Preschool social skills: Evidence-based tips for helping children succeed

© 2006-2017 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Preschool social skills depend on several abilities:

Many people assume that children need to spend lots of time with same-aged peers to develop social skills.

They don't.

Play-dates and preschool attendance can enrich your child's life. But socialization--the process of learning how to get along with others--is not the same thing as socializing. Spending the day with same-aged peers is not necessarily a good way for young children to learn about cooperation, sharing, and emotional self-control.

In fact, the opposite might be true. Too much time with peers might make kids behave badly. In studies of American preschoolers, the more time preschoolers spent in center-based care, the more likely they were to develop externalizing behavior problems.

We shouldn't assume it's inevitable, because some child care arrangements are associated with little or no risk of increased behavior problems. For details, see this article on the effects of peers on preschool social skills.

But the widespread links between center-based care and behavior problems are at odds with the idea that youngsters need peers to acquire good social skills.

On the contrary, when it comes to learning positive social skills -- behaviors like cooperation, understanding other perspectives, showing sympathy, offering help, making amends, extending forgiveness, and observing social etiquette -- the best tutors are older children and adults.

Why adults and older children are better than peers

Preschoolers can't offer each other the feedback they need to learn about emotions, conflict resolution, and self-control. They're all struggling with the same developmental disadvantages!

But adults -- and even older children -- are a different matter. They have a more extensive emotional and cognitive tool kit. They know how to behave appropriately, and they can use their insights to help teach preschoolers what they need to learn:

  • how to cope with negative feelings
  • how recognize emotions in others
  • how to take the perspective of someone else
  • how to express sympathy
  • how to form and maintain friendships
  • how to resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression
  • how to offer help, make amends, and be forgiving

Here are some suggestions for making it happen: Evidence-based tips for fostering preschool social skills. 

1. Maintain a loving, secure relationship with your child

When parents show themselves to be caring and dependable -- sensitive and responsive to their children's needs -- children are more likely to develop secure attachment relationships. 

And children who are securely-attached are more likely to show social competence (Groh et al 2014; Rydell et al 2005). For instance:

  • Preschoolers with secure attachments at ages 2 and 3 have demonstrated greater ability to solve social problems, and less evidence of loneliness (Raikes and Thompson 2008).
  • Young children with secure attachments are more likely to show empathy, and come to the aid of people in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989; Barnett 1987; Elicker et al 1992). 
  • Preschoolers with more secure attachments are more likely to share, and more likely to show generosity towards individuals they don't like (Paulus et al 2016).

Why are secure attachments connected with social competence? You might wonder if it merely "runs in the family." Maybe the same genetic tendencies that foster secure attachments also make children more likely to develop good social skills. 

That probably accounts for some of the association. But the environment still plays a crucial role in the story. Genes don't program traits by themselves. They respond to environmental inputs.

For instance, we know that young children develop differently depending on the threats they perceive. They tend to show less prosocial behavior -- like kindness and generosity -- when they feel worried or anxious.

So it's likely that secure attachments (including secure attachments to teachers and other individuals) can boost prosocial behavior by making children feel less stressed and more confident. And some children may possess genes that make them especially sensitive these effects (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al 2008; Bakermans-Kranenburg and van Iizendoorn 2011; Knafo et al 2011; Kochanska et al 2011). 

2. Be your child's "emotion coach"

Emotional competence is the key to strong preschool social skills (Denham 1997). The better children understand emotions, the more they are liked by peers (Denham et al 1990; McDowell et al 2000). Shy children are at greater risk of being rejected by peers, but when shy children possess a well-developed ability to recognize emotions, this risk is much reduced (Sette et al 2016).

You can help children learn about emotions by engaging them in conversation. Discuss what kinds of situations make us feel bad, and what things make us feel good. When adults explain emotions and their causes -- and share constructive suggestions for coping with negative feelings -- kids learn how to better regulate themselves.

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).

In another, parents who were specifically encouraged to coach their children were rewarded with improvements in behavior. Preschoolers were better able to handle their frustration (Loop and Roskam 2016).

For advice about helping kids understand the emotions of others, check out my article, "Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children."

3. Be calm and supportive when children are upset, and don't dismiss their negative emotions.

This goes hand in hand with being your child's emotion coach. 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. Research suggests that children are more likely to develop social-emotional competence if we acknowledge bad feelings, and show children better ways to solve their problems.

In a study tracking toddlers for twelve months, parents who took this approach were more likely to end up with highly prosocial children. This was true even after researchers adjusted for a child's initial tendencies to (1) become distressed and (2) engage in prosocial acts  (Eisenberg et al 2017).

Other studies indicate that young children who receive emotional support are less likely to direct negative emotions at peers (Denham 1989; Denham and Grout 1993). They are also better liked by peers (Sroufe et al 1984), and rated as more socially-competent by teachers (Denham et al 1990).

Finally, research reports links between preschool social competence and a child's perceptions of his or her parent's emotional availability. In one study, preschoolers were asked to predict how their parents would respond to them in various situations. Children who predicted that their parents would offer reassurance and comfort were rated by teachers as more skilled with peers, more empathic, and more cooperative (Denham 1997).

4. Practice inductive discipline

Across the world, many parents use inductive discipline to instill preschool social skills.

This is the practice of explaining the reasons for rules, and talking -- calming and sensitively -- to children when they misbehave (Robinson et al 1995).

Inductive discipline is one of the key components of authoritative parenting, a style of child-rearing associated with the best-behaved kids. And there is evidence that this "teaching through conversation" approach to discipline helps children become more conscientious and prosocial (Krevans and Gibbs 1996; Knafo and Plomin 2006; Patrick and Gibbs 2016).

For example, in a study that tracked approximately 300 preschoolers over the course of three years, Deborah Laible and her colleagues found that children were more prosocial  if their mothers used inductive discipline (Laible et al 2017).

An earlier study found that the preschool children of inductive mothers were more prosocial and less likely to engage in disruptive, anti-social behavior. They were also more popular with peers (Hart et al 1992).

And research suggests that children exposed to inductive discipline are less likely to develop aggressive behavior problems (Krevans and Gibbs 1996; Knafo and Plomin 2006). 

If you are struggling with such problems, see these evidence-based tips for handling aggression and defiance in children.

5. Inspire children with positive words, and give them opportunities to experience the pleasures of giving

Young children thrive on praise, particularly when we praise their good choices and actions. What about criticism? Here we must tread carefully, because kids can get the impression that we view them as inherently disappointing or bad. And that perception undermines their motivation to improve.

What works best is a constructive approach, challenging children to think of ways they could do better.

And it seems likely we can foster preschool social skills by giving children opportunities to feel the pleasant rush of being a helper or giver.

Many young children understand that being generous feels good (Paulus and Moore 2017), but, like adults, they may need a reminder. If we present kids with opportunities to help -- and call their attention to the happiness their good deeds cause -- we can increase their interest in giving (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013).

We can also encourage kindness by simply arranging for children to engage in reciprocal play -- the kind that involves taking turns. In experiments, simply rolling a ball back and forth made preschoolers show more generosity toward a playmate (relative to kids in a control group who played side by side, cheerfully, but with different balls). This single act of reciprocity was enough to trigger altruism (Cortes-Barragan and Dweck 2014).

6. Talk with children about their social relationships, and introduce them to concrete, upbeat strategies for getting along

If 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. We can encourage this attitude by helping children interpret rejection in a less threatening light. Maybe doesn't want to play because he's shy. Maybe she just wants to play by herself right now.

In addition, we can help children brainstorm solutions, and encourage them to predict how different social tactics might work.

Such thought experiments encourage children to consider what other people are feeling (Zahn-Waxler et al 1979). They also help children to explore ways they can adapt and "fit in."

For instance, a child who's met with resistance ("You can't play firefighter with us because there isn't enough room in the fire engine") might find another way to join the game ("Help! My house is on fire!"). This is one of the secrets of children with strong preschool social skills. They are responsive to the play of others, and they know how to mesh their behavior with the behavior of potential playmates (Mize 1995). 

7. Be wary about offering bribes to children for being kind

Research on toddlers and primary school children suggests that we might undermine our kids' impulses to be helpful when we bribe them with tangible rewards for being kind. For details, see this article on the perils of rewarding prosocial behavior.

8. Show kids how to apologize, make amends, and offer forgiveness

Fascinating experiments on toddlers show that they understand the difference between the unintentional harm they cause and the harm caused by others. For example, when 2- and 3-year-olds believe they caused an accident, they feel a greater urge to help make things right (Hepach et al 2017). 

Moreover, experiments indicate that young children notice when transgressors fail to apologize and offer to help. It might not lift a victim's bad mood, but it can mend bad feelings toward the transgressor. When transgressors fail to reach out in this way, they harm their standing with peers. Over time, they may find themselves increasingly rejected by other kids.

So children are ready to learn about reconciliation, and have a natural incentive to do so. But what exactly should you do after you've gotten too pushy, and knocked over somebody's castle of blocks? Or blurted out something mean-spirited that makes someone cry?

It can be hard for young children to figure out what to do in these situations. We can help by showing them concrete actions to take -- how to speak up, apologize, pitch in to help reverse the damage, and offer the victim something cheering or friendly (like an opportunity to play a game together). 

We can also show kids how to accept apologies with grace, and remember that everyone makes mistakes. It's important for kids to adopt an effort-based mindset: An understanding that people aren't good or bad, but rather imperfect individuals capable of learning from their mistakes.

Studies show this mindset protects children from feeling overwhelmed and helpless to change. For more information, see these articles about the effort mindset and ways that adults can help children adopt it. 

9. Model -- and discuss -- gratitude

Expressions of gratitude help grease the wheels of the social machine. They are essential for getting along in polite society. But experiments suggest that they also improve our mood and outlook. They make us feel less alienated, and more connected to friendly, caring others. In fact, just remembering a received kindness can make us more prosocial. 

For these reasons, researchers who design preschool social skills programs emphasize the importance of gratitude. In a preschool curriculum developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, children read stories about the acts of everyday kindness that people perform for each other throughout the world. They learn about people in their communities who help others (like firefighters, doctors, and bus drivers), and take on the roles of these people through pretend play. Teachers share their own feelings of gratitude, and show, by example, how to express it (Flook et al 2015).

Researchers are making this curriculum available to the public for free. You can sign up for a copy here.

10. Break up cliques with a negative vibe, and watch out for signs of peer rejection and bullying

Sometimes, children bring out the worst in each other, and the best remedy might be to break up the group and encourage kids to play with new friends. 

In one study, researchers observed children during free play periods at a preschool. They noticed which kids tended to play together, and watched their behavior. Some of the groups featured an unusual amount of emotion negativity and antisocial behavior, and these negative groups were rated as less socially competent by their teachers and parents. Moreover, participation in a negative group was predictive of poor preschool social skills a year later (Denham et al 2001).  

What if your child is being rejected by others?

It's important to take notice, because peer rejection at an early age puts a child at increased risk for developing behavior problems (Dodge et al 2003). By contrast, peer acceptance may have protective effects (Criss et al 2002).

If your child is the victim of peer rejection, help him or 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 social skills. Sometimes 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).

And what about bullying?

If your child is being targeted, it's important take the same defensive measures that you would for peer rejection. In addition, talk with him or her about how to respond assertively (e.g., "Don't do that. It isn't nice and I don't like it…"). And the bullying takes place at school or in daycare, discuss your concerns with your child's teacher.

If your child is behaving aggressively, he or she may need help learning to understand and control his impulses. Encourage kids to discuss their feelings and help them think of constructive ways to cope. Above all, make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated. For tips, see this article about coping with aggressive behavior in children.

11. Encourage pretend play with older kids and adults

During the 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).

But keep in mind: Young children are still learning many of the skills required for pretend play, like the ability to understand different mental perspectives, and to reason about speculative, "what ifs."  

As a result, when preschoolers play among themselves, their make-believe is more limited in scope. By contrast, when preschoolers pretend with older people, their games often become more sophisticated and challenging, providing them with enriched learning opportunities. For example, when young children play make-believe with adults, their play bouts are longer-lasting and more complex (Fiese 1990).

So we might promote preschool social skills by encouraging pretend play with older people. And here's an additional tip: When you pretend with your child, don't criticize his or her 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).

For more information, see this article about the benefits of play, including pretend play.

12. Choose TV programs that promote preschool social skills

Research suggests that it makes a difference.

In a randomized, controlled study, Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues assigned some parents to substitute nonviolent, educational TV shows (like  Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer) for the more violent programs their preschoolers usually watched. 

Six months later, children in this group exhibited better preschool social skills -- and fewer behavior problems -- than did children in the control group (Christakis et al 2013). 

13. Realize that some forms of sharing are easier than others

Is sharing a fundamental component of preschool social skills? Yes and no. Some types of sharing are relatively easy for children. If there is a large supply of goodies to share, giving has little downside. But what if giving is a zero-sum game -- like loaning your favorite toy to someone so you can't play with it yourself?

That's what researchers call "costly sharing," and we should keep in mind: Even adults can be reluctant to engage in it.

It's much tougher for young children, who have difficulty thinking beyond the immediate future. If we ask them to loan their toy, 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 have trouble with sharing, 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. Take your child's perspective, and avoid insisting on high-cost sharing. 

Experiments indicate that preschoolers are more likely to increase their generosity if they have experienced the pleasures of giving without being coerced. When adults forced the issue, children may actually became less inclined to give later on (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013). Before your child has a play-date, it may be wise to think ahead, and put away special items that your child won't want to share. 

14. Don't take it personally

Despite the popular Hollywood image of kids as wise cynics who know better than their parents, young children are hampered by a poorer understanding of the world.

For instance, they have trouble tracking the mental perspectives of other people. In particular, most children under the age of 4 haven't yet mastered the notion that different people can 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). 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 must learn.

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.

More reading: Activities to boost preschool social skills

For more ideas, see these evidence-inspired social skills activities for kids.




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 skills in "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 credits  for "Preschool social skills":


image of preschoolers eating lunch on the grass ©iStockphoto.com/Nicole S. Young

image of mother and son playing over top of a chair by dadblunders / flickr 

image of grandmother consoling girl in tiara by Benedic Belen / flickr

image of father talking to girl about something in the distance by Steve Baker / flickr - no derivatives 

image of little girl on older girl's shoulders by Alicia Munoz-Witt /flickr

image of boys sharing strawberries by Quinn Dombrowski flickr





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