Missing social skills is the single most common cause of discipline problems. Children’s squabbles over materials and their unskilled efforts to make friends cause frequent disruptions to both preschool and primary classrooms. Social skills are discussed last because we see them as an outgrowth of the previously discussed aspects of development. Physical abilities, emotional development, and levels of intellectual understanding all combine to determine current levels of social skill and understanding.

Teachers of young children have a big responsibility because the early years are crucial for social development. Youngsters who do not develop social competence in the early childhood years typically continue to experience difficulty with peer acceptance throughout the school years (Howes & Ritchie, 2002; Johnson, Ironsmith, Snow, & Poteat, 2000). Not surprisingly, these children are at risk as adults for social and emotional problems (Denham et al., 2001; Yanghee, 2003). Helping youngsters learn how to make a friend and be a friend is crucial to their life-long happiness. It’s also a big help to teacher happiness when children learn how to get along.

Constructing Knowledge for Social Skills

Children construct knowledge as a result of reflecting on their experiences. As they experiment with blocks, for instance, they observe the results of trying to stack, balance, and bridge structures. Thinking about the results helps children revise erroneous ideas. This process helps them construct understanding about such concepts as gravity, balance, and measurement. Children construct their theories of how the social world works in the same sort of trial-and-error situations.

As youngsters experiment with different ways of interacting with others, they observe the results of various approaches. Reflecting on the results of their social overtures can help children figure out how to play with others successfully and how to make friends. We have remarked previously on the value of peer conflicts as teaching situations. You may be surprised to hear that children’s fights are useful teaching tools. Conflicts tend to challenge children’s assumptions and encourage an exchange of viewpoints. They help youngsters realize that not everyone sees things their way. Thus, conflicts provide the necessary experience for learning and they provide the teachable moments. Helping children deal with their disputes gives the teacher an opportunity to guide children’s thinking about the experience. The adult role varies, depending on the child’s individual levels of emotional, intellectual, and social development.

Teaching children to think critically about their behavior and to use reasoning abilities to learn to solve interpersonal problems is consistent with current recommended approaches to teaching other subjects. National guidelines in every area of the curriculum urge teaching for critical thinking and problem solving instead of old approaches of memorized learning. Some adults think it is enough to simply tell children how they are expected to behave and then punish them if they do not. That approach would be the same as a teacher merely demanding mastery of mathematics without instruction, assessment, and reteaching (Butchart & McEwan, 1998).

Adults who are focused only on immediate outcomes will use punishment to get desired behaviors, believing that the teaching approach is too slow. Keeping long-term goals in mind is especially important and difficult when dealing with behaviors linked to maturation. True, you won’t get 4-year-olds (or even 5-year-olds) to truly understand the feelings of the child they just hit; but that doesn’t mean you stop working toward your goals. If you resort to coercive tactics, you will make it more difficult for the child to eventually become considerate of others.

Have you noticed that we are not talking about social skills as learning to say please, thank you, and Im sorry? These are polite ways of speaking, but they are only superficial behaviors and do not necessarily reflect true feelings (Flicker & Hoffman, 2002). Some adults and children confuse these memorized phrases with the understanding needed for true social competence. You have certainly seen children who are caught doing something wrong and who automatically say, “I’m sorry,” yet show no signs of remorse. These children have merely learned the magic words for getting out of punishment. Too many adults focus on teaching socially acceptable words instead of helping children understand others and develop caring feelings.

Mrs. Jensen realized the uselessness of teaching words instead of understanding several years ago when she rescued Isabel from Jason’s physical aggression. Jason was angry with Isabel and was gripping her wrists very hard, hurting her. After Mrs. Jensen pried his hands off Isabel and helped Isabel to tell Jason how she felt, she asked Jason what he could do to make Isabel feel better.

Jason said “Thank you,” and Mrs. Jensen asked Isabel if that made her feel better. Isabel replied in a disdainful voice, “No. Jason, you have to say ‘sorry.’” So Jason said, “Sorry.” However, Mrs. Jensen could tell that one platitude was as meaningless as the next.