Whether you are a counselor, teacher, or parent, you have likely interacted with a child who could benefit from your help with social skills. Social skills are the skills that people use in order to interact with others. This includes verbal communication, non-verbal gestures, initiating interactions, and maintaining appropriate interactions. When children have poor social skills, they likely also may develop low self-esteem and poor academic motivation, as their behaviors push peers away, leaving them feeling isolated. Consequences of poor social skills, therefore, can really impact all areas of a child’s daily life, particularly their school life.
What do social skill deficits include?
Children with deficits in social skills may demonstrate limited age-level vocabulary, ability to interpret non-verbal language, poor personal space, poor self-control, poor turn taking, aggression, and poor empathy. Some children may just have one area of difficulty. Others may have them all. This may result in frequent aggression, verbal outbursts, and/or physical altercations due to poor communication and conflict resolution skills. It may also result in a negative thought process related to school, academic work, and overall self-worth.
When children are able to build social skills, they can better interact with their peers, teachers, siblings, and parents. This will help improve their self-esteem, which can further improve academic motivation, desire to attend school, and overall happiness.
While one or two activities below may be enough for children with very mild deficits or just one specific area of social skill deficits, children with more significant deficits require a more well rounded approach. In my experience of counseling students with aggression, poor conflict resolution, or poor self-control, it takes a well rounded approach of teaching many skill topics in order to see progress. In these instances, I will use a multi-modal approach of activities that address the multiple areas of deficit. This may include several lessons and activities that teach topics, such as manners, communicating needs, understanding empathy, giving respect, conflict resolution, personal space, anger control, and good sportsmanship.
Here are 8 activities that can address this variety of social skill deficits in either the school or home environments:
Social stories are visual or written explanations in short and simple story format that are used to explain to a child a variety of skills or topics, including following directions, school expectations, emotional regulation skills, and understanding socially appropriate behaviors. For example, these stories above provide information on topics that include strategies for calming down, the importance of personal space, how to listen to the teacher, and why schoolwork is important.
When making social stories, it is good to have the story discuss what the behavior is, how it impacts others, and what strategies will work to overcome or solve the issue. Most stories are also in first person, which helps young children or children with Autism identify that the story is about them, and not another child. To do this, I create stories that have a first page with blank spaces to write in the child’s name, school, age, and grade. For more information on making and using social stories, click HERE.
Restorative Circles are a format of Social and Emotional Instruction where teachers provide a safe, but structured way, for students to share their feelings, opinions, learn about their classmates, and learn conflict resolution skills. Circles can be used to discuss a variety of Social and Emotional topics, as well as help problem solve when there are social or behavioral problems in the classroom or between students.
To make circles part of your plan for providing Social Skills SEL:
•Do circles 1-3x per week, on a consistent basis.
•Make a large circle that goes around the entire classroom or large carpet area. Students can sit or stand.
•Use a talking piece, such as stuffed animal, small plush, special classroom item, etc.
•Holding the talking piece indicates that it is your turn to share.
Videos are a super easy way to teach social skills to kids. Kids love to watch videos. At least, every kid that I know. Videos are a good way to make teaching Social Skills fun and entertaining. With the right videos that are age-appropriate, you can engage children through in learning skills through a variety of video styles.
For younger children, videos with songs, cartoon characters, stories, and/or children of similar age talking or modeling skills is recommended. Here are two examples from my YouTube videos list of social skill videos that I use in my counseling for younger children:
For older children, videos that have similar-aged children talking, videos that are games, and have a higher level vocabulary are best. Here are two examples of videos that are good for older children:
Indoor SEL Games
There are many types of Social Skill specific games out there. Playing regular board games, such as Checkers or Candy Land can be good for teaching skills, such as turn taking and sportsmanship. SEL-specific board games and counseling games can be more targeted, however, to specific social skills. SEL Skills-specific games can address social skills by having prompts and questions that facilitate discussions with the adult and have students practice skills.
For example, in the Jenga game for Social Skills, there are prompts that include practicing greetings, giving compliments, and making eye contact. There are also questions, such as, “Why is sharing an important part of being a good friend?”
Here are a few examples of Counseling/SEL games that focus on improving social skills:
Outside games can facilitate social skills learning and practice that include teamwork skills, following game rules, communication, and sportsmanship. Outside games or sports can include soccer, handball, baseball, or swim team. If you are a teacher, providing opportunities for outside cooperative games or activities can be a great way to build social skills in your students while providing exercise. It can even be incorporated into your PE lesson. A two for one!
If you are a parent, putting your child in a sport can be a great way to provide them with natural opportunities for learning important social skills that can help them learn how to get along and cooperate with their peers. While it may seem like sending children to school is enough peer interaction to build social skills, it may not be for some children. This is because the school day is very structured and full of routine and tasks to complete.
Yes, there is recess, lunch, and playtime for Tk and Kindergarten children, but this is general play opportunities. In these non-structured times, young children may be engaged in parallel play, an are not truly interacting with their peers if not encouraged to engage in cooperative play. Picture twenty children running around on playground equipment or riding tricycles around the yard. They are having fun and getting exercise. However, they may not necessarily be interacting socially with their peers.
When discussing with parents how to improve their child’s social skills, I will often ask if they have tried to put their child on a team sport, club, or extra-curricular class (with peers). This is especially true of children with disabilities. This is because extra-curricular activities build non-academic skill as well as social skills and can improve self-esteem, which can foster improvements in behavior and learning.
Games that facilitate role playing are also a fun way to teach social skills through peer modeling. Role playing social skills involves having students act out scenarios and demonstrate making good choices. It’s an activity that can be done in either small group counseling of 3-8 students or even with a whole class. If you really want to jazz it up, add costumes, such as funny hats, capes, or shirts. This will better engage students, even though it can get them a little silly. Sometimes sneaking in the fun into an activity is the best way to teach, right?
There are many-many children’s books out there that target social skills. Finding the right ones can be challenging. With a little research, you can easily Google search your topic and read reviews to determine if the book will address the specific area of need. Or, you can save a few dollars and then see if the book has been made into a YouTube video read-aloud like the story above.
Group Team-Building Activities
This is a little different than board games, but can be done inside of the classroom with small or large groups of students. Team building activities are fun, goal driven tasks that can facilitate social skill building through participation in teamwork activities. These activities should be developmentally appropriate, such as building a tower with plastic cups for younger children or untangling a human knot for older children. Other ideas may include team scavenger hunts, solving a large puzzle in teams, or team relay races.
If you are still feeling unsure about how to support your child or student with more significant social deficits, seek out guidance or support from your child’s school or pediatrician. Sometimes social deficits are a sign of a more significant developmental or mental health issue. It is worth a conversation with a trained professional or school team, as they will have more experience with knowing what the next steps should be for a higher level of care. They may even recommend assessment if school or home interventions have not yielded progress. Some schools may have free counseling available, while others may have community resources that you can be referred to.
As a school psychologist, I can tell you that the showing videos, playing games, and providing opportunities for social interaction through extracurriculars does not really have a down side. More exposure to peers, instruction, and practice should only lead to improvements in social skills. The more the merrier when it comes to interventions for social skills, in my opinion.
I hope that you have found this information helpful and have been inspired to try a few of these suggestions and activities. If you are a teacher looking for classroom SEL activities for the school year, please check out my Social-Emotional Learning Activities Book for either grades Tk-2 or 3-5! If you are a school psychologist or counselor, please check out my Counseling Activity Books! They will make your school year much smoother with tons of counseling games, activities, and worksheets for a variety of therapy topics!