Social Skills. What are they? Why are they important?

By: Rhonda Osisek, M.S, CCC – SLP
©2015 Social Butterflies Club® Social Skills Program

I get these questions a lot “So what exactly are social skills?” and “Why does my four- year-old need to have good social skills?” Social skills are so much more complex than just manners as most people think. Yes, manners are part of the social skill realm but just a small part. Since 2004, I have been researching and learning about social skills. It first started with a student that I was working within a private school in Virginia Beach. He was very bright but had a lisp. The speech and language screening that I conducted identified him as a candidate for therapy. I worked with him twice a week for 30 minutes and he made great progress. I was close to discharging him when I went to speak with his teacher about his classroom progress. That is when it all began…

The teacher said that his speech was great, but they were having a hard time with him behaviorally. He was disrespectful to teachers because of his blunt comments and he was pushing kids off the swing on the playground. At that very moment, I had remembered an article that I read about pragmatic and semantic language delays. I offered to observe him to see if there was anything I could do to help him. (Honestly, I had a soft spot for him because he was quirky…I just love those unique kids.) I started the Social Butterflies club (really just for him) and other children with language delays that I had at the time. Now, eight years later, he is attending the most prestigious collegiate school in our area and now has a couple of “best” friends. He is doing quite well and although he doesn’t remember who I am, I am so proud of him. It was proof to me that any child can be taught the right skills. I just had to figure out how to do it. Over the years, I fine-tuned Social Butterflies and learned so much from the children. Each child is different but shares the same need for guidance.

During this time I have learned that social skills are much more than one or two things. It is the basis from which all language is built. Without social skills, a person cannot maneuver through the world – even at age four. I also have learned that the longer the child goes without basic social skills, the harder it is for them to go back and develop them. It’s not impossible, but it’s a struggle for them every day.

With that being said, I want to answer the question “What are social skills?” and then focus on why everyone needs social skills at every age. I like to think of social skills as a house – yes, a house! When a house is being built, you first have to have a foundation.

The foundation must be strong enough for the house to be built upon and must be sturdy enough to hold the structure as it gets larger. The foundation of the “social skill house” starts construction at birth!

The newborn child’s action: The social skill demonstrated:
Looks at the mother during feedings Basic eye contact during interactions
Coos in response to mother’s voice Basic verbal turn taking
Smiles when mother makes silly faces Basic turn taking during an activity
Cries for attention Gaining attention of listener, protesting, communicating needs

The toddler further develops social skills and fills in the foundation with a solid base.

The toddler’s action: The social skill demonstrated:
Waving with hand for “bye-bye” Non-verbal language, early turn taking, social manners
Requesting basic needs like “ba-ba”, “mama” Requesting, eye contact, cause/effect
Playing alone Solitary play, exploration of the world around him/her
Playing next to other children Parallel play, personal space, sharing personal space
Singing songs, reading books with caregivers Team work (working together for a shared purpose), attending to a task, and listening to a speaker

By the time the child reaches ages 3-4, he/she should have the foundation “poured and set” to build the house. Once the basics are obtained, the walls start to go up.

The preschooler’s action: The social skill demonstrated:
Playing with peers- racing cars on the carpet, running around on the play ground Associative play with peers, giving appropriate personal space
Arguing over toys Protesting
Answering questions like “How old are you?” or “What is your name?” Answering basic questions, maintain a topic for 1-2 turns
Speaking differently to adults/peers Identifying formal vs. informal situations

Kindergarten will be the “drywall stage” or what I like to call fine-tuning the basics.

The Kindergartner child’s action: The social skill demonstrated:
Playing superheroes on the playground, racing cars, or building a castle with blocks Cooperative play with peers
Answering and asking more complex questions “Where do you live?” or “What is your favorite toy?” Initiating and maintaining topic for 2-5 turns
Making requests-“Mrs. Roberts, I need a pencil.” Using words to gain attention, identifying formal vs. informal social situations
Lining up without bumping friends Following directions (2-3 steps), demonstrating appropriate personal space

Grade school is like the decorating stage- “painting, carpeting, and adding appliances”. These are skills that will be in place for many years; hopefully, most for a lifetime.

  • Best friends are made
  • Shared interests with peers
  • Respect for teacher, adults, peers
  • Problem solving
  • Empathizing
  • Using and understanding figurative language
  • Using and understanding emotions in one’s self and others
  • Reading non-verbal cues of teachers, adults, peers
  • Maintaining a topic for 5+ turns- repairing as needed
  • Asking and answering questions
  • Understanding humor and using humor appropriately

Social skills are further refined in the middle thru high school years as the “furniture” is added to the house. These skills are made according to the child’s “taste”.

  • Choosing friends to interact with
  • Choosing activities of interest
  • Managing schedules/time effectively–homework, leisure, jobs
  • Organizing activities
  • Problem solving
  • Working together
  • Using and understanding figurative language and idioms

As you can see, the process of social skill development is not just over a few years…it is life-long. If a child does not obtain some or any of the necessary skills then he/she will not be able to function in our world.

Here is an example of a daily activity that most children encounter. I was walking my son to the bus stop and I noticed all of the social skills that he needs to get through the 15-minute bus stop interaction. The social skills are noted in italics.

He walks to the stop being careful to note whether he is too close to the street. (predicting, problem solving) He makes a decision based on his senses-sight, sound and his knowledge bank of what would happen if he gets too close to the street. (making inferences, problem solving) Once he is there, a girl walks up. He turns his body toward her briefly, makes eye contact and says, “Hey, Chelsea!” (body language, eye contact, initiating a conversation, greeting, using informal language to interact with a peer) He pauses and waits for a response. (turn taking) She says, “Hey” then he turns back around. He picks up a basket ball and starts to bounce it. He turns back to her and says, “Catch” before he throws it to her. (initiating play, gaining attention of the listener, body language, using informal language to interact with a peer) He waits briefly for her to look at him and then he throws the ball to her. (turn taking, using and interpreting body language) She smiles and he smiles. (turn taking, using and interpreting body language) They begin to throw the ball back and forth to each other. (turn taking, cooperative play) He hears a sound that he identifies as his bus. He turns to look. (problem solving, making inference/prediction) The girl pauses holding the ball. (understanding body language) He then sees the bus and yells “Bus!” The girl drops the ball. He turns to me and waves and shouts “Bye, Mom,” gets in line, waits for the bus to stop and the doors to open. (using non-verbal body language, maintaining appropriate personal space, turn taking, saying “good-bye”) He climbs the stairs and briefly looks up at the bus driver. (eye contact) He says “Good Morning, Mrs. Johnson” and waits for her to respond. (initiating topic, greeting, using formal language to interact with an adult, turn taking) She says “Good morning” and he proceeds to find a seat. (turn taking, understanding non-verbal language) He quickly looks around analyzing the situation and finds an empty seat. (problem solving)He hurries down the aisle careful not to bump another child that may have their foot out in the aisle. (maintaining personal space) He sits and turns to the boy in the seat and says, “Hey”. (initiating a topic, greeting, using informal language to interact with a peer, and maintaining personal space) The bus drives off and he starts his day at school.

Wow! Look at how many social skills he used in just those 15 minutes to maneuver his environment. And this is “Why” social skills are important at all ages!