When it comes to social interactions, it’s smooth sailing for many kids through kindergarten, first, and second grade. But upper elementary school might come with some new challenges, for both children and parents.
Elisa Nebolsine, a cognitive therapist based in Mclean, Virginia, says social problems at school are very normal, especially in the upper elementary grades. “Social dynamics are really picking up in third grade,” Nebolsine says. “Prior to that, kids are pretty accepting of differences, but then as they get closer to third grade the dynamics of relationships get more complex.”
The key to overcoming social problems at school, Nebolsine says, is to provide lots of opportunities for children to practice being in different kinds of social situations. These can include sports teams, theater groups, play groups, volunteer experiences—any extra-curricular activity that involves socialization.
And according to Julie Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the Ross Center in Washington DC, summer is a perfect time for children to hone their social skills. “Parents can use the summer to give kids practice opportunities,” Lewis says. “They can meet new children, maybe participate in camp-structured situations where they’re given opportunities to practice reading social cues and find other kids to play with.”
Lewis explains that social problems in elementary school often have to do with how kids interpret situations. Some children may feel badly about an interaction while other children may not. They may feel distressed or discouraged by social situations that wouldn’t distress or discourage others. “These kids have a particularly hard time with unstructured situations,” Lewis says. “Summer is a good opportunity for parents to get their kids involved in structured environments where there is an adult present to facilitate social interactions.”
The idea is to help children gain social skills and self-confidence before school begins. And parents can help by gently guiding their children to be proactive and positive. Rather than stewing over the troubles from last year, look forward to the new school year—the new class and the new friends that will be made.
Bonnie Zucker, a D.C.-based psychologist at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety, and Depression, says parents should take a casual approach in talking to their kids about social concerns. “This shouldn’t be a situation where a parent sits the child down and says, ‘I think we need to talk about the problems you had socializing with other kids last year,’” Zucker says. “Instead, this should be casual sort of off-hand. You might say, ‘Hey, I was thinking maybe we could do some role-plays and practice a few things this summer so you can have a little more fun at school this year.’”
Zucker says role-playing is a good way for parents to help children overcome their worries about social situations. “Kids need practice, and sometimes they just need the language, what to say in certain situations.”
And when school begins, Lewis suggests that parents shouldn’t shy away from talking to the new teacher about their child’s social troubles in the previous year. “I wouldn’t hesitate to let the teacher know that the child has struggled,” Lewis says. “You can ask them to kind of look out for the child and model ways to join a group.”
The school counselor can also be a good resource. Many counselors organize lunch bunches for small groups of children who need a little help socializing. Lewis suggests that parents visit with the school counselor to discuss their concerns and perhaps to ask the counselor to observe the child.
Here are a few pointers for helping your child with social skills before the back to school bell rings:
Nebolsine suggests that parents encourage their children to practice small, manageable skills each day. For instance, one day they might work on their friendly face, or on making eye contact. Or, they might just practice saying, “Hi.” Nebolsine says small steps can allow children to have success and to get positive reinforcement from peers. It’s likely that a peer will return a smile or a “Hi.”
Giving children the language they need to begin conversations can also be helpful in social situations. Zucker says parents can remind children to ask their peers about their summer experiences. Did they go anywhere? Who did they go with? What did they do there? Kids can be reminded that many people like to talk about themselves, and others would prefer to listen. By asking about the other person (asking open-ended questions that require more than one-word answers) the child will soon discover whether the person would prefer to talk or listen. Either way, it’s good practice for beginning a conversation.
Entering Existing Conversations
Entering conversations that are already underway can be difficult for children and adults alike. Parents can help their children develop this skill by reminding them that they can make eye contact with one or more of the kids in the group, think of something to say that relates to the subject, and wait for a break in the conversation before saying what’s on their mind. Another possibility is to ask a question about the subject. Or, the child can approach someone he or she is friendly with in the group and enter into the circle beside this child.
Zucker suggests that parents arrange chairs at home to resemble a classroom or other environment and practice different scenarios with kids. The idea is to make it fun and to encourage children and applaud their efforts. Let the children know that they did a great job in the role-play, and now they just need to do more of the same when they get to school (or the swimming pool, or whatever the social situation might be).
Analyzing Social Situations
Parents can help children analyze social interactions by reading books or watching television shows and then discussing the social dynamics afterward. Nebolsine says this is a great way for parents to casually enter into discussions about socialization with their children. She suggests also that this might be a good opportunity for parents to help their children understand how they’re feeling. By labeling their feelings, kids can more easily recognize and pick up on triggers.
Finding the Nice Kids
Children often try to be friends with the popular kids, but Zucker explains that for children who are having trouble socially, these are the wrong kids to approach. Zucker suggests that parents teach their kids how to look for the nice kids in the class—to recognize cues that a child will be a good person to engage with. Does the child smile a lot? Does the child listen to other kids when they talk? Does the child put an arm around another kid’s shoulders? Parents can help their children spot these indicators over the summer in social situations. See that kid over there? He looks like he might be a nice guy because….
Camp isn’t an option for everyone, but if it is possible, it can be a great way to help children develop socially. Nebolsine explains that elementary school is the time when children really get an idea of who they are. For children who want to make changes in how people see them, camp offers them an opportunity to practice and build their skills. Nebolsine says once children figure out who they want to be, it’s often easier to practice new behaviors around new kids. Maybe she wants to be the funny girl or the really good listener. She can practice this behavior at camp with a whole new group of kids.
It can be upsetting to know that your child is suffering socially. And sometimes it’s advantageous for parents to step back and get a handle on their own feelings before attempting to help their children. This too shall pass!
Lewis suggests the book Raise Your Child’s Social IQ by Cathy Cohen as a good resource for parents who want to help their children with social interactions. Topics include, among others, reading social signals, coping with teasing, and managing stress, and the book provides ready tips for modeling, rehearsing, and giving feedback.