Social Skills for Toddlers: 19 Practical Tips
While babies are born with an instinctive interest in other people, they’re not born with great manners, ‘kind hands’ or a knack for sharing – all these skills have to be learned, preferably during the preschool years.
What are social skills exactly?
Social skills are skills used in a group setting: the ones that help us make friends, work together with a classmate or colleague, find a spouse, raise our kids, share toys with friends or siblings, and be polite to Grandma. They include communication (verbal and non-verbal), problem solving, decision making, self-management and more. Or, to put it another way, using your words, playing nicely together, sharing and not having a tantrum.
Strong social skills are linked to greater success in school (and after!) and better relationships with peers. Poor social skills are linked to poor academic performance and problems making friends.
19 practical ways to teach a toddler social skills
- Be a role model – kids are little sponges, so you need to think about what they’re seeing and copying – if you want your kids to say ‘thank you’, you need to make sure they hear it.
- Explain out loud – even if your child seems too young to understand, it’s worth saying out loud why a behaviour needs to be a certain way. Eventually your child will listen.
- Prompt good behavior – it takes hundreds or thousands of repetitions for kids to learn, so don’t be embarrassed to remind them again (and again and again). Reminders can be verbal or non-verbal, such as pointing.
- Praise good behavior – be as specific as you can, particularly for little kids. For example, you might say “I’m so happy to help when you ask politely and say please.”
- Report good behavior to others – tell someone else about something they did well, e.g. “Hi Mom! I’m so proud of Allie – she helped me clear all the dishes and put them away.”
- Give clear, detailed directions – while you might ask a grown up to ‘clear the table’ a kid might need plate by plate instructions: ‘Please take your plate into the kitchen. Put it in the sink.’
- Wait – it takes longer for a child or toddler to process an instruction than an adult. Count to 10 before asking a second time.
- Share your food and toys – offer them a taste of your ice cream or invite them to paint a picture with you.
- Work together – whether it’s cleaning the bathroom or playing a board game, create projects you can do together.
- Talk about your feelings – keeping control over your emotions doesn’t mean hiding them all away. Tell your kids how you feel – ‘I’m happy – I love when we go to the park together’ or ‘I’m disappointed – the ice cream store is shut’.
- Practice listening and conversations – don’t allow children to interrupt others when they’re talking and also give them a chance to speak.
- Read together – stories are a great way to impart good behaviours, start conversations and expose our kids to good role models.
- Play games that include instructions to follow – social games like ‘Simon says’, scavenger hunts (‘can you find something red?’) and grandma’s footsteps are great.
- Let kids lose – the only way to practice being a good loser is to lose. Help kids express their emotions by saying them out loud for them (“I think you feel cross. You really wanted to win. You like winning.”)
- Practice turn-taking and talk about it – simple board games are a great way to do this.
- Set your own boundaries – talk about personal space and make sure that rules like ‘if you hurt someone, even by mistake, you say sorry’ apply to adults and kids too.
- Enforce boundaries on behalf of your kids – if you want to teach them not to touch or poke or hug someone who is saying no, don’t let Grandma kiss them when they say no.
- Help kids know what to say – little kids may hit, bite or yell when they can’t find their words. Set phrases to try like ‘Not that game!’ or ‘No push me!’ can help reduce physical confrontations.
- Support others – let your kids hear you praising and encouraging others, both kids and adults. Cheer your spouse, say thank you to a friend or tell your mom how great she is.
Take home message
Unlike learning to tie shoelaces or ride a bike, you can’t ever tick off ‘teach social skills’. These skills are continually developing as children grow and explore more challenging situations. You’ll soon find that your efforts pay off, and be amazed when your baby shares their treat or says ‘thank you!’ before you remind them.