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Can Young Children Still Build Social Skills?

How to support parents and caregivers with skill-building during COVID-19.

Source: rSnapshotPhotos/Shutterstock

Parents and caregivers of young children are flummoxed right now. Most are overwhelmed with multiple conflicting priorities both at home and at work. Due to the pandemic, many young children are left without the social interactions provided at a child care setting or even play dates with neighbors and friends. Some caregivers are worried their child’s social development will be adversely affected. And others, my dear friends included, have admitted feeling guilty that perhaps they're risking COVID exposure by resuming a child care experience. But oh, those glorious moments of downtime…

While young children are generally quite social and typically benefit from time spent in groups, there are ways to ensure they build their social skills even while practicing social distancing.

For children who are 1 to 5 years old, social interactions are instructive and wonderful learning tools. But what are the skills we want them to gain? Here are some examples:

  • Sharing and turn-taking
  • Communication skills: both expressing needs and listening to others
  • Cooperation and collaboration
  • Emotional literacy and competence
  • Self-awareness and self-regulation

How can these goals be met if a child can’t interact with other children? It’s definitely trickier and not ideal, but it can be done. Here are some ideas and reminders to share with parents and caregivers:

  • Babies and young toddlers will be OK. For children this young, emotionally steady and responsive adults are much more important than peers. Multiple caregiving adults are ideal (for your sanity and your child), but one will suffice. Calm adults are the key to emotional regulation for very young children. You can learn more about this and other factors that may help in our previous post: Help Stressed Babies and Toddlers During the Pandemic.
  • It helps to be present when interacting with babies and toddlers. Because the above point is so salient, it's more important than ever for adults to really connect with their babies and toddlers. This is a tall order with everything parents and caregivers have on their plates, always and especially now. Multitasking is inevitable, but it’s worth reminding folks that they will be more effective on all fronts if they slow down, breathe, and look their children in the eyes regularly. A few minutes spent being present and focused may be worth more than the 30 minutes you spend calming down a child who didn’t get that preventive quality time.
  • Work within sibling relationships. For some families, there is an opportunity to scaffold learning within sibling relationships or other child-to-child relationships within social bubbles/pods. However limited, these interactions are good opportunities to help build skills. Adults help when they: highlight positive interactions when they see them, offer structure and support around turn-taking (a timer, helping children with waiting, etc.), and model kind and clear words to communicate boundaries (e.g., “It’s time to stop playing and eat lunch now,” “I won’t let you hit your sister,” and “Please hand me that ball, it’s time to put it away.”)
  • Use pretend play and other activities to support social learning. Many lessons can be learned and skills can be practiced through imaginative play and games. You can use dolls and stuffed animals to act out sticky social situations or just simple interactions demonstrating kindness and good manners. Cut out paper dolls for a low-cost approach, and use finger puppets and pictures from magazines, too. Other activities that can boost self-regulation skills are Red Light/Green Light and Freeze Dance.
  • Read books and tell social stories. There are many wonderful books to help young children with skill-building around emotional literacy, self-regulation, and friendship. Here are just a few favorites (check your local library for these and others): Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, Gossie by Olivier Dunrea, Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods by Sandra Boynton, Making Faces: A First Book of Emotions by Abrams Appleseed, My Friend and I by Lisa Jahn-Clough, My Friend is Sad (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems, Puppy Mind by Andrew Jordan Nance, The Feelings Book by Todd Parr, The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, Waiting is Not Easy! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems

Families that include young children are struggling, but there is enough to worry about these days, and hopefully, you can help them move "my little one's social skills" to the back of the list. Parents and caregivers can try some of these suggestions and keep in mind that their self-care and self-regulation are key to children thriving during this extraordinarily stressful time.

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, contributed to this post. Sarah is a social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.