasn’t told you, van der Zande advises.

NEXT: Playing Well With Others

Playing Well With Others

In a best-case scenario, your child will make friends easily and conflicts will be practically nonexistent—but sometimes, you might want to help smoothing the path to positive relationships. “Find a school buddy for your child,” suggests Schiller. “If you don’t know any of the other children, use your best judgment as to who looks like they might be adapting well—then provide the child with your child’s name and try to get your child a seat close to the friend you have picked.”

Another idea: “If you can obtain a list of classmates ahead of time, you might have a little ‘Starting School Party’ and invite the other children over to play,” Schiller says. You might also simply leave the initial introductions up to your child and ask whom she played with each day. “Then, contact the parents of the children your child talks about and have them over for a playdate outside of school,” Schiller recommends. “But be careful: The name your child will likely know best is the one the teacher calls out the most each day—which may not be the one you want your child to befriend!”

If your child seems to be having trouble making friends once school starts, check in with the teacher on a regular basis and ask how things are going. As they become more confident and comfortable in the school setting, most children will eventually establish relationships—some that might even last a lifetime.

NEXT: When Kids Are Cruel
When Kids Are Cruel

Every child will have an off day, but when she repeatedly picks on other children—physically or verbally—it’s up to you to teach her how to manage such situations better. If your child is on the receiving end of the bullying, resolving the situation could be as simple as suggesting that she avoid the troublemaker. “If one child always pushes kids off the swings, tell your child to go somewhere else when that kid approaches,” says Bleistein. “Make sure she knows she shouldn’t stay there waiting for him—and that doesn’t mean she is running away, it means she is being aware.”

Having powerful words ready like “no,” “stop,” and “I don’t want to play that way” can also be effective ways for your child to put an end to a peer problem. “Practice saying those words with your child again and again in a strong and calm voice,” Bleistein suggests. Your child also needs to know that if problems begin to escalate, she needs to get an adult to intervene. “Sometimes the adult in charge is busy, so make sure children know to be persistent and keep asking until she gets the help she needs,” Bleistein says.

If your child is the one doing the bullying, you will need to be firm and consistent in dealing with her aggressive behavior—whether you witness it firsthand or hear about it from a teacher or other adult. Make sure you’re not modeling inappropriate behavior yourself—and this includes resorting to physical discipline, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead, talk to your child about what she is feeling and the reasons for her behavior, and enforce consequences, such as a loss of privileges.

Regardless of who is doing the bullying, maintain a regular dialogue with the school administrators, teachers and other parents involved, keeping things as positive and constructive as possible. After all, when you take the time to address the issue calmly, you’re not just moving toward a peaceful resolution—you’re also modeling appropriate behavior for your child.

NEXT: Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

Not sure if your child has the social skills needed to start school? Assess that emotional readiness with these guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

-Interacts well with others. The ability to talk and play with peers, take turns and share (and not just to avoid punishment) are all good signs that your child is ready for school.

-Is a good listener. Kindergarten students should be able to follow directions, ask questions and finish tasks as instructed, as well as pay attention for a solid 15 to 20 minutes.

-Talks about feelings. Being able to express oneself without crying or getting upset, even during difficult situations, demonstrates the emotional maturity required for elementary school.

-Manages problems effectively. Children should be able to wait patiently, accept limits (being told “no”) and get what they want without using negative behavior or words.

-Asks for help. Getting assistance from an adult or peer without whining, crying or getting upset is an essential tool for social—and academic—success.


How to build your child’s social skills before they board their first school bus.

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