Social Skills for Kids and How to Teach Them

children learning social skills in the classroom

Published: January 16th, 2024

In your role as a teacher, not only are you required to teach children from the National Curriculum, but you are also expected to take part in socialising them and helping to prepare them for later life.

As with teaching lessons, some children may find it challenging to get to grips with social cues and social skills.

Teaching social skills should be approached differently from teaching classroom subjects. Instead, these lessons should be introduced gradually and reinforced regularly as you encourage children to respect themselves, each other and the environment.

Parents will be teaching kids social skills at home, but there are things you can do in lessons to supplement this and create a more harmonious classroom.

Here, we explore seven essential social skills for kids and the things you can do to help benefit each child’s development as they start school lives and life. But first, let’s define social skills and understand why it’s essential for kids to learn them.

What are social skills?

Social skills are all of the things we use to interact with other people and include verbal and non-verbal communication, e.g. through our body language and the gestures we use.

To develop and learn social skills, kids must become aware of themselves and the people around them and be able to react accordingly.

Why is it important to teach kids social skills?

There are several benefits to learning social skills, including:

1. Effective communication

Learning and developing social skills enables kids to communicate more effectively, which is crucial to living a fulfilling life. Healthy communication includes skills such as conflict resolution, articulating your emotions, and understanding and respecting other peoples’ feelings.

2. Building positive relationships

Children will develop more positive relationships that benefit themselves and others by effectively communicating and grasping social skills. Positive relationships are built on support, trust, honesty and respect, and no power imbalance exists. Building positive relationships and a good support network is crucial to ensuring a happy and content life.

3. Increased self-control

Students with good levels of self-control will flourish at school as they are less likely to be distracted and able to control unproductive urges like procrastination. Learning this at a young age and continuing to show self-regulation will benefit people in later life as they have a better chance of achieving life goals compared to people who lack self-control.

Seven essential social skills for kids

This section explores the principal social skills that will aid child development and ensure students can maximise their school experience.

1. Listening

Active listening is one of the most essential social skills for kids to learn. Compared to passive listening, active listening is not just hearing what someone says but earnestly understanding what they are saying, responding appropriately and retaining the information.

How to teach students to listen actively

  • Practice appropriate eye contact: when talking to pupils individually, you should hold eye contact and ask them to do the same. Eye contact can improve concentration and help people remember what’s being said.
  • Encourage follow-up questions: asking follow-up questions is a good way of consolidating knowledge and proving that you are actively listening to someone. To practice this with your students, encourage them to ask questions about books you are reading or theories you are teaching them about. Remember, the only silly question is the one not asked.
  • Play listening games: games like Simon Says may be a bit of fun and an excellent way to unwind after a long day of lessons, but they encourage students to actively listen to what you are saying and respond accordingly.
  • Communicate clearly: when giving directions to young kids, you must use easy-to-understand language and give instructions slowly so the child has time to process what they are being told. Likewise, when you are listening to your students, you should actively listen to them. This includes giving visual cues, like smiling and nodding.
  • Limit interruptions: finally, you should communicate the importance of waiting your turn to speak. This includes explaining how interrupting a person speaking may make them feel and giving your class alternatives to interjecting, like asking them to raise their hands if they want to talk.

2. Sharing

Sharing teaches children about compromise and helps them build relationships and cooperate with people.

How to teach students to share

  • Practice positive reinforcement: when you notice examples of sharing in your class, celebrate them and ensure all your students know that sharing is good.
  • Use toys designed to be shared: toys like stickle bricks designed to be shared are useful for helping kids understand the ease of cooperating. These are particularly helpful if a child struggles to share things as they can play with their peers without giving up their toys.
  • Teach them to take turns: sharing doesn’t have to include physical items. It can also mean sharing time and experiences. All kinds of sharing should be encouraged.
  • Play cooperative games: encouraging children to play together and share the enjoyment of a toy or puzzle is an effective way to practice sharing without anyone feeling left out.

3. Cooperation skills

Teaching kids how to work together will prepare them for group projects and their careers outside of school, where they will likely work in a team as part of their job. Cooperating also helps children develop trust and empathy and build strong relationships.

How to teach students to cooperate

  • Enforce rules: asking children to follow straightforward rules nurtures their cooperation skills as it requires them to get involved with general directions.
  • Allow choices: giving children options of what to do may increase their chances of cooperating. Instead of telling your students, ‘It’s time to tidy up?’, you could ask them, ‘Shall we tidy up?’. This gives the child some choice and autonomy over the decision and can make them more likely to cooperate.
  • Role play: if a young child struggles to cooperate with other kids, engaging in pretend play and acting out scenarios can help them look at situations differently, making them more likely to cooperate in future social interactions.
  • Plan group activities: group tasks are all about cooperation and working together. These games, like treasure hunts, can give you plenty of opportunities to praise kids for their cooperation.

4. Following directions

As well as cooperating as part of a team, children must follow directions, whether their peers, teachers or parents deliver them.

How to teach students to follow directions

  • Give children one direction at a time: when you’re communicating and giving directions to children, do not confuse them by giving out lots of advice at once. Speak slowly and ask if there is anything the student needs help understanding.
  • Be direct and unambiguous: avoid phrasing that may convolute your directions, and don’t go off on tangents. This can dilute what you’re trying to say and make the directions harder to follow.
  • Give kids time to process what you’ve said: once you have given your directions, make sure kids have sufficient time to ask any questions or double-check what you have asked.
  • Ask them to reflect on what they have done: finally, once the students have completed a task, ask if there is anything they would do differently next time. This also helps to develop critical thinking skills.

5. Patience

Teaching kids to be patient is a vital part of social interactions, as it helps to foster empathy, encourages active listening and can nurture relationships as it shows people they are respected.

Being patient also refers to delaying gratification, which is essential for helping kids to develop their self-control.

How to teach students about patience

  • Model patience: as the adage goes, lead by example. Kids learn by copying others, so set a good example by being patient with others.
  • Set reasonable expectations: learning to be patient can take time, and you must expect young kids to teach them a lesson quickly. Instead, set reasonable expectations that consider the kids’ age. 
  • Develop strategies to help kids wait: encourage them to find activities to pass the time instead of asking them to wait. This will make the time feel like it’s passing more quickly and increase productivity.

6. Empathy

Being empathetic is integral to building meaningful childhood friendships that can last into later life. Additionally, being empathetic reduces conflict and misunderstandings and improves emotional control.

How to teach kids about empathy

  • Read stories about feelings: use class reading sessions to help children understand and empathise with characters’ emotions. Ask students about how they might feel if they were in similar positions.
  • Use pretend play: if your students struggle to understand empathy, using stuffed toys may make it easier. For example, you could act out a scenario where one toy will not share with another and ask your students how this may make the stuffed toy feel.
  • Be patient: developing empathy takes time, and while students are only young, you cannot expect them to have the same grasp of social settings as you as an adult. Instead, be patient and offer positive feedback when children display empathy.

7. Respecting boundaries

Managing social situations as you get older is all about realising not everyone is the same and that people have different boundaries. Teaching kids about boundaries, like respecting personal space, will help them to build healthy friendships.

Helping kids to understand boundaries will help them identify when a social interaction feels dangerous or inappropriate and keep them safe.

How to teach kids about respecting boundaries 

  • Set clear rules for the classroom: to help students set their own boundaries, ensure they understand what you expect of them in the classroom. These rules could be as simple as no hitting and always asking before using someone else’s toy.
  • Set boundaries together: Asking children to help you set classroom rules and boundaries will make students feel more responsible for upholding them.
  • Be a role model: demonstrating your own healthy boundaries will help kids learn by example, so consider how you can set your boundaries in the classroom.
  • Use example scenarios: your students may find it easier to understand boundaries when you give examples of people overstepping them or acting inappropriately. This may be easier in a group setting, so all children can have their say instead of making anyone feel singled out.

Teaching kids basic social skills can be difficult, but if you and your colleagues take a whole school approach to nurturing their emotions and making them more socially aware from an early age, it can foster positive attitudes as they get older.

Developing emotional skills and helping kids identify and manage negative emotions will make your school more harmonious and mean your students build meaningful friendships and relationships – improving their school experience.

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We’re also committed to helping you give your pupils the best opportunities, which is why our blog features advice on how to teach transferable skills in the classroom, how to improve behaviour in schools, and how you can use technology to teach English as an additional language (EAL) students.