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.

Learning How to Enter Play

How many times have you seen a child crying because of not being allowed into a play situation? Research indicates that approximately 60 percent of attempts to enter on-going play are rejected (Landy, 2002). Asking “Can I play?” is often ineffective and can even invite rejection because it offers the power to say “no.” Instead, children can be helped to learn more productive strategies for being accepted as a playmate.

Children first must be helped to avoid advances that disrupt the ongoing play. Too often a child will barge into a play situation like a bull in a china shop and be totally surprised and crushed when the other children get mad. It may be useful in these cases to teach a beginning strategy that does not interrupt: simply playing alongside a potential playmate, doing a similar activity (Ramsey, 1991). Five-year-old Seanne expressed this idea clearly. She told her teacher, “I learned how to play with a boy today.” When her teacher asked her what she did, Seanne explained, “I just watched what he was doing with Legos and then I played like him.”

Another useful approach is to first observe what the desired playmate is doing; in other words, to work at seeing things from the other child’s viewpoint. This observation provides information that the child can use by offering a way to contribute or fit into the existing play. When the child’s goal is to join a group at play, it is worth the effort to figure out what the others are doing first. The child who joins a group with a contribution to ongoing play is most likely to be accepted (Howes & Ritchie, 2002; Landy, 2002). Six-year-old Diego explained this very well to his 5-year-old brother, Antonio.

Antonio was complaining to his mother that Diego wouldn’t let him play with his group at recess that day. Diego quickly defended himself, saying, “You could have played with us if you had just started playing what we were playing. But instead you tried to make us stop our game and listen to what you wanted to do. Next time, Antonio, just start doing what we are already doing, OK?”

It is important to help youngsters experience success in these efforts and so develop confidence that they will be accepted. A child who approaches playmates with confidence is more likely to gain entry to play. Conversely, the unsure child is more likely to experience rejection. Rejection starts a cycle of unproductive behaviors that lead to increased rejection (Denham, Mason, Caverly, Schmidt, & Hackney, 2001). Teachers can make a difference with careful teaching and coaching, as in the following example:

Peter and Sasha are deeply engrossed in their play. They have created elaborate boat replicas with Legos and have made pretend spears and spear throwers out of Unifix cubes. More Unifix cubes have been used to represent the seals they are now playing at hunting with their spears. Their cries of “ya ya ya” accurately capture the tone used by their fathers when they pursue seals on the Yukon River by their village.

Joe comes over and wants to play with Peter and Sasha. He picks up one of the “seals” and starts adding Unifix cubes to it, saying, “Look how long a road I can make with this.” Sasha grabs back the pretend seal that he was about to spear and tells Joe to stop. Joe starts to cry, saying, “I wanna play too!” Peter and Sasha ignore him as they continue with their seal hunt.

Mrs. Akaran, the children’s first-grade teacher, sees there is a problem and comes to help. She has been admiring the quality and complexity of Peter’s and Sasha’s pretend play, and doesn’t want to disturb them. She realizes that the problem is caused by Joe’s inept attempts to join the two more socially adept boys. Therefore, she focuses her attention on helping Joe begin to learn some important missing skills. The teacher goes to Joe, puts her arm around him comfortingly, and whispers conspiratorially to him as she pulls him aside. “Come over here and let’s figure out what you can do.” Joe stops crying and listens as Mrs. Akaran urges him to watch what Sasha and Peter are doing.

“What are they using those Unifix cubes for?” asks his teacher as she assists Joe’s observation of his desired playmates. She gets Joe to think about what others want instead of just considering his own desires. Then Mrs. Akaran asks Joe what he could do to help with the seal hunt; she is proposing a strategy for entering play that is often successful. With a little help, Joe decides that he could make a seal and a spear for himself out of the Unifix cubes not currently in use. He makes his own pretend play props, and then his teacher encourages Joe to go over where Sasha and Peter are playing and try them out. She watches to see what happens, noting with satisfaction that the other boys allow Joe to join in on the hunt.

Notice that the teacher didn’t use her adult power to get Joe accepted as a playmate. She knew that it wouldn’t work anyway; it would probably break up the play because Peter and Sasha would go elsewhere. Well-meaning teachers often insist that no child be left out (Paley, 1999), but such intervention overlooks a teachable moment and may actually make things worse for that child. There is usually a reason for a child not being allowed to play, and it is the teacher’s job to assess the situation and figure out that reason. Usually there is a missing skill or understanding on one side or the other; the teacher needs to identify what needs to be learned and then teach it. Insisting that a child be allowed to play just covers up the problem, teaches no skills or understanding, and may make other children more resentful of the child forced upon them. You may also want to consider how you feel when you are having a meaningful conversation with a best friend and an uninvited acquaintance joins you. Is it perhaps reasonable at times for children to ask not to be disturbed by others?

Encouraging Friendships

Teachers and parents also help children become socially competent by encouraging friendships (Jalongo & Isenberg, 2004). Friendships are important for a variety of reasons. Children are more likely to be successful when initiating contact with friends, thus increasing their confidence (Howes & Ritchie, 2002). Children’s play is more sophisticated and mature when they are playing with friends, which improves their competence. Children care more about the feelings of friends than about those of other people (Corso, 2003), thereby encouraging them to practice perspective-taking. By early elementary school, many children have established a best friend. These relationships are important because they offer the best opportunities for developing the interpersonal understandings needed for socialized behavior.