‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’
Connection and belonging – belonging to a family, groups and a community – is fundamental to the development of children and the ongoing participation of adults. From the moment we are born, we are dependent on the actions of others for our own survival. As children and then grown ups, we interact with others not just for survival, but to share our experiences and feelings. We communicate about the past, present and future; use spoken and written language; communicate in a symbolic way; and detect and interpret subtle emotional cues and adjust our behaviour accordingly.
Social skills, like all developmental skills, have a number of developmental milestones a child must master before learning more complex skills (eg. asking to join in the play of others and then negotiating when things don’t go as planned). Social development begins in early infancy, and is built from a loving, secure relationship with their primary caregiver/s. When babies feel calm and regulated, and begin to show an awareness of other humans, they learn social skills such imitation (eg. mother will coo at baby and the baby will gurgle back) and joint attention (two people focusing on the same thing). Through simple games such as peek-a-boo, a baby is learning to communicate with another human through back and forth communication, through gestures and sounds. As the baby becomes a toddler and then a child, and their language skills begin to develop, their ability to detect and interpret subtle emotional cues such as changes in tone, facial expressions and posture, also develops. Their level of back and forth communication increases, with more sophisticated language. Children are learning to solve problems, think symbolically, connect ideas and develop theory of mind (understanding that others have thoughts and feeling different to their own),
If there is a breakdown at any one of these stages of development, a child’s higher level social skills will be impacted. Common difficulties include foundational social skills such as the ability to read the emotional signals of others, empathise with others and to engage in complex communication such as negotiating in play. Even skills such as greeting others with warmth and expression (eg. eye contact and a smile) can be a challenge.
Attempting to teach a child ‘this is what you should do in this situation,’ for a child who HAS had a breakdown in their development of social skills, is unlikely to be effective. This is because it does not address their underlying difficulties and does not transfer easily across different social situations, as children don’t have the skills to understand the ‘whys’. Therefore, it is best to intervene at a child’s developmental level and seek professional support as these are very complex skills.
Self Regulation: This refers to the ability to be calm and alert. Difficulties with self regulation are commonly as a result of difficulty interpreting and responding appropriately to sensory input. Common patterns include being over-responsive to noise, taste or touch, but children can also be under-responsive to different types of sensory input (as well as having different combinations of over-responsiveness and under-responsiveness).
Best supported by … An Occupational Therapist
Emotional regulation: Difficulties with emotional regulation often present as difficulties dealing with feelings such as anger and anxiety.
Best supported by … A Psychologist
Theory of Mind: This skills refers to the ability to understand that others have thoughts and feelings that are different to our own. A difficulty with this skill can present as difficulty playing or speaking conversationally with others (for instance, children who think others are interested very much in their own special interest, eg. superheros, and will talk non stop about this topic to others or expect others to play in the same way) as well as difficulty taking another’s perspective.
Best supported by … A Psychologist. Some children may also benefit from participation in social skills groups to learn these skills.
Executive Functions: These are the set of skills needed to manage ourselves, our time and our belongings. It involves being about to plan, monitor if this plan is not working, cope with feelings of frustration and anger, and to be organised. A difficulty with these skills can present in many different ways, and includes: Unsure how to ‘get started’ on tasks without support, limited awareness of impact of own behaviours on others, misplacing belongings, difficulty remembering steps to instructions (where language and auditory processing skills are not causing the difficulty).
Best supported by … A Psychologist. Your Occupational Therapist can also be able to provide scaffolding strategies that target the specific executive functions your child might be having difficulty with. Intensive therapy, such as the Cogmed program, can also support children who have difficulty with working memory (a specific executive function skills).
Language and Communication Difficulties with language and communication can be expressive (what the child can say), receptive (what the child can understand) or pragmatic (ability to use language in a social way). Common difficulties include reduced clarity of speech (eg. with r or s sound), difficulty answering questions, difficulty following instructions with more than one step.
Best supported by … A Speech Therapist.
Play Skills: Common difficulties include playing with toys in an unusual way (eg. sorting toys, playing with ‘part’ of a toy eg. repetitively spinning the wheels on the car), playing alongside rather than interactively with other children, and difficulty creating stories in pretend play.
- You can also support your child’s play skills be creating lots of opportunity for them to practice this skill at play dates, Daycare, playgroups and with yourself. At home, join them doing things that they are interested in doing, and add pretend play elements (eg. if they are driving cars, add a load to the back of their car to deliver) to extend their play.
Best supported by … An Occupational Therapist.
Joint Attention and Intention: This is the ability to focus on the same thing as another person by following their gaze or what they are pointing at, or to point or gaze at an object to indicate to others you want them to focus on the same thing as you. Difficulties with joint attention and intention are typically only present in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or children and adults with more Autism level 3 (but it can also be present in other disabilities).
Best supported by … Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapist