The verdict is in: In a 20-year mega study on social skills, children who were more likely to “share” or “be helpful” in kindergarten were found after 2 decades to:
- be more likely to obtain higher education
- hold full-time jobs
What’s more surprising is that…
Children who DIDN’T develop good social skills were more likely to face substance abuse problems, difficulties with job employment, and trouble with the law.
I’m here to help. If you’re a struggling parent, deal with kids all day, or want to fine-tune your future parenting skills, look no further!
Let’s dive into this mega guide to sharpen your child’s social skills!
The 8 Pillars of Social Skills for Kids
What are social skills?
In the book The Leader in Me, Stephen Covey lists 7 critical social skills that children should develop in life:
1. Be proactive: you’re in charge
2. Begin with the end in mind: have a plan
3. Put first things first: play first, then work
4. Think win-win: everyone can win
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood: listen before you talk
6. Synergize: together is better
7. Reward yourself: balance feels best
8. I’m going to add an 8th essential social skill: being indistractable. This means being able to focus entirely on the task at hand—no mind-wandering about the phone or the newest show on TV.
I like to visualize these social skills as a tree.
Pillar 1: Be Proactive
A proactive person takes action. They are assertive and make things happen rather than wait for things to come to them. Proactive children take control and consider each situation as their own responsibility.
Here’s an example I saw recently:
I was at the playground with my daughter and overheard a conversation between 2 kids. It went something like this:
Boy A: “I like your truck!”
Boy B: “I like you!”
Boy A: “I like you, too!”
And they had a little “I like you” back-and-forth moment.
This is a seed of showing assertiveness and preference. And it’s important because over time, we hold back on showing what we like out of fear of rejection.
Instead, I want you to teach your child to say:
- “Can we be friends?”
- “Can we hang out?”
- “Can I play with you?”
Teach your kid to be proactive in showing their preferences, and they’ll also have stronger boundaries when it comes to saying no.
Action Step: How do you get your child to be proactive? Try this:
The Shopping Scavenger Hunt
Have you ever been shopping with your child only to have them get bored and wander off to the candy section? Not anymore! Reframe a shopping trip as a scavenger hunt. They can do this with you, with a sibling, or on their own, depending on their age. With this method, every boring trip to the grocery store turns into a treasure hunt. Prepare a shopping list and find the items! You can teach colors, words, and ideas. This isn’t just about speed; it’s about accuracy! The correctly picked items get another one. This shopping method helps kids plan and actively find what they’re looking for. You also want to help them pick out items that will eventually be in their meals—grapes, strawberries, and their favorites.
Pillar 2: Begin With the End in Mind
You can learn to be a planner and teach kids to appreciate a good plan.
For example, if your kid says, “I like my friend!” you can then say, “Great! So what will you do about that?”
Asking questions helps your kid plan.
You can ask questions if your kid is going to a play date, school, camp, or any other social interaction. Ask questions that relate to:
- What to talk about
- What to do
- What kind of relationship to have
I had to learn planning through immense trial and error (and a lot of missed classes!). And as a kid, it’s crucial to instill good habits early.
Action Step: Here’s how to get your child planning using my favorite method: the GPS Method, or the Gather-Prioritize-Set Method:
- Gather. Before you start a major task, ask your child to gather what they need. Coloring time? Grab crayons and paper. Are they going outside? Grab a jacket and cap.
- Prioritize. The next step is to plan out the priorities in advance. What are the goals? Are we trying to draw zoo animals or simply going out for a walk around the neighborhood?
- Set. The last method is to set a deadline. Playtime can go on forever, but good planning has a stop time for each activity.
Have one activity a day that involves the GPS method. This can be a simple game; it could be making orange juice pops, baking cookies, or doing an art project.
Pillar 3: Put First Things First
Given the choice, which would you rather pick?
- work first, play later
- play first, work later
If you’re like most people, you fall into the first camp. Work that 9–5, then play. Or you might be all work like this.
A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that having fun first might actually be better:
- Researchers built a makeshift “spa” in a laboratory—complete with a massage chair and footbath.
- 259 students freely chose to visit the spa either before or after midterm exams.
So while most people would assume the students who went after the exams could finally relax and be free from midterm stress, students who visited the spa before midterms actually enjoyed themselves just as much as those who visited the spa after midterms.
With children, this means that playing first might actually be beneficial!
I like to mix it up. Since Sienna is currently being homeschooled, on school days we take breaks where we get up and stretch, throw a tennis ball around, or play hide-and-seek.
Sounds obvious, right? But it’s super important to keep play in mind for both kids AND adults.
Action Step: Try mixing up school or a normal routine with play. Get up an hour or two earlier and enjoy your free time with your child, or learn how you and your child can take productive play breaks regularly like a CEO.
Pillar 4: Think Win-Win
Have you ever heard of an Olympic “sweatshop”? This is what happens when kids compete too hard. Competition is great, but not when it becomes overcompetition.
Cooperation, on the other hand, fosters relationship building and has even been shown to be more socially rewarding and less mentally draining than competing with others.
In one amazing study, researchers studied children aged 9 to 14 who were playing basketball. They were in one of three groups:
- a one-on-one game (direct competition)
- partnered up to try to get a high score (cooperation)
- in a 2-on-2 game (cooperation and competition)
Kids had greater satisfaction AND higher scores in the 2-on-2 game. This means competition combined with a little cooperation is the key to success.
Action Step: Is your child overly competitive? Try switching it up to more cooperative activities (see the 3 social skill activities for kids below!). And if you’re in a 1-on-1 situation, don’t let your child win all the time. Putting a child’s feelings over losing might harm them in the long run by forcing them to think that they’re going to win every time.
Helping your child understand that sometimes they CAN’T win and they should be OK with that is the key to success.
Choose board games that encourage both cooperation and competition. Some of our favorites:
Pillar 5: Seek First to Understand
In a nutshell, this pillar is all about empathy.
Empathy is an ESSENTIAL social skill. Studies show that empathy is crucial for kids to build happy relationships with friends and family, as well as do well at work in the future (who would want to work with a non-empathetic grouch, anyway?).
Empathetic kids may also be kinder to other kids, possibly stopping bullying from happening. Here’s how to get your kid to jump on the empathy train.
Action Step: I like to always ask the golden question: “Why do you think they did that?” I always ask this question to Sienna when we are people watching others. Just the other day, we saw a woman at the grocery store silently crying. I asked Sienna the golden question, and we came up with a bunch of (possibly sad) reasons why this could happen.
Exercise the muscle of compassion! If it doesn’t get trained, it goes away. I highly recommend brushing up on your empathy by heading on over to our article: How to Be Compassionate (Backed by Science!)
The other best way to show empathy: show it yourself! The other day, we went to the local Austin Zoo, and Sienna was sooooo excited to ride the zoo train. But we missed it by 5 minutes. She was so bummed. Instead of distracting her or trying to calm her down quickly, I got on her level and said, “I am so sad too! I know we both really wanted to ride that train. I am so sorry. Do you want to sit and be sad together for a few minutes?” She said yes.
So we sat and talked about how disappointed we were. And then she saw a goat and was totally fine.
A few days later, she saw me rub my eyes and she said, “Momma, do you want to sit and talk about your sad?” Empathy for the win!
Pro Tip: Another cool way to teach empathy is to spot the 7 different facial expressions. You can even make it a fun little game to make the emotions together and see if they can spot the emotions! Click here to learn more about facial expressions.
Pillar 6: Synergize
A little story about me: I was one of those kids growing up who was afraid of the playground. The recess bell would ring and I would literally beg my teachers to let me wash the chalkboard, organize my desk, or even help cut paper for the bulletin boards.
All because I was SO terrified of the playground.
If you can relate, you know how isolating and alienating it can be to feel helpless and alone. Children might not speak out about it, so it’s important to instill a “together is better” mentality at a young age.
Synergizing is all about teamwork and working with others. And it’s also about letting your child know that whatever they feel, that’s the right way. If they’re feeling awkward, nervous, or vulnerable, that’s OK! Teaching them to admit their weaknesses helps make them authentic.
Action Step: Synergize with your child. Talk openly with them. Speak with their teachers. Bring in family members who can socialize with them. Host video call get-togethers. Join a sports group. And most importantly, listen to them.
Remember: you are there for your child. Be their rock they can lean on.
We’ve also had a lot of success reading books about the social and emotional experiences Sienna is having. When I had to go away on a business trip, we read:
It really helped Sienna prepare mentally and know she was not alone!
Pillar 7: Reward Yourself
Have you heard Aesop’s fable of The Ants & The Grasshopper?
This is a really fun story I read to Sienna the other day, and I think lots of kids ignore work in favor of 100% play (ironically, how many adults do the opposite?). The story goes like this:
One fine Autumn day, a group of ants were busy drying out their grains of rice they collected during summer. A grasshopper, starving and carrying a fiddle, came up to the ants and begged for food. Astonished, the ants questioned why the grasshopper didn’t have any food. “I was too busy playing my music!” replied the grasshopper. Then the ants turned their heads and simply said: “If you were so busy making music, then why don’t you just dance?”
And the version I found on YouTube has a slightly different ending:
Rather than being the grasshopper and not working at all, why not join the ants?
Teaching your child to work and build a lemonade stand, or start a new project, or work with their friends, teaches them bonding and self-esteem. They have to plan, cooperate, and DO things.
Mutual cooperation is the goal here when putting in effort. The more we can work together, the bigger the reward (and the more we can accomplish)!
Action Step: I highly encourage you to plan out one weekend or play date a month to encourage your kid to find another kid to work together. If you do this consistently, you will see your child’s collaboration, sharing, negotiation, and planning skills skyrocket.
Pro Tip: Do you praise your children based on their effort or ability? Studies show that praising children for their intelligence or natural-born abilities can lead to test anxiety and spending less time on tasks. Praise based on effort, however, encourages children to work harder on their goals.
If you’re not praising efforts already, start now! Praising efforts can lead to a child with a strong growth mindset in the future and set them up for success.
Pillar 8: Become Indistractable
The last and final pillar (and one of my favorites) is being indistractible.
Being indistractible means having the ability to manage distractions and focus on the task at hand. In a world full of social media, electronics, and smiley emojis, it’s easy to always think your phone’s giving off notification sounds even if it’s off.
Children easily fall prey to distractions. Remember that old Stanford marshmallow experiment? If you don’t, it’s the one where researchers gave a marshmallow to kids and told them they could either eat it now or wait 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows. And the kids who had greater delayed gratification abilities had better SAT scores, educational attainment, and even body mass index (BMI) scores!
So yes, being indistractible is an essential social skill for children.
My good friend Nir Eyal also wrote a best-selling book on this subject!
Action Step: Learn more about the book and pick Nir Eyal’s brain in this amazing article or the video below (it’s full of golden nuggets!):
3 Social Skill Activities for Kids
Want to boost your child’s social skills? Here are my favorite games and activities to play (that actually work!). Starting with…
Activity #1: Board Games
Here are a few of my favorites:
- For cooperation: Hoot Owl Hoot. In this fun owl-themed game, players cooperate to help the owls fly back to their nest before the sun comes up. This one’s great for learning teamwork!
- For strategy: Race to The Treasure. I LOVE this game because it blends strategy with teamwork. This is great for noncompetitive board game lovers.
- For memory: Dinosaur Escape. This one’s similar to above, but dinosaur-themed! There are also memory tiles thrown into the mix to work on memory skills.
Activity #2: Direction Following
Have you ever played a classic game of following directions from a team leader? These types of games build listening skills as well as communication. Try these activities to develop good social skills:
- Simon Says. Playing Simon Says is a classic—it’s easy and it works! This is great for groups. If you haven’t played yet, it works like this: The team leader says, “Simon says…” and names an action, like “touch your head” or “jump up and down on one leg.” Players follow this action. But if the team leader calls out an action without saying “Simon says” and the player performs it, they’re out!
- Walk and Stop. This is another fun direction game where players walk around (or run) while the music is playing, and when the music stops, they freeze!
- Treasure Hunt. One of my favorites I love to play with Sienna is a treasure hunt. I like to give out clues (like “under a table”) that lead to a real treasure! Sometimes the treasure will be a small cookie or teddy bear!
Activity #3: Body Language Games
For children (especially autistic children), reading social cues might be hard. So why not get a head start by doing something fun AND delicious?
- Facial Expression Cookies. I love to bake, and a great kids’ activity is to make cookies with different facial expressions. You can even ask questions like “How do we make an angry face?” to train facial expressions.
- Capture Emotions. A great activity is to film your child and have them “play” a character. For example, you can get them to play the Grinch (practicing disgust and anger) or have them be like Santa Claus (expressing their happiness).
- Expressive Movies. Movies are great for emotions! We’ll opt to watch family or humor movies where the actors are really expressive.
How Kids Develop Antisocial Behavior
Alright, so now you’ve got a hint of what good social skills for children look like.
Great! You’re ahead of the game. But what about antisocial behavior?
What is antisocial behavior?
Children who become antisocial might fight easily, get angry, or argue with others. And that’s well before the rebellious teenage phase even happens.
While some external situations (like friends’ influence) might be out of your immediate control, there ARE some things parents do that can cause antisocial behavior. Avoid the following:
- Spanking your child. Have you ever been spanked when growing up? Unfortunately, 35% of children have experienced some form of physical punishment at least once a year. And more unfortunately, a 50-year long study involving over 160,000 children found that spanking leads to antisocial behavior, aggression, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties—PLUS it makes children defy their parents even more. A lose-lose for parents.
- Violent media. Yes, those violent video games CAN be bad for children. A huge 2019 study found there was a “significantly positive correlation between exposure to violent video games and adolescent aggression.” So turn off the violent TV and consider switching on some good ol’ Disney instead.
- Peer pressure. I don’t like to be a helicopter parent, but I know one day Sienna’s peers will have a huge influence on her (hopefully for the best). Studies show a link between deviant peers and antisocial behavior. The best way to help a child choose the right peers is making sure they have rock-solid confidence and are having open discussions. Be there for them, and be a role model to teach good values and the ability to opt out of peer-pressuring situations.
And if your child is still feeling angry or violent, I highly suggest brushing up on your body language skills so you can identify the nonverbal signs of aggression right away.
How to Help Kids Succeed with Peers and Other People
How do you use science to help kids succeed with other people?
With the tips in this article, you’re well on your way to providing your kids with a future of success!
But wait, there’s (much) more! For further knowledge, I highly recommend checking out my podcast interview with child and teen development specialist Dr. Robyn.
In this podcast, I cover exactly what it takes to make a child successful:
To your (and your child’s) success,