Helping your kiddo become socially adept is incredibly important for healthy childhood development. It’s how they learn to navigate the world around them, develop productive relationships with peers, adults, and teachers, and even contributes to their academic success.
There’s a tendency to think that social skills emerge naturally by simply putting children in social settings. And while this is absolutely part of the process, the foundation for developing strong social abilities starts with early interactions with their parents and loved ones.
Just as your child’s early communication skills happen long before your child’s first words, early social skills develop prior to children entering the classroom or even daycare.
Children are social novices, and they look towards their caregivers as role models on how to behave and respond in different situations. They watch, learn, and absorb the social behaviors and interactions of adults around them. At an early age, you’re the biggest influence in your child’s life, and you have emotional and cognitive tools to help your child sharpen their social skills. How you share this knowledge with your child will ultimately benefit them for a lifetime!
In this article we’re going to break down several important early social skills and provide tips on how to increase these skills with your little one throughout the day. Spending 20-30 minutes each day with your child will not only help them to increase their social and language skills, but will teach them the nonverbal essentials needed for good communication.
What are the benefits of early social skills?
We hone and improve social skills throughout our life. But this journey begins from the moment your child is born!
Here are a few of the key benefits in helping your child build strong social skills:
- Understanding and paying attention to social cues, such as body language and tone of voice
- Coping with big emotions, like anger or sadness, in a socially appropriate way
- Recognizing and empathizing with other people’s emotions
- Considering other people’s perspectives or opinions
- Finding productive ways to resolve conflict
- Forming and maintaining relationships and friendships
- Forgiving others and expressing remorse
Eye contact is one of the first social skills you may notice in your child. It’s also one of the first bonding experiences you have with your newborn, helping you both feel more connected to each other. This ability to maintain consistent eye contact should begin around 2-3 months.
So why is eye contact so important? It establishes a connection with another person and demonstrates that we are listening and attentive. We use eye contact in so many daily interactions throughout the day, from talking to friends to speaking with receptionists or checking out our groceries. Without establishing eye contact, verbal communication can feel awkward and lead to uncomfortable interactions.
Here’s a few fun and simple activities to work on establishing and extending eye contact with your young child:
- Make a silly faces at each other
- Sing to your baby
- Play a game of peek-a-boo
- Make silly sounds together
Joint attention is when two people are simultaneously focused on the same object, person, or activity. It’s one of the most essential skills needed to develop strong social and language skills.
Let's take the simple act of bouncing a ball with your child. If they’re not paying attention to the ball, they won’t be able to actively participate in the game. In fact, to learn most new skills, children have to be focused on the object or instruction of another person. Otherwise, it’ll be nearly impossible for them to replicate these tasks in the future.
Establishing joint attention is also one of the precursors for the back and forth exchange of communication. When we speak with other people, we're both focused on the conversation at hand. It helps each person listen, pay attention, and answer related questions.
For instance, if you point to an object and tell your child, “look at that!” you would expect your child to turn their head to look at the object. This can lead to a natural exchange where your child eventually answers questions and adds their own commentary.
The good news is that there are so many ways you can help your child improve joint attention throughout their daily life.
- One simple activity that you may already be doing is singing with your child. Even if your child isn’t yet singing along with words, are they looking at you and smiling? This is a great sign! During songs, one way to increase joint attention and get them participating is to leave a phrase open ended. You could say something like, “Old McDonald had a farm---” and then wait for your child to complete the phrase with “E-I-E-I-O.” Maybe your child will maintain eye contact and wait expectantly for you to complete the phrase. Or maybe they'll complete it for you! Either way, both of you are focused on the same song at the same time.
- Reading is another great joint attention activity. While a toddler might not understand the complexities of a story, pointing to pictures in a book and naming objects helps them focus their attention. For instance, you could say, “Oh wow. Look at that big train! Choo choo!” If your child doesn’t seem to be paying attention, don’t be afraid to take their hand and point to the picture you’re describing. Try picking out one picture per page. Making this part of their nap or bedtime routine not only helps with joint attention, but helps establish pre-literacy skills as well.
- As we mentioned before, playing with a ball is also an easy, effective joint attention activity. First show your child the ball and then establish eye contact. You can build up anticipation with “ready, set…go!”
Back and Forth Vocalization
Long before you hear your child’s first magical words, they’ll begin to make lots of expressive sounds. This could be cooing, babblings, and other verbalizations.
In the first 3 months, babies will typically begin to coo and gurgle and you might even hear their first laugh. These are the early stages of communication where babies start to experiment with their voice. Around 3-6 months, a baby will begin to make more vowel sounds. You might even start to hear their first consonants such as “bababa.”
During this stage of communication development you should begin participating in back and forth vocalizations with your baby. This is when your baby will attempt to imitate a sound that you produce or even initiate a sound for you to repeat.
These sounds are not necessarily self-directed, but are meant to establish a connection with you and others. Your baby is beginning to recognize the cause-and-effect of communication - first you say something, then they respond, and so forth. This is a huge communication milestone!
Children learn by imitating those around them. That’s why it’s never too early to start working on back and forth vocalizations with your little one.
- To encourage your baby to imitate, try making simple sounds, such as “aaah” and “oooh.” Play around with your volume and intonation, and make sure to use exaggerated facial expressions. This will not only get your baby’s attention, but will increase their likelihood of imitating your sounds.
- You can also practice targeting environmental sounds, such as vehicles (vroom, beep beep) and animal sounds (meow, woof woof). As we mentioned before, pointing to these objects in books and making these sounds can increase both joint attention and their back and forth vocalizations.
- Finally, get in front of a mirror! Kids love being silly, so make funny faces, exaggerated sounds, and sing songs. Establishing eye contact and joint attention in the mirror can keep your child engaged and increase opportunities to imitate your vocalizations.
Imitation of Play
Imitation isn’t just the biggest form of flattery, it’s also how we learn. And that goes for playtime as well.
Playing is one of the most important parts of early childhood development. It’s how kids grow their social and language skills, problem solve, learn how to share and take turns, and understand their environment.
However, not all children intuitively or independently figure out how to play productively or engage with a new toy. They often require guidance to complete an activity, such as stacking blocks. This becomes even more true as they use more complicated toys, like completing a puzzle or exploring sensory activities like play dough.
When a child finally does figure out how toys work, they begin to understand cause and effect. If they stack the blocks too high, the blocks might fall as a result. If they push a toy car, it will drive on the track where they want it to go. The back and forth nature of communication follows the same rules of cause and effect.
Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, kids will start to develop their pretend play skills and begin using toys for their intended purpose.
For instance, instead of just banging toys together or mouthing them, they might enjoy pretending to cook in a kitchen or feeding a stuffed animal. These are great activities to work on language and social skills.
- If your child is giving their baby doll a bottle, provide some language cues such as “yum” or “ooh, it’s hot!”
- If you’re playing with your child in their toy kitchen, narrate their actions such as “stir” or “turn on the oven.”
- If your child is speaking on a toy phone, say things like “hello” and “who is this?”
Take time out each day to get down on the floor, play with your child, and as they get older, use toys appropriately. Give your child plenty of models of what you’d like them to see, do, and imitate.
Effective communication requires the ability to take turns. When one person talks, the other waits and listens, then responds. If we didn’t allow this turn taking to happen, our conversational partners might disengage or feel frustrated. Likewise, if kids have difficulty with turn taking, they might frequently interrupt others, speak without taking a pause, or not actively listen.
These skills are established early as kids learn how to take turns sharing toys with their family and peers. Many parents will report that one of their child’s first words is “mine.” With some practice, this can develop into “my turn.”
Many of the simple activities we discussed above set the foundation for turn taking. You can build turn taking into stacking blocks, putting together a puzzle, rolling a car back and forth, or pretty much any game that requires two people! Make sure to use gestures to point out “my turn” and “your turn” to help your child learn that patience is required for turn taking to happen.
If your child is beginning to understand the concept of turn taking, the next step is learning how to share.
This social skill isn’t just important at home (especially if they have siblings), but at school and pretty much every point throughout a person’s life.
A child always wants something immediately. However, they might have to wait their turn or, even better, ask permission to share a desired toy. It also helps them establish bonds with family and peers and begin to relate to others.
Because children learn through imitation, it is important to provide a model of sharing within the home.
- Share a snack with your child and say “Here you go. I love sharing because it makes everyone happy!” Use positive reinforcement and give your child feedback throughout the day to reinforce this skill.
- An easy way to establish sharing is by practicing with siblings or friends. For instance, give your child a toy and explain that they can share the toy with their sibling or take turns using it. If they have difficulty understanding this concept, use a visual cue such as a timer and set it for 5 minutes. Each child then gets to play with the toy for 5 minutes, ensuring that everyone gets a turn.
- Using rewards, such as a sticker chart, can also help a child become motivated to share. While many parents use this technique for potty training, it’s also a fantastic way to develop early social skills. Every time your child successfully shares, they get a sticker. And once they receive 10 stickers, they get some type of reward - maybe a favorite treat or some extra play time.
We’ve covered a ton of important early social skills and how to improve them with your child. And you may already be implementing these strategies with your child at home today. Keep up the great work!
The social skills your child learns in early development will help them establish and maintain strong connections with family and peers (and eventually spouses, colleagues and employers). They’ll become more socially adept and prepared once they enter school.
If you’re still concerned about your child’s social skill development, speak with your pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist. This is the first step in helping you and your child work on these early building blocks of communication.