Why do we need to teach social skills?
Helping your child develop their social skills can make a lasting positive impact on their life. People with good social skills often know what to say when, how to behave in a variety of situations, and how to make good choices.
Through everyday interactions with the people in their lives, many children pick up positive social skills on their own; however, some children need more direct social skill instruction.
What does the research say about teaching social skills to children?
Phillip C. Kendall, Professor of Psychology, reported the positive effects of using modeling, role-playing, and teaching self-evaluation in social skills instruction.
Further research, such as Social Skills Training for Teaching Replacement Behaviors: Remediating Acquisition Deficits in At-Risk Students, confirms the benefits of intense social skills instruction.
What kinds of social skills are taught with the activities in this article?
Social skills focused on include:
- following directions
- ignoring distractions
- using manners
- showing empathy
- sticking up for oneself
- asking for permission
- asking for help
- waiting your turn
- making decisions
- dealing with teasing
- dealing with losing
You can practice social skills with your child in a variety of fun ways. The activities below are also a great way to bond with your child/student(s).
Activities are presented in a one-on-one format; however, many of them can also be used with a group of children (e.g., siblings, students, clients in a group therapy setting, etc.).
Parents, teachers, school counselors, psychologists, and speech/language pathologists (really any adult) can implement the activities below.
8 Fun Social Skills Activities to Try with Your Kids
1. Take turns telling short stories or short pieces of information to each other.
Skills practiced with this activity include: listening, following directions, taking turns, ignoring distractions, cooperating, and showing empathy.
Topics may include:
- an actual event that happened in your life
- facts about yourself (e.g., I love to dance. My favorite music to dance to is pop. I always wished I could be a famous dancer)
- an idea you once had
- a dream you once had
- anything you and your child want to share with each other (real or imaginary)
If you think it would be necessary for your child, limit the story to five or ten sentences per turn or two to five minutes per turn (set a timer if you are setting time limits and your child has trouble with the concept of time).
Children who give too many details when sharing information or who have trouble staying on topic may benefit from this type of limit setting.
After your child shares a story with you, show you were listening by summarizing what they said. Ask questions for clarification if needed and show empathy if it fits the story your child gave.
For example, if your child told you she once fell down at camp, hurt her ankle, and couldn’t participate in the soccer game, show empathy with a statement such as “That must have been disappointing for you. You probably wanted to join in the soccer game with your teammates.”
When you tell a story to your child, have her practice these same skills: summarizing the story, asking questions for clarification, and showing empathy.
For younger children, you can play this game through telephone cups for some added fun, as shown below:
If you want to have your child practice ignoring distractions, play the game in an area where some distractions are present such as a busy park.
Tell your child ahead of time that you will be playing this game at the park and you want her to practice focusing on the game and tuning out any distractions such as dogs, other children, and fun playground equipment.
Remind your child that when they are listening to the teacher at school, they may have to ignore distractions. If your child becomes distracted while you are telling each other stories, use clear short directives to bring their attention back to you (e.g.,”Keep telling me your story,” “Listen to this next part in the story, etc.”)
You may want to have your child tell you their story first, so you can show them an example of how to summarize, ask questions for clarification, and make empathetic statements.
When it is your turn to tell a story, you may need to remind your child to keep listening. They also might need help to summarize your story, come up with clarifying questions and show empathy to you. As your child becomes more proficient in these skills, you can slowly fade out your guidance.
2. Create pretend scenarios to practice manners and courtesy.
Skills practiced within this activity include: using manners, cooperating, asking for help, following directions, and taking turns.
Here are some scenarios you can create with your child:
Pretend you are at a restaurant. Have your child be the waiter and you be the customer.
Show your child how to order food using the word please, how to say thank you when the waiter brings you your food, and how to say excuse me if you burp at the table.
Then you play the role of the waiter and have your child use the same manners as they play the customer. If your child forgets her manners, give guidance as needed.
Pretend you are in a store. Have your child be the clerk while you play the customer, then reverse roles.
Practice skills such as asking the clerk for help (e.g., “Excuse me, where can I find dish soap?”) and saying please, thank you, and have a nice day.
Take turns making statements and purposely say them in a discourteous way, intentionally leaving out polite words. Tell your child that after you make the impolite statement, they should restate it in a polite and courteous way.
For example if you said “Give me that book now!” Your child should say “Can I look at your book please?” Then you take a turn. Have your child say something impolitely and you say it in a polite way. Make it silly and have fun!
Recommended Article: Try These 9 Practical Strategies to Decrease Impulsive Behavior in Children
Besides the activities mentioned above, always set an example of using good manners and encourage your child to do the same.
Praise your child when you notice her being polite and courteous (e.g., “I really like how you asked Tommy to play with his toy. That was so polite!”).
3. Practice decision making scenarios and strategies.
Skills practiced with this activity include making decisions, listening and respecting another person’s opinion.
Frequently give your child choices to have them practice making decisions.
Some children need choices limited to only a few things (e.g., “Do you want to wear the red or green shirt?” “Do you want turkey, chicken, or ham for lunch?”).
If your child does not decide after a considerable amount of time, set limits to prompt the decision.
You can say something such as “You need to decide in 15 seconds or I will help you make the choice,” and then count backward from 15.
Have your child practice giving you choices as well. For example, they can ask you if you want to play chess or checkers or if you want to play a game before or after dinner.
They also may ask a more open-ended question such as “What do you want to watch on TV tonight.”
Model for your child what making a decision looks like.
Talk to them about how you came up with your choice (e.g., “I decided to play chess instead of checkers because I like chess better,” “I want to watch a funny movie tonight because I am in the mood to laugh.”).
If your child has a more serious decision to make such as whether or not to keep someone as a friend, stay on the football team, or keep an after school job, teach them how to make a list of pros and cons.
Teach them how to examine the points on their list, and make the best decision, after thoroughly weighing the benefits and disadvantages.
4. Take turns with your child giving each other instructions to complete a task.
Skills practiced with this activity include listening, following directions, taking turns, and cooperating.
This can be used in a variety of situations such as an arts and crafts activity, a scavenger hunt, an academic task, a cooking activity, a physical activity, and much more.
For example, you can tell your child to get crayons and paper from the drawer and put them on the table. When it is their turn, they can tell you to pick up a red crayon and draw an apple.
Then you can tell them to get glue and glitter from the cabinet, put glue on the apple and pour the glitter on.
For a physical activity, you can tell your child to do ten jumping jacks, one push up, and one sit up. Then have them give you a physical activity to complete.
For a scavenger hunt you can say, “Find an envelope, a spoon, and a pillow and bring them back to me.” Then have them tell you to find things.
Giving each other instructions like this is a great way to bond while teaching your child to pay close attention to your details.
Some children have trouble following multiple directions at a time. You can start with one direction and as your child improves, gradually add more.
Give your child feedback on how they did (e.g., “You got the crayons and put them on the table, but you still need to get the paper.”)
If you want, you can recreate the scenario (put the crayons back) and have your child try again.
You can also have your child repeat the instructions back to you before they do the task.
Once they get the hang of repeating the instructions aloud, teach them to repeat the instructions back in their own mind before completing any task given to them.
You can also have the television (or another sound) on in the background or do this activity at a busy park to have your child practice tuning out distractions.
Tell them beforehand that they need to focus on your instructions and ignore any distractions, just like they may have to in school.
If your child becomes distracted, use a clear short directive to bring their attention back to the instructions (e.g.,”Keep focusing on the instructions I am giving you.”).
5. Create scenarios in which your child has to use their words to communicate her wants and needs.
Skills practiced with this activity include asking for help, building independence, and using manners.
Here is an example:
Give your child a new toy or a snack with a wrapper that you know they may have trouble opening. Wait to see if they will try to open it on their own or if they will ask for help.
If they cannot open it and still do not ask you for help they may begin to get frustrated.
You can remind them how to ask for help politely and encourage them to do so. When they ask for help in a polite way, open the package for them.
In general, when you see your child needs help with something, wait to see if they will figure it out on their own or ask for help. See what they do before jumping in with a statement such as “Here, let me help you.”
Encourage your child to ask for help when they need it and remind them to do this at school or anytime they are not with you. They should be learning how to advocate for themselves.
6. Encourage your child to share their belongings with others and practice asking others for permission to use their belongings.
Skills practiced with this activity include asking for permission, sharing, cooperating, taking turns, having empathy, and using manners.
Work together with your child to set up the room with some of their favorite belongings (e.g., favorite toys, books, paper, crayons, favorite snacks, etc.).
Have your own belongings there too (e.g., a book, your calculator, your favorite snack, etc.)
Take turns with your child, asking each other to share your belongings.
Practice asking in a courteous way using polite words. (e.g., “Can I have some of your snack please?” “Can I look at you book please?” etc.).
Also take turns offering your belongings to each other (e.g., “Would you like some of my snack?” “Do you want to play with my toy?” etc.).
Praise your child for using polite words to ask permission to use your belongings and for sharing their belongings with you.
Generalize the activity above to real life scenarios.
Remind your child to always ask nicely when they want others to share with them. Encourage them to share with others when playing with siblings, interacting with peers, etc.
Teach empathy by talking to your child about how it feels when someone won’t share with you or when someone takes your belongings without asking.
Let your child know that you are proud of them. Remind them that hey can feel proud, too, when they share with others or ask others to share, in a kind way.
Set an example for your child by showing the same polite manners when you have the chance to share with others or ask to borrow things from others.
Keep boundaries in mind. We can’t share in every situation at all times, so assess the situation, and whether sharing is appropriate.
7. Practice teasing scenarios with your child.
Skills practiced with this activity include communicating with others and sticking up for oneself.
Take turns having one person be the “teaser” and the other person being the one who gets teased.
Show your child what kinds of responses you can give to someone who is teasing you in a way that allows you to stick up for yourself. Have your child practice using these responses.
Here are some examples:
Remind your child to stay calm when giving her responses because children who tease often want to make people upset.
Remind your child that showing they are upset gives the teaser what they want.
If they stay calm, the teaser is not getting what they want and is more likely to stop the behavior.
Teaser: “You’re Stupid.”
Person Getting Teased: “Sorry you feel that way” (walk away)
Teaser: “You are ugly. I hate you.”
Person Getting Teased: “I’m not interested in your opinion about me is.” “Bye.” (walk away)
Teaser: “No one likes you. You have no friends.”
Person Getting Teased: “You can think what you want about me. Your words don’t affect me.” (walk away)
Your child can also practice smiling, not saying anything at all, and just walking away.
Remind your child to talk to an adult (parent, guidance counselor, or other trusted adult) if someone won’t stop teasing them, if they feel scared of another child or group of children, or if they want to talk about their feelings.
If you have concerns that your child is being bullied or if you want more information on how to handle bullying, see, 18 Tips for Parents and Teachers to Stop Bullying.
8. Play games with your child.
- cooperating with others
- following directions
- waiting one’s turn
- coping with losing
Related Article: 12 Free Games to Play with Your Kids
Many children have trouble losing, so practicing at home will help prepare them for when they lose at school or in the community.
For children who become overly upset when they lose, keep practicing. The more they have the opportunity to lose, the better they will become at accepting a loss.
Be empathetic with your child (e.g., “I know you are upset because you wanted to win.”), but also explain that losing is a part of life and that they have to practice accepting it.
Tell them that sometimes they will win and sometimes they won’t. Set a good example by staying calm and accepting it when you yourself lose at something.
If you are concerned about temper tantrums, see How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums.
Here are three highly rated board games specifically designed to work on social skills such as taking turns, expressing feelings, listening, following directions, developing empathy, playing with others, and more.
These games do not have a competitive edge. If you want your child to have opportunities to experience losing, more traditional games such as the ones mentioned above would be a better option.
The deck contains 35 cards especially effective in helping children name, process, and work through a variety of feeling and situations, including changes within the family, trauma, grief, anger, depression, anxiety and fears.
Children also practice taking turns, communicating their thoughts and feelings, empathy and listening skills.
2 – The Ungame
The Ungame is a great game to work on conversational skills, expressing feelings, taking turns, listening and empathy.
Players progress along the playing board as they answer questions such as, “What are the four most important things in your life?” and “What do you think life would be like in 100 years?”
This is a non-competitive game that can be a great ice-breaker and lead to a serious exchange of thoughts, feelings and ideas. Ages 5 to adult, and for 2 to 6 players.
The Art of Children’s Conversation is a great way for children to practice communication, learn about other people, and better understand themselves as they enjoy great times and strengthen bonds with family and friends.
This game aims to help children:
- make friends and be friends
- speak well and with confidence
- listen with interest and understanding
- share ideas and feelings in a safe, non-judgmental way
- learn about living and gain insights from others
- put their complex and developing ideas into words
- get to know families and friends
- discuss topics and feelings effectively
- respect the views of others
- develop compassion for and interest in others
- accept others differences
The 16 page communication booklet that comes with this game provides many variations of how to play, including a solo version.
The Art of Children’s Communication is designed with families, therapists, counselors, teachers, speech pathologists, language teachers, coaches, and more in mind.
Side Note: To teach self-evaluation, discuss how you and your child did during each activity. Give specific feedback about what went well and discuss areas that need improvement.
Let your child share his/her own thoughts and perceptions about how each of you did during the activity.
Encourage your child to think about their own behavior when he/she is involved in similar real-life scenarios.
Additional Information About Teaching Social Skills to Children
Keep in mind that the activities in this article are recommendations. Please do not try to pressure a child into participating in any of these activities.
This can lead to frustration, which can turn your child off to social skills practice.
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting.
If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.
Keep practice sessions short (2 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going.
You may benefit from reading: Three Ways Timers Help Children Complete Chores and Homework and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
If you have significant concerns about your child’s ability to develop social skills or any other concerns about their learning, development, or behavior, talk to your child’s healthcare provider.
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Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”