Recognizing and Promoting Positive Social Development

As our children are now returning to the routine of school year, many parents of school age children face concerns about their children’s social development.  They may notice that their child often plays alone and is not invited to play dates or birthday parties. Or it may be that their child is having a hard time getting along with peers; he or she may come home upset about an argument with a friend, may feel picked on by peers, or may get frustrated that others don’t want to follow their lead in games and activities.

Whatever the concerns may be, there are steps that parents can take to help to promote positive social development in their children.  First, it is often helpful to do some research regarding what to expect in terms of social development at different ages.  There are some great resources on the web to help with this, including an interactive “child development tracker” on the PBS website that contains sections on social and emotional development: .  Your child’s pediatrician is also likely to be a good source of information regarding typical aspects of social development at different ages, as is your child’s teacher and/or school counselor.

Parents can also observe their child in various social settings to gauge how he/she is interacting.  Some possible areas to focus on for school age children include: Does my child show an interest in social activity that is going on around him/her? Does my child know how to initiate social interactions (e.g. asking another child to play, asking a group to join their activity)? Does my child cooperate well with others (e.g. take turns, share, compromise)? Does my child pick up on social cues?  Does my child show compassion and/or empathy towards others?  Does my child voice his/her needs and stand up for him/herself when necessary?

At home, parents can help their children to develop and strengthen their social skills by being good models of social skills themselves.  Parents can also use books, TV shows and movies to initiate conversations with their child about social skills and social interactions (what do you think that little girl felt like when that happened in the story?  I wonder what else she could have done in that situation to make it turn out better. How would you handle that type of situation? etc. ).  If parents are concerned that their child is overly shy and/or socially immature, they can encourage their child to participate in social activities that are likely to be successful.  For example, plan playdates with a familiar child at your house, where you can be available to supervise and troubleshoot if necessary.  Consider enrolling your child in a group activity with peers that can provide structured and well-supervised opportunities to interact socially (e.g. classes in an area of interest, scouts, sports).

Finally, if you have serious/ongoing concerns regarding your child’s social development, consider consulting with a mental health professional and/or your child’s pediatrician in order to determine whether an evaluation or professional intervention may be helpful.

Kathleen B. McElhaney, Ph.D.

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