Children acquire social skills by interacting with peers. During this time of COVID and social distancing, children will miss many more opportunities to authentically practice building their social skills because of the lack of peer interaction in a quarantine is surely an extra stressor in an already challenging time. Will my child regress socially? Will we have to start all over again with listening and sharing skills? If you are worried, please know that the most important thing you can do is find a healthy family rhythm to get through this time and try to stay healthy and safe.
As an educator and author who works daily with children who struggle socially, I’m hearing a lot right now from parents who worry about the short- and long-term impacts of social isolation on their children. The suggestions below are not intended to create more anxiety or additional work. They are there for you to consider and incorporate into your life if, when, and how it may make sense to you.
With that in mind, here are five enjoyable and simple ways to establish opportunities for social learning at home that will improve their interactions with other children when the pandemic is more manageable or over.
Practice Encouraging Social Play
Children can unwind and be themselves around non-critical family members, which is why it’s often simpler for your child to practice social skills with you. What is more, children are more prone to initiate social interactions with responsive adults, and play for longer periods of time, which means now is an ideal time to teach vital behavior that will convert to the playground later.
Each time that you play together — even in five-minute LEGOs sessions — your child is learning from you. You are modeling how to take turns, make positive comments, and generously incorporate others’ ideas into the game you are playing. These are all essential play skills that peers will respond constructively to as well.
The key message: By playing positively with your child, you’re helping him learn to be the sort of friend to whom other kids gravitate.
5 Ways to Teach Your Child How to Play Better
1. Play the “copycat” game
Imitating your child’s words and actions cultivates imagination and helps her/him learn to be patient and go with the flow. Here is how it is done:
Sit facing your child; prepare to follow his lead.
Imitate what your child does in play, then wait to see what he does next.
Repeat what your child says, add a word or idea, then wait to see what he does next.
Why it works: Copying their behavior then adding to it with words or ideas stretches their imagination and shows them the fun and advantages of being accommodating.
2. Play games that require your child to follow who is next in order.
Try building a Lego tower with varying colors — restrict her/him to use only blue colors; and you use red. Or play a matching picture game. Take turns building a marble run, zooming cars, or putting ponies in the pretend barn.
Why it works: Any game where your child take turns helps him learn to wait, tune in, and share the moment.
3. Use books as conversation starters and to help with social learning.
When applying books to help with social learning, worry less about reading the words and more about looking at the pictures, giving the main idea of the page, and trying to understand what is happening to the characters. Once you determine what is going on, discuss how you think the character feels about it and examine what your child might do and feel in a parallel situation.
Why it works: Books can help kids learn about feelings, different perspectives, and problem-solving.
4. Model compliments.
Children who use positive comments in their connections with playmates tend to be invited and accepted into play more often. Try to catch your child doing something well, being kind, or expressing an interesting idea.
Why it works: Children gravitate to other children who make them feel lively and upbeat. Providing authentic compliments is one way to achieve that.
5. Convert a plain, glass container into your own version of our “fortunate” jar — a visual reminder of positivity.
Simply cut out blank pieces paper and use them to record the instants you catch your child doing something that is socially positive. Compliments given to siblings or acts of kindness - deserve to be recorded on a piece of paper and stored in the jar. You might point out that you saw her/him offer their baby sister a trade when she grabbed their toy without asking. If you observed your child waiting their turn on the swing set, write that down. Store the “fortunate” jar in a place that your family will see it regularly and review the enclosed papers earned — perhaps at dinner time or before the bed in the evening — until it turns into a joyful routine.
Never get rid of a deed/piece of paper as punishment for unwanted behavior. Simply continue to look for constructive social acts and help your child take notice of them, too. Some days — especially now with daily routines toppled — it may be challenging to record positive exchanges every day, but I guarantee you there is always at least one. An observation like, “I really liked how you helped your sister clean up the massive milk spill on the kitchen floor,” is fine.
Why it works: Seeing the papers pile up in the jar should motivate your child to earn more compliments, it makes them feel loved and that of course, feels good.
When your child is grown, they will not remember the specific details of this unusual time, but they will recall the love they received from the people in their life. Also, give yourself an extra helping of compassion, too, while you are at it. And maybe your very own fortunate jar would not hurt!