Hi everyone! This is a guest post from pediatric psychologist Dr. Aaron Montgomery. He explains the evidence-based plan that he uses to help his young clients improve socially, which can be adapted by parents, teachers, or anyone else who wants to help kiddos succeed socially.
His ideas can be easily adapted to adults as well, so whether you want to guide someone else or improve yourself, I think you'll find some helpful tips. Read on!
How do you help children with social skills?
Social difficulties are incredibly common in kids. For parents whose children struggle socially, finding resources can be challenging. This can be frustrating, as the hopes for our little one to be socially fluent and connected feel out of our grasp.
As a pediatric psychologist, I see this all too often. By writing this blog post for Improve Your Social Skills, I hope to provide some insight for parents about how to guide your children through social difficulty. I use an evidence-based process for helping children and families improve their social skills.
I break it down into four basic steps: 1) identify where social deficits might cause problems, 2) evaluate resources, 3) set and track goals, and 4) begin the work.
Let me walk you through how a pediatric psychologist approaches these steps.
Step 1: Identify the Problem
What does your child struggle most with? Is it school attendance? Making small talk? Starting new friendships?
Sometimes we label social difficulties broadly (i.e. “little Timmy just isn’t social enough”). By identifying a specific problem, you can begin to notice specific social skills to build on.
The most important piece of this step, however, is that the child is invested and agrees on the issue at hand. Without your child’s buy-in and motivation, the process of helping them will be received as invasive and unwanted.
Therapists take this approach in the first session of child therapy. We try to rule out anything that might impact social functioning, such as poor sleep or depression, and then collaborate on specific social skills that need improvement. These are the skills that therapy will focus on early in the process. Then, we collaborate as a group to identify the issue, evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and set some short-term goals.
For example, a child who struggles with making new friends may have particular difficulties in conversation skills and managing anxiety. To build on those skills, we identify the child’s areas of strength and weakness.
Step 2: Evaluating Resources (Strengths and Weaknesses)
What is your child good at, socially? When family is around and they feel secure, do they unleash their witty side? Do they have a knack for other language skills, such as writing?
Spend some time with you child discussing the areas of social competence, or resources, that can be tapped into to help tackle the problem. If your child is able to have engaging conversations with you or their sibling, those skills can be focused on and translated to areas of difficulty.
As a therapist, I also assess the strengths and weaknesses of the parent(s) to understand how social skills are modeled in the home. It is also important to consider how the child might behave socially when a parent is present versus absent. Therapists also focus on areas that need growth. If you read any of Daniel Wendler’s material on the growth mindset of social skills, you will see the importance and pragmatism of strengthening our weaknesses.
Once those domains have been evaluated, you are ready to set some goals for both strengths and weaknesses. How might you improve the things your child struggles with, as well as hone the things they excel in? This dual approach tends to provide kids with a sense of accomplishment and competency as they grow socially.
Step 3: Goal Setting and Tracking
“What goals should I set for my child?”
This question is problematic, as it lacks the child’s input. Keep in mind, in order for progress to be made the child must be invested in improving their social competence.
If motivation is the barrier, then the first goal might involve increasing motivation or desire for social engagement. Keep in mind that many children may feel satisfied with their current social life, and our expectations as parents may exceed what they need at that developmental stage.
Therapists collaborate with the parent and child to set daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Tracking goals consistently helps keep the child from feeling overwhelmed by nebulous expectations. Rewards are the key to maintaining progress towards goals. The reward used is also important, as it must be something the child truly desires so that the social behavior is reinforced.
For younger children, the therapist and parent may meet and develop a strategy for monitoring change over time. If the school is able to be involved in the process and track some of the behaviors, this can also be quite helpful. Once the child is able to consistently meet the first goal, the difficulty or frequency might be increased – as well as the reward. This can be done one skill at a time, or if the child is at a higher developmental stage, perhaps multiple skills can be on the behavior chart. The idea is to set the child up for success by providing support and attainable goals with rewards.
Step 4: Begin the Work
Now that you have identified the problem, evaluated resources and set goals you and your child are ready to begin working towards social competence. Here is where the real work begins. I have found three main tasks to be effective: role play, opportunities, and support.
Role playing is one of the best ways to build social competence. The child gets to learn by experience in a safe environment, and you can observe how the skills are progressing. Positive reinforcement and even incentive for children who are avoidant or unmotivated encourage the children to engage in these role plays and generalize the skills. Verbal reinforcement is always helpful, though rewarding the child with a preferred behavior or treat is also an effective method.
Opportunities to work on the social skill are critical for improvement. If the goal is to make new friends, the child must have ample opportunities to be around peers outside of school. Much like shooting a basketball, the player must actually be on the court with a ball and a hoop to improve those skills.
Support is incredibly important at this stage. Therapy is one way you can offer additional support for your child, as it will give them a space to work through their social difficulties and make rapid progress towards goals. As you and the family continue to support your child in their growth, the process will feel much less daunting.
I encourage you to use Improve Your Social Skills as a resource, for your child and also for yourself. As you improve your own social skills, you will begin to model healthy behaviors for your child.
Questions? Comments? Ideas?
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