Social Skills: Breaking the Code

Social Skills and Interactions can be tricky things. In order to understand WHY it's so hard for some children to grasp, you have to understand the background. So, welcome to your personal crash course in Social Psychology!

I'm giving you the condensed Reader's Digest version. These were the key concepts that helped our family and daughter better understand the nature of relationships.

Children need to learn how to interact with peers and adults. If your child is proficient with this skill, you see it in the quality of their relationships. If they haven’t, then those relationships won’t be strong or even present.

Sometimes, an adult needs to step in to teach children the unwritten rules of communication, and how to be a friend. It gives them the insights necessary to “climb the social ladder.”

What Does It Mean To Be Social?

Social skills come in two forms: relationships and thinking. They begin in infancy with the mother-child bond and continue throughout life.

When we are young children, the adults in our lives help referee our interactions. Each time we play with children, we are learning how to be social beings.

As we get older, it is the ability to think about and apply knowledge APPROPRIATELY and act wisely in any situation. This is a learned behavior!

And, finally, these skills help us to interact and communicate with others.

If you've read about executive function , you will find this fascinating!

Researchers have found that ineffective use and application of social skills may be directly related to a deficiency in executive function and thinking! Teaching children to use their executive function skills will result in improved social skills!

Breaking Down the Social Skills

According to Mark Tyrrell, clinical psychologist, social skills can be broken down into six main areas.

1. The ability to remain relaxed, or at a tolerable level of anxiety while in social situations.

2. Listening skills, including letting others know you are listening.

3. Empathy with and interest in others' situations.

4. The ability to build rapport, whether natural or learned.

5. Knowing how, when and how much to talk about yourself - 'self disclosure.'

6. Appropriate eye contact.

Incidental Versus Explicit Learning

A child watches a friend ask to join a group of children playing at recess. The child mimics the skills and behaviors first child used, and asks the same group of students to join in. If the group lets them in, the incidental learning was successful. They get to move up the social ladder called acceptance.

Explicit learning takes place exactly how it sounds; explicitly. The skill or behavior is taught, practiced and applied. Social stories use this technique to teach all types of social skills.

Most children learn by incidental learning. However, for the child with neurological differences , this type of learning may not work because of the unspoken nuances and details. If they don’t pick up on these subtleties, the relationships will not work out quite right. They will move down the social ladder in the form of rejection.

Fortunately there are many things parents can do. Remember, you are the expert. You get to spend 24 hours a day with your child. You have what it takes to either help them or access services and people to help them for you.

If you don't feel comfortable teaching them these skills, seek a behavioral psychologist.

neurological differences

When a child is struggling with the social piece, there are many things you can do to help make the connection.

Michelle G. Winner's Center for Social Thinking has developed a technique called Behavior Mapping . Children are explicitly taught how their actions, or lack of, create behavioral consequences. These consequences take place in a variety of situations.

Increase the Likeability Factor

According to social exchange theory, people maintain relationships based on how well those relationships meet their needs.

If your child is labeled “high maintenance” due to impulsivity, aggression, or inattention, he or she will miss many friendship opportunities.

Investigators have found that the following are characteristics of highly likeable people: sincere, honest, understanding, loyal, truthful, trustworthy, intelligent, dependable, thoughtful, considerate, reliable, warm, kind, friendly, happy, unselfish, humorous, responsible, cheerful, and trustful. 3

Developing or improving any of the likeability characteristics should help one's social standing.

Play Games

There are many games and activities you can use to improve likeability. The include:

1. Rehersing skills

2. Practice play dates

3. Playing detective

4. Introducing friends

5. I Spy: what are they doing?

Follow the Path of Your Child

Remember, out-of-the-box kids don't pick up on the norms. When your child isn’t sure how to act in a particular situation, teach them to watch what other people are doing. These clues will help them to adjust their own behavior silently and usually with positive outcome.

Social skills need to be taught early. They sometimes need help in learning how to navigate the world of unwritten rules. When the light bulb finally turns on, they are prepared to form successful relationships. The benefits of this instruction will last a lifetime.


Anderson, N.H. (1968). Likeableness ratings of 555 personality–trait words. Journal of Social Psychology, 9, 272–279