School is a place where children and adolescents go to become educated, academically and socially.
Learning how to interact with other people, make friends, and foster cooperation are all social skills that are taught by facilitating students’ interactions with each other.
Even though children gain social skills through naturally interacting with others, since most of these interactions take place at school, it is essential that teachers master the elements of social skills training to facilitate social development in their students.
This article will provide guidance on social skills training for teachers and resources to help integrate social skills training for all stages (i.e., toddlers, young children, and teenagers). Also included are lesson plans to help break down social skills education.
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This Article Contains:
- How Do Social Skills Develop?
- Fostering Social Skills in Toddlers
- 3 Important Social Skills for Teenagers
- Teaching Social Skills 101
- Social Skills Training for Kids: 3 Games & Activities
- 4 Online Games & Board Games
- Resources for Teachers: 3 Lesson Plans & Tips
- PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Tools
- A Take-Home Message
How Do Social Skills Develop?
Similar to riding a bike, social skills cannot be developed without practice. Arguably, the abilities to understand and consider another’s worldview are two of the most fundamental pieces of social interaction.
Theory of mind, which develops in a child’s preschool years, refers to the ability to understand that another individual’s perspective differs from yours (Moll & Meltzoff, 2011). The development of theory of mind takes place throughout childhood in a predictable manner, as outlined below (Lowry, 2015; Ruhl, 2020):
Understanding that people do not always want the same things and act in a variety ways to get the things they want.
Understanding that people may have differing beliefs about the same event or topic.
Recognizing that everyone’s access to knowledge is different, and if they have not seen it, they may need additional context to understand.
- False beliefs:
Recognizing that different people may have varying beliefs that differ from reality.
- Hidden feelings:
Understanding that people can hide their emotions and feel a different emotion than the one they are displaying.
The development of these theory-of-mind concepts eventually leads to children becoming better at another key social skill: perspective taking.
Perspective taking refers to an individual’s ability to understand both visual (viewpoint) and perceptual (understanding) situations (Duffy, 2019). Perspective taking develops over the course of the preschool years and continues throughout childhood and adolescence.
Think of a conversation or experience when another person was incredibly rigid about their beliefs and lacked interest in hearing about your experiences. That individual may not have developed the necessary skills to engage in perspective taking and may lack flexibility in accepting that others’ beliefs may be different from their own.
Fostering Social Skills in Toddlers
If you are a parent or educator, you understand that it’s difficult to get younger children, especially toddlers, to ‘tune in,’ as development can be so varied across different individuals.
When considering strategies to help foster social skills in toddlers, you should not underestimate the significance of pretend play and role-play.
For example, if your child is playing doctor and wants you to play with them, it is important to stay ‘in character’ and take off the parent or teacher hat while you are playing with them. This will allow children to become comfortable playing different roles and developing a variety of skills in everyday life.
A few other strategies for caregivers and early childhood educators to foster social skills in toddlers include:
- Follow the toddler’s lead
Start by observing the toddler while they are playing. Get onto their level (crouch or sit down) and join the play by copying their actions. Slowly, add more as the play develops.
- Put your child’s perspective into words
Even if your toddler is not talking yet, putting their actions/feelings or your own into words can be helpful in developing perspective taking. It can also encourage them to use more language when communicating, rather than just actions or words.
- Use picture books to help discuss feelings
When learning about feelings, having pictures that display the feelings your toddler might be experiencing is helpful in having them visualize what these feelings look like. Providing dialogue such as “Oh, Pig’s mouth is pointed downward, and he has a tear. He seems sad,” can also help toddlers understand what emotions look like.
3 Important Social Skills for Teenagers
In today’s technology-driven society, developing social skills can be more difficult for young adults and teenagers. Considering that a lot of their social activity is powered by devices, there are fewer opportunities for them to engage in meaningful in-person interactions.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Children’s capacity to achieve goals, work effectively with others and manage emotions will be essential to meet the challenges of the 21st century” (OECD, 2015). Social skills that apply to goal attainment, cooperation, and emotional awareness include:
1. Active listening
Active listening is a type of listening that focuses on hearing the words another person is saying as well as recognizing the emotions that come out through their nonverbal behavior.
A good activity to practice active listening with adolescents and teenagers is to ask all participants to sit in a circle. The facilitator then chooses one participant to tell a story. After three to five sentences, the teacher says ‘stop’ and chooses another student to continue the story. This person now has to repeat the last sentence the previous person said and continue making up the story.
Assertive communication is characterized by the ability to express one’s opinions, feelings, or attitudes while still respecting the perspectives of others.
The most important piece of teaching assertiveness is to assure teens it’s okay to claim their rights and express their opinions and feelings, especially when saying “no” respectfully.
Being aware of one’s emotions is an important component of self-awareness. Understanding why they feel a certain way and their emotions in specific situations is an essential part of the development of teenagers’ empathy.
Empathy not only helps teenagers understand the emotions others are feeling, but also allows them to understand when they are feeling specific emotions and implement specific coping strategies to help them.
Teaching Social Skills 101
Engaging in social skills training can be overwhelming, especially as a teacher or caregiver, as there are so many other things to attend to.
A specific challenge that teachers face when integrating social-emotional education is integrating activities and social education into the daily curriculum.
The easiest way to do this is through short, simple activities and games that require little preparation and can be quickly set up during down times and transitions. Below, we have provided several options for integrating social skills education, whether you are a teacher, therapist, parent, or caregiver looking to enhance your child’s social skills.
Social Skills Training for Kids: 3 Games & Activities
Activities that can be played across all age groups to promote social skills education include:
Charades is a simple way for children to understand perspective taking, as participants are asked to write things from different categories (i.e., movies, television shows, or games).
Participants then act out the thing they select using only gestures, and other players have to guess. Since participants are communicating using only gestures, the other players have to consider their perspectives when guessing, as the person who is acting out the thing may have a different understanding or experience than they do.
2. Passing the ball
The game begins with a player starting a conversation. The teacher can give a topic to start with or allow the players to choose. It is recommended that the teacher use a timer to help time each player’s contribution so they do not talk for too long (approximately 20–30 seconds).
After the player who is holding the ball starts the conversation, they throw the ball to another person, who chimes in with a related contribution. Players must maintain eye contact with the person they are speaking to during the exchange (White, 2011).
3. Checker stack
This is a three-player game. To play this game, you need a set of stackable tokens (i.e., checkers, poker chips, coins) and a judge. The judge can be an adult or another peer, and they will judge each player’s contribution.
The game begins when the first player sets down a token and says something to start a conversation. The second player responds and stacks another token on top. The players keep taking turns stacking and talking, with the judge providing feedback when necessary. The game ends when one player says something irrelevant or off-topic, or when the tower falls down (White, 2011).
To help participants understand what this looks like, we recommend that the teacher model a round of the game, using two students as an example so participants can understand how the game is played. Participants should also rotate being the judge to practice perspective taking.
4 Online Games & Board Games
Turn taking and role-play are two skills promoted through games that can contribute to the development of social skills across all ages. Games that can help promote these skills include:
1. Apples to Apples Jr.
This game is probably one of the most natural ways to practice perspective taking for children.
At the start of the game, each player is given ‘red apple’ cards that have descriptions written on them. Each player takes turns playing the judge and selects a ‘green apple’ card, which has a one-word characteristic on it such as “amazing” or “scary.”
All the other players are then required to choose a description that they feel matches the ‘green apple’ card. Once all the ‘red apple’ cards are on the table, each player has the opportunity to convince the judge why their selection is best.
This activity gives children the opportunity to practice perspective taking, as they have to convince each other in a socially acceptable way why they think their card is a good match.
Available on Amazon.
2. Hall of Heroes
Hall of Heroes is marketed as an online middle school game where students encounter real-world social situations that they will face in middle school (e.g., bullying, peer pressure, and making new friends).
Players can choose their character and build their skills during gameplay. By providing a virtual setting where students can make mistakes and examine the impact of their decisions, young adults will be able to see the consequences of their decisions.
Characters in the game also come back with assertive retorts; for example, when faced with a situation where another student is told they cannot sit at the lunch table, one character says “Hey, didn’t I just see you come in with another kid? Did you just ditch them to come over here?”
This kind of dialogue allows young adults who are struggling to be assertive to adopt the strategies and words the characters are using when dealing with difficult situations in their own lives.
Available on Centervention. A 30-day free trial is available for educators.
3. My Feelings Game
This board game is targeted for children between the ages of 4 and 11. The goal of the game is to encourage children to recognize common feelings in themselves and others.
The game has 280 everyday situations and 7 characters who are aptly named with the most common feelings that children experience (i.e., anger, happiness).
Children are asked to do a variety of tasks that include identifying their emotions on pictures of faces, adding context to a list of typical experiences they have with a particular emotion, and acting out specific scenarios.
This provides an opportunity for children to further examine the perspectives of others. The characters provide scenarios that make them feel certain feelings (i.e., “I am happy when my mom gives me a treat”), and then players expand on things that make them happy, combining emotional awareness and perspective taking. The game also includes movement breaks so the children can move around while they are playing.
Available on Sensational Learners.
4. TeachTown Social Skills
TeachTown Social Skills guides younger children (ages 4–12) through an interactive curriculum with the goal of teaching socially appropriate behaviors.
TeachTown is designed for children with special needs, as the game targets five behavioral domains:
- Following the rules
- Good communication
- Coping & self-regulation
- Interpersonal skills
Each of the domains contains 10 target social behaviors that are highlighted through videos, social skills worksheets, and lesson plans to help children understand appropriate social behaviors and responses to different situations.
The behavioral domains specifically target areas where these children struggle, and through the use of social storytelling and modeling, they help educate children in real time how to react to specific situations.
Each lesson plan can also be integrated into therapeutic interventions these children might already be receiving, which helps tie in social skills education to both school and therapeutic settings.
Available on TeachTown.
Resources for Teachers: 3 Lesson Plans & Tips
One of the major challenges teachers face when integrating social and emotional content across the curriculum is the ability to have materials they can quickly integrate in the classroom.
Even though lesson and course planning is an integral part of a teacher’s preparation for learning, the classroom is a fluid space where things happen rapidly without warning.
To help accommodate this, we have provided lesson plans and activities that you can implement on the fly, specifically in difficult social situations that may arise as your students go through their daily activities. Similar to the interactive activities above, these lesson plans can be adapted for use across all ages.
1. Wanted: Friend
In this activity, students create a “wanted” poster for a friend. Students can use the template provided or make their own poster.
This activity helps students identify qualities that are present in a good friend and examine whether those qualities are present in themselves.
2. How to apologize
Part of being a good friend and colleague is learning how to admit when you have done something wrong. This lesson plan provides steps for crafting a good apology and role-playing activities for students to practice saying sorry in different situations.
3. Understanding empathy
Putting yourself in another’s shoes and understanding another’s feelings are important parts of developing social skills. This lesson helps students understand what empathy is and promotes strategies to use empathy in their everyday lives.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Tools
PositivePsychology.com provides several resources that can be adapted for teachers aiming to help their students develop social skills.
This article lists recommended empathy books to help cultivate compassion and empathy in your students. It also provides specific books for adults and teachers that are relevant to their everyday lives.
Mindfulness can be an important component for adults, teenagers, and children in practicing self-reflection, which ultimately leads to an increased ability to display empathy and perspective taking. These Mindfulness Worksheets can be used by teachers and other practitioners when practicing mindfulness with their students and for themselves.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
While the development of social skills can be a difficult component to integrate into everyday teaching, it is an essential component of emotional and positive education that should be emphasized at every age.
Even if you do not have time to engage in specific social skill instruction daily, the strongest predictor of success is continued interaction. Ensuring that your students have time to interact in controlled and uncontrolled group settings and with peers of various ages is the best way to ensure that students have opportunities to practice social skills, specifically perspective taking and empathy.
We hope this article provided you with resources and ideas to use in your classroom or home. Please let us know if you have any strategies that are not listed here that could work for your fellow educators. Remember, we are all in this together, and sharing a resource or an idea could help another individual integrate more meaningful content into their classroom.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
- Duffy, J. (2019, June 2). The power of perspective taking. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-power-personal-narrative/201906/the-power-perspective-taking
- Lowry, L. (2015). “Tuning in” to others: How young children develop theory of mind. The Hanen Centre. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.dsrf.org/media/Developing%20theory%20of%20mind%20tuning%20into%20others.pdf
- Moll, H., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2011). Perspective-taking and its foundation in joint attention. In N. Eilan, H. Lerman, & J. Roessler (Eds.), Perception, causation, and objectivity. Issues in philosophy and psychology (pp. 286–304). Oxford University Press.
- OECD. (2015). OECD skills studies: Skills for social progress: The power of social and emotional skills. OECD Publishing.
- Ruhl, C. (2020). Theory of mind. Simply Psychology. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/theory-of-mind.html
- White, S. W. (2011). Social skills training for children with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Guilford Press.