Children’s development of social skills is affected by the nature of their family and early educational experiences (NRC, 2001). Whether in a nuclear, blended, or extended family; a communal arrangement; or a single-parent family, the child learns social patterns and skills within this context. Children find love and security and form attachments with people who protect and care for them.

In the family, children become socialized through interactions with parents, siblings, relatives, and neighbors; once in a school setting, they need new ways of acting, relating, and socializing. Children who have had a strong attachment to a nurturing figure and see themselves as separate from this nurturing figure are ready for a group situation. Children who have not fully developed strong attachments to another person may have a more difficult time adjusting to the complexity of the social system of the school.

The Family

Children who experience the security of loving parents and have strong attachments to their parents are better able to reach out to relate with others. According to attachment theory, children who enjoy a secure attachment relationship with their parents and caregivers use this relationship as a support to venture out and explore their environment (Maccoby, 1993). They reach out to others, return to the caregiver for support, and venture out again, going further into the world of social relationships (Ainsworth et al., 1978). As the child confidently wanders out to test the social waters, he enlarges his social world, expands his social contacts, and is more likely to learn from experience in social interaction.

Parents who are social themselves serve as models for their children. Children may be able to use the image of their parents interacting with others in their own attempts to make and be friends with other children or to cooperate and share. Socially competent parents may affect their children’s social skill development in another way. Parents who are secure and competent offer children a model of security from which to build their own social skills.

The nature of parent-child interactions is also related to a child’s development of social skills. Children who are raised in democratic families, where reasons are given along with the rules, are more likely to be socially active and open-minded. Such parents explain, “No hitting. If you ask her for the truck instead of hitting, she’ll give it to you,” or “We always say thank you to someone who does something for you,” or “In church, we sit quietly during the sermon so others can hear. If you want to, you can write in your notebook or take a puzzle with you so you don’t disturb the others.” These parents are more likely to have children who cooperate, share, and initiate social activities.

On the other hand, parents who are more authoritarian, who demand obedient, conforming, and dependent offspring, may have children who are never really comfortable exploring the world for themselves. Often, these children fail to develop the ability to relate effectively with others throughout their life (Dorsey, 2003).

Gender differences play a role as well. In one study, fathers’ negative attitudes toward child rearing predicted behavior problems in children (DeKlyen et al., 1998). Fathers’ warmth and control have also been related to better academic achievement for children, and interactions with nonpaternal men can result in more prosocial behaviors toward peers (Coley, 1998).

Role of Culture

The characteristics of culture also affect children’s developing social skills (Wardle, 2001). Teachers who take the time to observe and know the culture and community in which children live are better able to build on its strengths or work to mediate its potential negative effects on children’s social development.

Children who live in violent or unsafe communities may be fearful and withdrawn when in the classroom. Those exposed to domestic abuse, gang violence, and petty or not-so-petty criminals do not feel safe or secure. Their feelings of insecurity will interfere with their total development, especially social skills development.

Children who experience violence in their community will need to find the following in the preschool-primary classrooms (Gross & Clemens, 2002; Slaby et al., 1995; Wallach, 1995):

  • Meaningful relationships with caring and knowledgeable adults
  • Schedules and environment that are as consistent as possible
  • Structure and very clear expectations and limits
  • Many opportunities to express themselves safely in play, art, and stories and storytelling

All of us are affected socially and emotionally by violence, wars, threats of wars, and terrorism (Avery et al., 1999). During these frightening, sad, and uncertain times, even children who live in relatively safe environments are exposed to a great deal of violence.

Some children and their families have been directly and deeply affected by war and terrorism. Even children with no direct contact with war, however, can be deeply affected. Children who witness violence or have been personally affected by violence will express their needs, grief, fears, apprehensions, and thoughts in different ways (Rosen, Rahay, & Rosenbaum, 2003). Some may withdraw, become irritable, or stop eating or sleeping; others may act out. It’s important for teachers to take their cues from the child. Support each child as an individual while providing all children with the following (NAEYC, 2001):

  • Make sure routines are kept, that children know and can depend on the structure of the day.
  • Accept children’s feelings and behviors with support and acceptance.
  • Find ways for children to express themselves, whether through outdoor play, running, drawing, painting, building, or telling stories.

Many children view far too much violence on TV or in games, toys, stories, and other media. In schools throughout the nation you can observe children acting out the violence they observe: playing war or superhero and acting aggressively.

Teachers have found a number of ways to help children and their parents cope with the prevalence of violence in children’s lives. Teachers and parents discuss the problems of children’s exposure to media violence and work to change the media (NAEYC, 2001). They also work with children to do the following:

  • They develop the concept of real and not real by informing children about which stories, movies, and television shows are “real” and which are not. They then ask children to determine which shows or movies are factual and which are fantasy.
  • They foster the development of critical viewing skills for evaluating media violence.
  • They reduce television viewing.
  • They ensure that children watch more prosocial television programs.

Role of the School

Once children are in a school setting, other factors affect their social development (Berk, 2001; NRC & IM, 2000). In addition to a child’s parents and family, the teacher becomes an agent of socialization. Now the teacher and perhaps the principal set rules, limits, and standards for behavior. Other children also become models, setting new or different standards for social behaviors. Entrance into the school society can be difficult for young children (Seefeldt, Galper, & Denton, 1998). Leaving home, unsure of how to manage interactions with this new socializer and with other children, preschool-primary students can find school a miserable experience at first. Many transition techniques have been designed and implemented to ease children’s entrance into school. Some schools encourage parents to stay with their children for part or all of the first few days to let the children know they are not being totally deserted. Some schools begin by inviting a small group of children on the first day and adding another four or five each day until the total group has been integrated. This approach allows children to get used to relating to small groups and become familiar with the school and the new social situation before the entire group is present. Home visits by the teacher or school visits by parent and child help ease possible stress.

The dichotomy of socialization—developing a strong sense of individuality while learning to become a member of a group—is ever-present in school. Children must retain their individuality, yet they must give it up by putting the welfare and interest of the group before their own. At school, they find they must share not only materials, toys, and time but also the attention of the teacher. Here they learn to cooperate, see others’ viewpoints, and work together for the common welfare.

The school’s role during these early years is twofold. First, school experiences must focus on strengthening the child’s self-concept and feelings of individuality. Children who feel good about themselves can make the difficult, complex adjustments necessary for group living. Having aided the child’s development of self-esteem, the school then uses this strong sense of self as the basis for guiding children into positive group experiences where they can learn the skills necessary for living in a society.

In the school, the focus on social skill development is threefold, revolving around the development of the following:

  1. Self-concept. Children’s feelings about themselves are the foundation from which they learn to relate to and communicate with others.
  2. Prosocial skills. Being able to cooperate and share are necessary for forming solid relationships with others.
  3. Making and keeping friends. Children who relate to and communicate with others, sharing and cooperating, are those who are accepted by their peers and can make and keep friends.