Most visitors to my website have a strong interest in how to build social skills among children and teens. That’s great, because social skills make a huge difference in a child’s happiness and success – and they are skills that can be built and improved in everyone. Naturally, all kids have a different starting point. As we coach kids in these skills, our job is to work toward closing the gap between their current level of social achievement and what they are ultimately capable of.
As a speaker, it’s interesting to “check the pulse” and hear what the common concerns of parents and educators are across the country. In the last few weeks I’ve been at places as diverse as Bridgton Academy in Maine, a private post-graduate (year “13”) school for young men, the Wellesley (College) Mother’s Forum, speaking to parents of infants to age 12, and Lake Highland Preparatory Schoolin Florida, whose students cross the entire spectrum, from PK-12. In each place, participants brought excellent insights and asked thoughtful questions about a range of issues. But despite geographic, demographic, and institutional differences, it seems people are keenly interested in knowing the most effective strategies for building social skills in their children or students. Those who have read my books and follow this newsletter know that my advice comes from a synthesis of clinical experience and scientific insight. But what are the besttechniques in this regard? Having contemplated this question for several years, this issue of Family Matters summarizes what I believe are the ten most useful ways to boost a young person’s social IQ.
Here we go:
10. Build a social vocabulary
The most basic building block of being socially skilled is to have developed a working vocabulary of social language. A landmark study by Hart & Risley clearly showed that children who are exposed to social language in their home – hearing it exchanged between parents – have a much greater likelihood of making it part of their own speech. However old a child might be, it’s never too late to expose him or her to the rhythm, tone, and content of social conversation. We can also accomplish this by reading with kids, and especially by dramatizing our reading of selected characters. With teens, we can ask them to read passages of fiction aloud, helping them to get inside the minds of characters and the types of language they use. (Drama, Speech, and English classes are all obvious venues, but there are other classroom and extracurricular opportunities for this as well.) With respect to social skills, reading aloud is essential. Reading quietly to yourself does not include the highly instructive experience of hearing your own voice produce social speech.
9. Practice social narration
Socially skilled kids are good at guessing what other people are thinking and feeling. We can help kids get better at this by practicing one of my favorite techniques – social narration. In any public place, such as the playground or a shopping mall, ask your child to observe others from a distance where their speech is inaudible. Then, ask what those people might be thinking, encouraging your child to exercise her or his social mind by interpreting body language, and especially facial expressions. (Old silent films or muted TV are other options, but perhaps less effective than real-life interactions, which are more subtle.) Be open to any narrative your child suggests, but always ask for a clear explanation of what clues were observed to come up with that explanation. It’s very important that children anchor their interpretations to what they see – it tilts their insights toward reality rather than fantasy, and points the way toward “cracking the code,” see #2 below.
8. Emphasize scripts
Do have a know a child who freezes in social situations? Nothing turns off a person’s social courage more quickly than repeatedly drawing a blank when he knows he should be saying something. When those of us who are comfortable with social speech try to coach these skills, we often make the mistake of expecting kids to remember too much. We might give a teen several either/or options (“then if she says this, tell her that, unless she seems sensitive about it, then your could discuss A or B, etc.”). We might prompt a child with something like, “remember to be polite and friendly to Uncle Ben.” Huh? Please don’t make the mistake of thinking kids need to memorize what to say in particular situations, or that they will magically know how to be “polite and friendly.” Confusion and anxiety make it hard to problem-solve on the spot. Providing just a few exact phrases and all purpose rules will make it easier. For example, it’s helpful for a shy teen to write a short script before making a phone call. Middle school students can keep a few reminders taped inside their locker or notebook. Our message, then, is less about asking kids to be more intuitive than it is asking them to collaborate with us on practical ways to remind themselves of what to say. And lots of good social intelligence is developed when we sit down with kids, in a relaxed and playful way, to write those scripts.Hint: While both of you generate sample scripts orally, ask the child to do all the writing or typing. Doing so will help those words to take root more quickly in her brain.
7. Encourage Practical empathy
If you’ve been to one of my workshops, you’ve heard me discuss this topic at length. In short, empathy is the bridge to a social conscience. It is the single most important social attribute to build in children, especially boys who often get confused about the difference between empathy and submission. Having said that, I rarely actually use the word “empathy” in my work with kids. It’s too abstract to be helpful. Instead, emphasize practical “acts of consideration.” Be specific in helping kids understand how to be considerate – and to make it more fun, break it down into levels of complexity, like a video game. Level I might be something as simple as holding the door open for someone, while a Level III could be as sophisticated as commenting on what a child observes to be someone’s feelings. With some children you may need to keep score. By this, I mean set goals and tally how many acts of consideration a child can generate within a defined time period. As always, verbally reinforce a social conscience, both publicly and privately – just as you would a great report card or a game winning touchdown.
6. Think globally, act socially
It’s a somewhat hollow proposition to think of social skills as a way to win popularity contests. By the time adolescence rolls around, kids have an inkling of this and will be ready to relate their emerging social awareness to big picture issues. This is the time to introduce a discussion of broader social issues going on in the world, and invite kids to apply what they know about relationships to thinking about those topics. Issues drawn from the daily news work best. Parents can jumpstart the conversation around the dinner table, or perhaps while on a long family drive. Our mission here is to help young people appreciate a diversity of wants and needs, and to expose them to the practicalities of compromise. Remember, nothing is so gripping to a young person as to think about the situation of a peer with whom they can identify. When we emphasize socially significant situations, the meaningfulness of the conversation is rarely lost on kids. Being invited to join this level of discussion is a signal that we recognize their maturity, and value their thoughts. And next time, you can ask your teenager to bring a topic to dinner.
5. Social skills group
Broadly speaking, social skills groups serve two functions: learning pragmatic communication skills and decreasing the isolation of socially challenged kids. (I believe the second function is even more important than the first.) A group provides a safe place to try on and experiment with new skills like how to greet someone, disagree without arguing, give a compliment, or listen with your eyes. Experience suggests many parents would be open to enrolling a child in such a group but can’t find one in their area – aargh! That’s a shame, because social skills groups are as valuable to children as a soccer league or Blockbuster store. A good place to start your inquiry is with a school’s guidance staff. They may offer these types of groups themselves, or may know professionals in the community who provide them. You are also welcome to ask your school or community group to contact us about how we can train staff to lead a Mighty Good Kids group in your area.
4. Sending clear, positive signals
So much discussion of social skills focuses exclusively on the perceptual side of the equation. Social perception is certainly important, but nothing trumps the value of consistently sending social signals that convey “I’m likable,” “easy to talk to,” or “I want to be your friend.” These signals suggest social safety and invite people to be close to us. Smiling is the most basic of these positive social signals. Unfortunately, it is way underused – especially by kids who complain that nobody like them – hmmm. Try using a mirror to help your child notice what kinds of signals he or she sends others. It’s a cruel irony that kids whose faces portray social fear often push others away rather than drawing them near. Team up with school staff to give your child regular social coaching on how and when to send a range of positive nonverbal signals.
3. Get the body involved
A good rule-of-thumb to remember when working on any type of behavior change is that action accelerates learning. Why? Because movement and action are highly effective forms of stimulation that keep brains turned on, better able to absorb and retain new learning. Boys who stare blankly during the stillness of verbal therapy suddenly become responsive, expressive, and more effortful when provided an opportunity to move while learning. In my experience, many girls appreciate the same. Sometimes, the movement may involve role-play of specific social skills (see #1 below), but at other times it can be a less structured, more playful type of interaction. (Toss a ball, take a walk, etc.) You can use the activity as a backdrop to verbal coaching about a situation at home, school or elsewhere. Finally, action is also the best way to get the idea of empathy to sink in. A teenager who volunteers his time in the service of others is likely to understand empathy at a deeper place than someone who only talks about the idea.
2. Teach how to “crack the code”
The underlying attitude of a teacher (and here we use “teacher” broadly, to include anyone working with a child) has a tremendous effect on outcome. Forget about trying to make kids more socially intuitive. It can’t be done, and will lead to frustration on both ends. Instead, social skills can be broken down into learnable, practical steps. Committing these steps to memory is akin to cracking the code of social interaction. This is the secret to simultaneously relaxing and boosting the confidence of socially awkward children and teens. We need to make the steps crystal clear and relatively easy to remember. It’s also helpful to drill those steps frequently, especially before situations where core skills can be applied. When we see kids using these skills, we should provide ample reinforcement. When we see them struggling, we should talk with them about the situation using a matter-of-fact, problem-solving tone. (Hint: Don’t say, “Why are you so shy?” Say, “Let’s make it easier for you to talk to people.”) Doing these things consistently has a dramatic effect on a child’s life. It also teaches an empowering life lesson – almost anything can be learned if it is broken down into steps. Bottom line: when we try to change who a person is, we are likely to fail. But when we focus on building skill sets, the leap to success is more tangible.
1. Repetition and rehearsal
A common theme of many of the strategies I’ve discussed above is how to make social thinking and action more reflexive. Only as social thinking becomes more automatic do we think of someone as socially skilled. We help kids turn this corner by giving them structured opportunity to rehearse what they are learning. In this regard, we become their social surrogates, frequently reminding them of which social goals they are working toward, while providing abundant opportunity to practice, practice, practice. It’s easy to turn this approach into a game with younger children, while adolescents may respond better to a more casual, low-key approach. But don’t let their awkwardness with role-play trigger your own embarrassment! People of all ages learn new skills best through practice and immediate coaching-Toastmasters, anyone? Hopefully, these suggestions are a useful starting point for you. Of course, much more about coaching social and emotional development can be found in Boys of Few Words, and in my workshops on similar topics. Feel free to email my office via this website and request to be put on our Location List, so that we can advise you if I’m doing a public program in your area. (Please give name, email, city, state/province, and which program(s) you’re interested in. Also include contact information if you’d like us to forward workshop information to any local groups in your area.)Workshops at schools and community groups help me to explain not only “what” to do, but show “how” to do it. The good news: social skills can be taught and learned when we reach out with a hand kids can grab onto.
Did We Have Unintelligent Ancestors?
About twenty-five years ago, psychologist James Flynn noticed that successive generations of kids did better on IQ tests. In fact, if IQ tests weren’t continually revised to be more difficult, children today would have assessed IQ’s that are about 30 points higher than their grandparents (scores rise about 5 points per decade). This phenomenon was subsequently dubbed the Flynn Effect. In a recent issue of Scientific American Mind, Flynn talks about his discovery and why the phenomenon exists. First, he points out that some IQ subtests show dramatic changes in performance , while others are more constant. Task that involve process thinking (problem-solving) have witnessed a meteoric rise in performance, while those that test the basic transfer of information (vocabulary, arithmetic, general knowledge) have seen little change. *Note how this discrepancy relates to evolutionary changes discussed in the article above. Second, a key reason why these skills have improved is that society has evolved to require more sophisticated use of concepts and relationships, while the need for the retention of crystallized knowledge (facts) has remained constant. (Many of us have off-loaded the burden of retaining this information to devices – can you say PDA?) Of course our kids aren’t actually more intelligent than people who lived a hundred years ago. As Flynn points out, the intelligence of our ancestors was “anchored in everyday reality.” By this, he means that their intelligence evolved according to the immediate needs of their own time. And sure enough, tests that measure more practical abilities among generations of children show almost no change in the abilities of successive generations. So our kids are no more likely to know the answer to, “What’s the best way to make a friend?” than we would have been at their age. Conversely, they are much more likely to know how a poem and a statue are alike (both are works of art), or recognize the subtle features that link abstract patterns, than their grandparents.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. I heard you speak in Toronto last year and really enjoyed it. But there were so many ideas I don’t know where to start. Maybe my son should have gone to your talk. What do I do to get his attention? I miss talking to him. Cornelia I., Toronto, Canada
I wish you would have given me a little more information, such as the age of your son. But since you say you miss talking to him, I’ll guess that you used to talk and now he’s entered into his teenage years! Yes, it may have been helpful for him to come to the talk, because when we articulate our goals, learning social skills becomes more collaborative – as I described in the article above. It is also very powerful for parent and child to hear the same guidance at the same time.
This approach gets everyone on the same page- and just a bit of formality can be helpful in reinforcing that those goals are important. In fact, from years of doing family therapy I’ve come to the conclusion that the “miracle” cures that occur in a few sessions really are due to what I call “the spotlight effect.” In essence, when we take the time to slow down, sit with a child, and clearly discuss goals together (shining a “spotlight” on the concerns), change happens quickly.
I know how hard it is to persevere in trying to connect with your son when he appears indifferent. The thing to remember is that most likely he does care – even if he doesn’t know how to show it. First, try building a relationship focused on common interests. Something fun or recreational works best. Once your son is in the habit of talking with you-whether it’s about fishing, setting up a website, or whatever his interest might be-you’ve established a base for further conversation. At that point, address your concerns with him in a manner-of-fact way, and see what he suggests. Good luck! Find more helpful articles and insights at:
Do you have a question for Dr. Cox? Email your query with “question for Dr. Cox” in the subject line -your question may be answered in an upcoming issue of Family Matters!