How Children Develop Social Competence
As in other teaching topics, we need to start with the “basics” when we teach social skills. Like any other learning, the ability to successfully master social skills requires that children’s physical and emotional needs are met. A child who lacks security and confidence has difficulty working on anything else. Children are most likely to be secure, confident, and socially competent if their parents are warm and attentive and also help them understand limits (e.g., Hart, Olsen, Robinson, & Mandleco, 1997; Landy, 2002). If these needs cannot be met adequately at home, schools must try to fill the gaps (Koplow, 2002).
We need to think about a child’s motivation for prosocial behaviors, such as sharing or otherwise compromising. You have surely seen youngsters who don’t care one bit whether they hurt other children or make them mad. These are usually the children who feel rejected by others, and who reject others in return. If a child doesn’t care about others, you aren’t going to have much luck with lessons about getting along. Being able to consider another person’s feelings is a different issue than wanting to (Pritchard, 1996). It really isn’t until children have something to lose, such as a playmate, that they have reason to consider how their actions affect others. You have probably noticed that, as children develop the idea of friendship, they often use the “friendship threat” (“I won’t be your friend!”) in an effort to get their way (Wheeler, 2004).
Therefore, a “basic” for learning social skills is having friends, which for children means having playmates. In order to have playmates, children must be able to successfully enter into play with others, which may be the most “basic” part of developing social skills. The process of playing with others not only provides motivation for learning social skills, it also provides excellent practice (Lillard & Curenton, 1999). Play provides many opportunities for conflict and negotiation, which help children learn to consider the needs and feelings of others. Considering the needs and feelings of others is called perspective-taking, and is also basic to developing social skills.
Though each piece contributes to the other, we see a necessary initial sequence to the components of learning social competence: first comes the ability to enter play successfully, which creates feelings of being accepted by others, which leads to friendships and to caring about others. These relationships make youngsters more willing to consider the perspective of others instead of just their own. When these pieces are in place, a child is generally open to teacher assistance with social skills and behaves in a fairly socially acceptable manner. Let’s look now at how to help get these pieces into place.
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