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by: Nancy Hammill, Education Committee

Social skills are the skills we use to communicate and interact with each other, both verbally and non-verbally, through gestures and body language.  Social skills are basically what the community at large and your grandmother call manners – polite behaviors that are supposed to reflect an attitude of consideration, kindness, and respect for others.

Children with poor social skills or manners, often become easy targets for bullies and experience rejection and isolation.  Social skills affect your child’s social relationships, communication, self-esteem, and future career choices.  Manners Matter!

People automatically assume that everyone knows these skills and can perform them if willing.  This belief is held because the majority of children are able to learn social skills by observation and credible role models. However, for many children with ADHD and learning disabilities these unwritten verbal and non-verbal rules must be explicitly taught, practiced, reviewed, and repeated.

Good news…Summertime is the perfect time to work on these social skills.  School days and academics are replaced with new environments, people, and experiences, which naturally brings social skills to the forefront.  Summer provides many opportunities to prepare you child for specific activities and events.

Brainstorm with your child to get them talking about appropriate behaviors for various settings – camp, a trip to the museum, a sleepover, as well as people – peer interaction verses adult interaction. “Knowing your audience”, behaviors for peers verses adults, was a tough one for my son for many years. His impulsivity and true love for bathroom humor made for some “awkward moments”!

So where should you focus?  Here are 3 broad social skills areas that will improve your child’s ability to communicate and have a great summer.

1. Starting and Maintaining a Conversation: 

A conversation can be hard even for an adult, so it can be a real struggle for kids. Explain how most people love talking about themselves, so the best way to start a conversation or keep one going is by asking open-ended questions.  Teach your child a few basic questions to get the conversation going with a new person such as, “What activities do you do afterschool? “What video games do you play?” or “What did you do this weekend?”  Find a common ground – talking about things you have in common with someone will help develop the relationship.

Another essential component to the art of conversation is “making comments”.  During conversations, people take turns adding thoughtful comments, relating our own thoughts and experiences to the discussion.  Explain when a comment veers off topic, it signals to the speaker that you were not listening or that you were not interested in what they had to say even if that wasn’t your intention. Once your child has a concrete understanding of the skills, practices them in role-playing scenarios.

2. The Body Language of Attention:

Many kids have a hard time interpreting nonverbal communication, which makes up over 70 percent of our interactions. Discuss appropriate behaviors for conversations. First, is personal space. Personal space is the area immediately surrounding an individual’s body, sometimes described as an imaginary “bubble.” For conversations, generally an arm’s length from the speaker is a good body buffer zone.

Also, we need to be explicit when teaching the signs of listening and attention that people look for in other people.  Explain that others expect you to focus with both your mind and your body.  To show that you are “paying attention with your body”, adults expect certain behaviors.   I have been using the acronym SLANT in my classroom for years to teach these behaviors.

  • Sit-up straight
  • Lean your body toward the speaker
  • Ask and answer questions
  • Nod your head “yes” and “no”
  • Tracking speaker with your eyes

Sure, children can be focused and be good listeners without exhibiting these behaviors. However, that does not communicate interest or respect. As a result, the perception can impact interactions and relationships.

3. Patience:

Patience is the ability to tolerate waiting, delaying, and frustration without becoming agitated or upset. This is such a valuable skill that takes time and effort to achieve. During conversations, we must give other person time to communicate their thoughts.  We must not get impatient. I explain to my students that they need to be in tune to their “Patience Meter”.  You do this by asking yourself:  “What does impatience feel like in my body and mind?  Does my body feel tense?  Am I feeling annoyed or agitated?  Am I focused too much on what I am going to say next as they are talking?”  These are signs that you might be close to interrupting. Do yourself a favor and take a breath – slow your mind down – think about what the other person is saying.  The conversation you’re involved in is important.

Learning positive social skills is a task that can take a lifetime, but the rewards are worth the effort. So parents, you need to be patient too! As parents, we play a big part in helping our children develop these skills. Praise small victories along the way. She will become better able to navigate the social scene. All kids want to feel loved and accepted, and good social skills pave the way.

Nancy Hammill is a member of the Education Committee, active with LDA of New Jersey, and is currently the professional development coordinator at the Cooper Learning Center, Pediatric Department of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey.

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