Teaching Children Social Skills, Emotional Skills

Teaching children social skills and emotional skills is an important part of parenting. Parenting advice on teaching social and emotional skills.

In my last article, "Classroom Coaching: Bringing Skills On-Line," I introduced the metaphor of driving to help children understand how observing clues in their environment helps them to cope better with the different "roads" in their lives, i.e, school, family life, friends' homes, etc. The intent was to offer a format for concerned adults (parent, teacher, or counselor) to deliver group coaching assistance to children in need of improved social and emotional skills.

The present article will extend the driving metaphor to several other social "rules of the road" that are are often deficient to varying degrees in many children. Among these "rules" include the consideration of:

  • timing
  • respect for boundaries
  • tolerance for the mistakes of others
  • importance of fitting in

Each one of these issues comprise a critical social/emotional skill that helps children achieve smoother functioning no matter what "road" they travel. During a series of articles, I will examine these and other skills from the vantage points of individual children (composites of various patients of mine) who came for help with many examples of "driving-related" problems in their lives. Each child will portray a typical profile of varied social-emotional skill deficits.

Lack of Child Social Skills Can Damage Self-Esteem

Teaching Social Skills to an Attention Seeking Child

Samantha (Sam) is a 12 year old girl who unabashedly described herself as "needing attention and wanting to be in control." Yet, she was often confused and easily upset by the reactions of others to her behavior. Her parents described her as extremely outgoing and enthusiastic among peers, but tending to be unaware of "social signs and signals." Her teachers shared a similar view of Sam's troubles, explaining how she would often raise her hand and immediately begin speaking in class or "barge" into a discussion among others. These and many other social skills problems had contributed to damaged self-esteem and regular conflict between Sam and her parents.

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Parents and teachers regularly come into contact with passionate children like Sam. They love to participate and can't tolerate the thought of being left out of anything they desire. They relentlessly pursue connecting and contributing no matter what social fall-out it may cost.To their credit, they often have very valuable ideas to offer but overlook the importance of timing, boundaries, and reciprocity. Therefore, instead of receiving the approval they crave, they often feel unfairly treated and frustrated.

It is especially challenging to coach or teach social skills in attention seeking children like Sam because of their high degree of sensitivity and controlling nature. Delivering the coaching skills requires a lot of verbal diplomacy or the message gets pushed away as unfair criticism. For this reason, it is useful to abandon the direct "head-on" approach, since this leads to collisions between adults and the Sams in their life. The following is a recommended coaching approach to children who fit Sam's profile:

"I can see how much you want others to notice you and all the neat ideas you have to offer. So much of the time you have something to contribute or ask for, and sometimes you end up feeling pushed aside for no good reason. You end up feeling frustrated, and probably blame the other person. But blame can get in the way of understanding what happened. Maybe there's a way of getting past the blame and looking at what is going wrong when you are on the road to get attention."

In this opening appeal, the coach joins with Sam to express understanding of her feelings and begin building the partnership. Sam must not feel criticized at this delicate juncture or she won't feel safe enough to keep an open mind and accept the coaching help. I emphasize to parents/teachers that the first level of coaching is to empathize with, not diminish, the child's experience. (Diminshing might take the form of saying "everybody has to deal with this" or "I had the same problem and learned to stop acting that way.") As a way of deflecting feelings of self-blame from hitting Sam's fragile self-esteem, the coach normalizes the problem and introduces the notion of auto-pilot program:

"All kids find themselves in tough spots at one time or another. People are not treating them the way they want to be treated. Sometimes it's easy to figure out. Maybe the kid really did something wrong, like hit someone or throw something at somebody. But other times a kid is meaning no harm but people still don't treat them well. In these cases it may seem to the kid that it's everyone else's fault for treating them badly. All they want is to be included, or to be heard, or to show something to others, and so on. In other words, they don't think they are doing anything wrong to deserve this kind of bad treatment from others."

"Let's throw out the idea of who's at fault because that just gets in the way of solving the problem. Instead, let's look at it as a matter of road conditions. Drivers have to be aware of road conditions in order to drive safely and observe the rights of other drivers. As the road swerves, they have to stay in lane. If the temperature drops, they have to look out for icy patches. When it's unsafe, they must not pass other cars. But what if a driver always drove the same way no matter what condition the road? It would be like having an auto-pilot program that controlled the car for them. Usually the auto-pilot automatically gets them where they want to go. But when road conditions change, they would be at greater risk of accidents and would anger other drivers. Of course, they would not be trying to do these things but that would be the outcome."

Timing, Boundaries and Reciprocity - Important Social and Emotional Skills for Children

This second level of discussion finds the coach distinguishing between intentions and outcome. Children with Sam's profile have difficulty accepting responsibility for their actions because they do not "try" to make others angry or rejecting. Alternately, their hope is for praise and acceptance, so the outcome is especially difficult to swallow .By identifying with the driver who relies on the "auto-pilot" program, the child accepts the notion that just because their "driving habits" steer them well in some places doesn't mean they will work smoothly in other places. The "auto-pilot" acts as as the "chalkboard" where the coach can talk about the automatic behaviors that get Sam into so much trouble with others. Parent Coaching Cards can also serve as the chalkboard, since they offer a place to review how the "auto-pilot" program may be "programmed." Next, the coach can speak more directly to the skills that need to be learned:

"When kids rely on their auto-pilot in dealing with others, they usually forget to check road conditions. If a kid's programmed for maximum contribution and control, kind of like you, backfires occur, especially in school and at home. That's because there are other drivers who want their share of the road. But kids can learn how to check road conditions so that things go more smoothly with friends and adults. Here are some of the important "rules of the road" that kids can learn:

1. Timing: Timing is all about picking the right time to speak up so that what you have to say will be received in the best possible way. If you were really driving, it would mean that you choose the right time to pass another car. When the time is not right, you would not to risk trying to pass another car. Timing can be tricky to figure out when you're a kid. Here are some ways to improve your timing:

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  • Consider what's going on around the person before you approach them. Are they in the middle of a conversation with someone else? Are they reading?
  • Check their nonverbal language. What kind of expression do they have? Does their body posture tell you that they are open or closed to a conversation?
  • How important is it that you talk to them at that time? Is there something else more important that just happened? Can your contribution wait for a better time?

2. Boundaries: Boundaries are about the space that separates people from another. We all need some space of our own. If you were driving, it would have to do with keeping your car in the lane, and not swerving into the other driver's lane. For kids, it means not invading the space of others, but instead, respecting the boundaries of others. Here are some ways to improve your handling of boundaries:

  • Notice the distance that separates other people when they are talking to each other.
  • If you have questions about the boundaries of others, it's ok to ask them if they need some time by themselves.
  • Don't take it as a personal rejection if a person does need some space.
  • Remember that different people have different needs for space. Just because you might like having people close, and not like putting up boundaries, doesn't mean that someone else feels the same way.

3. Reciprocity: Reciprocity has to do with thinking about the feelings of others before you say or do something. If you were a driver, it would have to do with being courteous about using your turn signals or letting another driver get in front of you. For kids, it concerns sharing control over decision-making, inviting others to express ideas, and asking the right kinds of questions. Here are some ways of becoming more aware of reciprocity:

  • Ask yourself from time-to-time, "Is the other person in as much control over things as I am?" If they aren't, try talking a little less and asking them questions about what they want to do and their life.
  • Review the time you spend with friends. Think about it and then talk about about it with someone else, such as a parent or teacher. Think about how decisions were made and whether both of you had equal contributions.

These are some of the substantive coaching formats that parents, teachers, or counselors can offer to children like Sam. The intent is for them to develop greater attunement to the social environment so that they may elicit more favorable responses from peers and adults.

About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.

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APA Reference
Writer, H. (2010, May 3). Teaching Children Social Skills, Emotional Skills, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 21 from

Last Updated: July 31, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD