Preschool social skills:
A guide for the science-minded parent
© 2006-2009 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
Preschool social skills depend on three abilities:
• verbal communication
Many people assume that kids need to spend lots of time with peers to develop strong preschool social skills.
Play-dates and preschool attendance can enrich your child’s daily
life. But socialization--the process of learning how to get along with
others--is not the same thing as socializing. Frequent socializing with
peers is not necessarily a good way for preschoolers to learn about
cooperation, sharing, and emotional self-control.
n fact, the opposite may be true.
Too much time with peers might make kids behave badly.
It’s the sulky elephant in the room that no one likes to talk
about, and even posh, upscale preschools may experience problems.
In studies of American preschoolers, the more time kids spent in
center-based care, the more likely they were to develop externalizing
behavior problems. For details, see this article on
the effects of peers on preschool social skills.
When parents are better than peers
Loving, sensitive parents are ideal social tutors. Unlike preschool
peers, parents draw on extensive emotional resources when they interact
with children. Parents can
• understand the causes and effects of emotions
• see things from a child’s perspective
• interpret the emotions of others
• match social interactions to a child’s developmental level
• describe emotions verbally
• regulate their own emotions
• appreciate the long-term consequences of social acts
No wonder the core preschool social skills—-empathy, emotional self-control, and communication—-are best nurtured by you.
Here are some of the most important ways that you can foster preschool social skills.
How to nurture preschool social skills
Teach your child about emotions
Emotional competence is the key to strong preschool social skills
(Denham 1997). For example, the better children understand emotions, the
more they are liked by peers (Denham et al 1990; McDowell et al 2000).
To teach emotional competence, talk to your child about his
feelings. Talk about your own (e.g., “When you don’t pay attention to
me, it makes me feel frustrated and sad"). Discuss what kinds of
situations make us feel bad, and what things make us feel good. When
parents explain emotions and their causes, kids learn how to better
regulate their own feelings. In one study, parents who used “more
frequent, more sophisticated" language about emotions had kids who could
better cope with anger and disappointment (Denham et al 1992).
For advice about helping kids understand the emotions of others, check out my article,
Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children
Maintain an intimate, loving relationship to your child
The evidence is overwhelming. Social development builds on a child’s
primary relationship—-the bond with his parent or guardian (Sroufe and
When kids see, on a daily basis, that they can rely on you for
support, they are emotionally secure. They adapt more easily to new
social situations. They also develop their capacity for empathy-—a key
ingredient for preschool social skills. In studies conducted at the
University of Wisconsin, four year olds with
relationships showed higher levels of empathy than did peers with insecure attachments (Elicker et al 1992).
Other studies show that sensitive communication promotes social
competence. When parents and children are responsive to each other’s
cues, kids develop strong social skills (Harrist et al 1994; Pettit and
Harrist 1993). One study asked preschoolers to predict how own parents
would respond to them in various situations. The kids that expected
their parents to be comforting were rated by teachers as more skilled
with peers, more empathic, and more cooperative (Denham 1997).
Display positive, warm emotions at home
It’s not necessary to be in a constant state of good cheer. Sometimes
parents experience setbacks or loss, and these can be opportunities for
children to learn how we deal with disappointments (see above). But the
key is demonstrating a positive, "can-do" attitude towards setbacks,
rather than anger or despair. A growing body of research suggests that
kids suffer when their parents--particularly their mothers--show
frequent displays of negative emotion. The more kids see their mothers
display negative emotions, the less likely they are to view their
mothers as people who can comfort and counsel them (Denham 1997).
Moreover, the kids with the most developed preschool social skills are
the ones who experience more positive emotions at home (Denham et al
Talk with your child about his social world
Discuss your child’s experiences with peers in the same pleasant,
conversational way that you discuss other everyday events. Such talk
helps in several ways. It keeps you informed and sensitive to what is
going on with your child. It shows your child that you are really
interested in his social life. And it gives you opportunities to discuss
social tactics with peers (see next item). Kids who talk frequently
about their peer relationships develop stronger preschool social skills
(Laird et al 1994).
Encourage an upbeat, problem-solving attitude
When your child has social problems with peers, encourage a positive,
constructive attitude. Let your child know that everybody gets rebuffed
and rejected sometimes. In one study, about half of all preschooler
social overtures were rejected by peers (Corsaro 1981).
Kids with the strongest social skills treat rebuffs as temporary
setbacks that can be improved. You can encourage this attitude by
suggesting socially “generous" reasons for social rejection (like “Maybe
he’s just shy," or “maybe he just wants to play by himself for a
while."). In addition, help him brainstorm solutions, and encourage him
to predict how different social tactics might work. Such thought
experiments help kids consider what other kids are feeling and
strengthen preschool social skills (Zahn-Waxler et al 1979).
These “what if" scenarios also allow your child to explore ways
he can be adapt and “fit in." Kids with strong preschool social skills
are responsive to the play of others, and they know how to mesh their
behavior with the behavior of potential playmates (Mize 1995). For
instance, if Jane and Emily are playing firefighter and they won’t let
Lucy join in because “there isn’t enough room in the fire engine," Lucy
might suggest playing a different role in the game. (“Help! My house is
on fire and I’m stuck on the roof!")
Be calm and supportive when your child is upset
When parents respond to strong emotions in soothing ways, kids are
less likely to direct negative emotions at peers (Denham 1989; Denham
and Grout 1993). Moreover, parents who respond supportively show their
children how to behave towards others who are in distress. Young
children who respond appropriately to the emotional needs of others are
better liked by peers (Sroufe et al 1984) and rated as more socially
competent by teachers (Denham et al 1990).
Don’t dismiss or play down your child’s negative emotions
When a child launches into a seemingly irrational crying jag, it’s
natural to want to shut him up. But simply telling a child to be quiet
doesn’t help him learn. By taking the time to talk about his feelings,
you help your child become more reflective, self-controlled and socially
competent (Denham et al 1997). This may be especially important for
younger children, who need more emotional coaching and who are more
likely to “turn off" if their parents dismiss their feelings.
Be wary of offering rewards for helpful, "prosocial" behavior
Research on toddlers and primary school children suggests
that we might undermine our kids' impulses to be helpful when we offer them
tangible rewards for being kind. For details, see this article on the
perils of rewarding prosocial behavior.
Be a role model
During everyday social interactions, take advantage of the
opportunity to discuss social behavior (“I thanked our mail carrier for
bringing us the package. She works hard and I want her to know that I
appreciate it.") If your child sees you or other adults slipping up,
talk about it afterwards (“Whoops. I forget to tell Daddy ‘thank you’
for bring me the book.")
Avoid bad social influences
Playing with the wrong crowd can impair preschool social skills. In
one study, researchers monitored the informal playgroups that 3-4 year
old children form during free play periods at preschool. They found that
some kids played in groups characterized by negative emotions and
antisocial practices (like making upset peers feel even worse). Kids who
played in negative groups were rated as less socially competent by
their teachers and parents. And the ill effects were long lasting. Kids
who played in negative groups at the beginning of the study were more
likely to receive poor ratings a year later (Denham et al 2001).
Practice inductive discipline
How you discipline your child has important effects on her preschool
social skills. Inductive discipline emphasizes explaining the reasons
for rules and the consequences of bad behavior. When parents practice
inductive discipline, as opposed to discipline styles that emphasize
punishment and arbitrary parental control, preschoolers show more
self-control and cooperation with peers (Hart et al 1992). Such kids are
also more popular.
Encourage pretend play with older children and adults
During preschool years, pretend play is one of the most important
ways that children forge friendships (Gottman 1983; Dunn and Cutting
1999). Preschoolers who pretend together are less likely than other kids
to quarrel or have communication problems (Dunn and Cutting 1999). If
you participate in pretend play with your child, you may give preschool
social skills a boost. When parents pretend with kids, pretend play
becomes more complex and lasts longer (Fiese 1990).
When you play with your child, don’t criticize his ideas or try
to “run the show." Research indicates that kids with strong preschool
social skills have parents who play with them in a cheerful,
collaborative, way (MacDonald 1987).
Watch for peer rejection and bullying
Both have long-lasting effects. In one study, children who were
rejected by peers at an early age showed higher rates of antisocial
behavior four years later (Dodge et al 2003). By contrast, peer
acceptance seems to innoculate children against developing behavioral
and emotional problems (Criss et al 2002).
If your child is the victim of peer rejection, help her cultivate
a friendship with at least one peer. Studies show that a single peer
friendship can protect preschoolers from continued aggression and
rejection (Criss et al 2002; Hodges et al 1999).
In addition, take stock of your child’s preschool social skills.
In some cases, rejected children need help developing prosocial
behaviors, like helping, sharing and showing concern for others (Vitaro
et al 1990). Preschoolers like peers who show positive affect (Sroufe et
al 1984), helpfulness (Cote et al 2002), and spontaneous sharing
(Eisenberg et al 1999). They also like peers who respond appropriately
to conversation (Kemple et al 1992).
If your child is the victim of a bully, use the same approach
described for peer rejection. In addition, coach her on how to stand up
for herself. Encourage assertive behavior, not aggression. Teach her to
face her bully with helpful verbal formulas like “Don’t do that to me.
That isn’t nice and I don’t like it."
But don't stop there. Bullying is a social problem that should
concern everyone at school. Discuss your concerns with your child's
If you suspect that your preschooler is a bully, he may need help
learning to understand and control his impulses. Encourage him to
discuss his feelings and help him think of constructive ways to deal
with them. Above all, make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated.
Choose TV programs that promote preschooler social skills
Preview what your child watches. Many preschooler-oriented shows
promote positive social behavior, and they can have a beneficial effect
on preschool social skills. For instance, after watching excerpts from
Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, preschool children increased
positive interactions with playmates (Coates et al 1976).
However, some seem to condone impolite behavior. For instance,
the characters on "Dora the Explorer" seem to use only one vocal
register—-shouting-—for all occasions. And I recently saw an episode of
"Mickey Mouse Club" in which Donald accidentally knocked Daisy down.
Daisy responds belligerently. "Hey, Donald. What's the big idea?!"
Also, be careful about programs aimed at older kids. Many of
these programs encourage glamorize child characters who are sarcastic,
shallow, driven by consumerism, and inappropriately sexual. Such
programs have doubtful value for adults, let alone young children.
Realize that sharing is difficult
Parents often think of sharing as one of the most important preschool
social skills. But sharing can be difficult--even for adults. It’s much
tougher for young children, who have difficulty thinking beyond the
immediate future. They may have trouble understanding that they will get
their toy back. And, to be fair, sometimes the kids they share with
don’t give their toys back!
Most young children don’t share very well, and kids are LESS—-not
more-—likely to share after the toddler stage (Hay et al 1991). So be
patient, and when you encourage sharing, try to make it as comfortable
as possible. For example, don’t insist that your child share his newest
toys or most loved toys. Before friends visit, put these away to avoid
Don’t take it personally
Despite the popular Hollywood image of kids as world-weary cynics who know better than their parents, young children are naive.
For instance, they don't possess a sophisticated "theory of
mind." Experiments suggest that kids under the age of 4 haven't yet
mastered the notion that different people may believe different
things--even things that are objectively false (Gopnik et al 1999).
So it's not surprising that children also have trouble grasping the concept of a "lie" (Mascaro and Sperber 1999).
For instance, young children tend to characterize all false
statements--even statements that a speaker believes to be true--as lies
(Berthoud-Papandropoulou and Kilcher 2003).
And while they understand that lying is bad, they lack an older
child's ability to anticipate how their words will make other people
feel. The impact of lying--and the morality of lies--is something they
If your preschooler says something rude or hurtful, don’t take it
personally. But don't ignore it either. Take the opportunity to explain
how words can hurt our feelings. When your child gains insight into the
power of words, he will improve his preschool social skills.
References: Preschool social skills
A great deal of research has been conducted on preschool social skills.
In addition to the
scholarly references cited in this article,
any introductory textbook on cognitive development should help you gain
insight into your child's preschool social skills. Online, Jacquelyn
Mize and Ellen Abell, professors of child development, offer a research-based guide to teaching preschool social
“Encouraging social skills in young children: Tips teachers can share with parents."
You will also find advice about preschool social skills in chapters 7-8
of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (2004) by K. Hirsh-Pasek, R. Michnick
Golinkoff, and D. Eyer.
If you found this article on preschool social skills helpful, check out
other offerings at ParentingScience.com.
image of preschoolers ©iStockphoto.com/Nicole S. Young