Social Skill Development Support Processes

Social Skill Development Support Processes

Neurological maturation is one of the most important aspects of a child’s early childhood development influences that ensure that the child develops the right brain features to help in controlling, directing and planning of the children’s actions. According to a research study conducted in 2002, there is sufficient evidence indicating that the above skills are linked to specific frontal lobe activity patterns that are of, exclusively centered in the prefrontal cortex (Blair, 2002). The implication of this finding is that increased rate of development in the prefrontal cortex for children of ages ranging between 3 to 6 implies that the preschool or kindergarten stage is a critical phase for acquiring social skills. These observations are echoed by Shonkoff and Phillips (2000), who observe that there is great diversity in children’s social skills even though the authors also add this diversity may have a significant correlation with which the observed differences in the development of prefrontal cortex. Other important obs3ervations made with respect to this diversity in children’s social skills is that they could also be used to explain the differences in children’s other individual and environmental aspects during childhood and even up to adolescence (Calkins, 2004). Other recent studies have postulated that a child who grows up in poverty stands higher chances of increased stress levels at the childhood stage and this can have a negative impact on the child’s development by altering the brain development in ways that are associated with difficulties in self-regulation and social skills (e.g. Dearing et al 2006; Gunnar, 2006). These studies therefore point to a very crucial fact in the process of development of the child at the early stage and guaranteeing proper support to allow the child to develop the right skills and self-0regulation in the early stage of the development since this goes to affect the child even through the adolescence stage.

The study by Rothbart and Rueda (2005) focused on investigating the role played by child temperament, alongside a child’s level of reactivity and cooperation in the social development of the child and established that these aspects play a crucial role in the development of social skills in adolescents and children. , also plays a significant role in the social development of children and adolescents. The study found that effort control; which is one characteristic of temperament, aids children in regulating their emotions and behavior. Furthermore, effort control has emerged as being particularly imperative for social competence and self-regulation in children and adolescents (Rothbart & Rueda, 2005).

Role playing does not just stop at the classroom with the teacher but a great amount of research has been carried out focusing on the vital role that parents perform in the proper development maturation of their children. For instance, Collins et al (2000) point out that parental presence in a child’s social development arena should be able to provide the requisite warmth and sensitivity for the child’s right social development. These points are also echoed by the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, (2006) who observe that among the many aspects of parenting that are essential for children’s development; the two most outstanding predictors of social development of the child are parental warmth and sensitivity. It would therefore seem that the value of the relationship subsisting in the parent-child connection also plays a considerable role in predicting children’s social skills. To support this observation, there are studies that have supported the idea that having a safe and sound attachment with a parent offers the child an opportunity to express emotion effectively and build up robust self-regulatory skills (Calkins, 2004). Furthermore, the study by Calkins (2004) shows that child-parent attachment highlights the significance of the child’s behavior, and this comprises reactivity and responsiveness, in facilitating the shaping of the parent-child attachment relationship.

Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind

Empathy and theory of mind are two crucial social cognitive skills that enhance day-to-day interactions, cooperation as well as boosting the area of cultural learning in children especially the post-early childhood era. It has been established that deficits in the two skills can lead to implications of pathologies that include autism spectrum disorder and sociopathic disorders. It is therefore imperative that these skills be trained and developed to mitigate these likely scenarios. Nevertheless, not many studies have delved into investigating the mechanisms of development and training of empathy and theory of mind. The study conducted by Goldstein and Winner (2012) on empathy and theory of mind is particularly important to this section. The authors define empathy as the matching of the emotional condition if another person and theory of mind as the ability to understand other person’s mental state.

Studies have demonstrated the importance of subjecting children to learning where they step into the shoes of others and showed doing this leads to growth in empathy as well as theory of mind for the children. For instance, Verducci (2000) found that acting, which is a form of stepping into another person’s shoes, enhances empathy. Moreover, these studies have categorically showed that empathy and theory of mind have a particular plasticity that makes it stick in children and last beyond the children’s watershed years that are characterized by the ages between 3 and 4 years. The results of such studies as that by Verducci (2000) and the more recent one by Goldstein and Winner (2012) indicate that both empathy and theory of mind are greatly enhanced by role playing. Developmental psychologists have also demonstrated that role-playing and pretense are critical predictors of performance of tasks with respect to early theory of mind. These acting-like activities include the aspect of imitation where a child attempts to embody an actual person or where the embodiment involves an imagined person in acting.

Jackson et al (2006) show that this embodiment of a person, existing or imagined, is critical in helping the emergence of theory of mind and empathy in a child. On the same perspective, Nettle (2006) also conducted a study in which the research aimed at investigating the relationship between acting training and the two social cognitive skills of empathy and theory of mind. In the study, it was established that actors performed highly in empathy and theory of mind tasks than non-actors. However, Goldstein and Winner (2012) argue that there are inconsistencies in the results of such studies as they produce varying conclusions. An example is the study carried out by Goldstein et al (2010), which found that actors and non-actors had no statistically significant difference in performance in terms of empathy in adolescents. However, the same study established that when the same was measured for adulthood, actors exhibited lower performance than non-actors. Even when the metrics are turned to adaptive social skills there has been evidence that children who are subjected to a year of acting lessons exhibit a significant improvement in their adaptive social skills. Similar results were also observed for the study conducted by Schellenberg (2004), the researcher shows that children perform better at tasks that require adaptive social skills when they are passed through acting training.

While the above studies specifically targeted theory of mind as the main dependent variable of focus, other studies have also focused on measuring empathy and found that acting or acting-like activities for children have an enhancing effect on the child’s social cognitive skills related to empathy. For instance, in an experimental study that incorporated acting and acting-like activities as predictors of children’s theory of mind skills, it was established that role-playing exercises consistently enhanced the children’s perspective-taking skills (Goldstein & Winner 2012). While Goldstein and Winner (2012) are referring to studies conducted in the mid 20th century in mid 1970s, the authors observe that these findings are consistent with other findings that have demonstrated the effect of role-playing in boosting the social cognitive ability of the child when meted on the perspective of acting training against theory of mind skills.

This includes another study that helped in bringing out a better understanding of the role played by role-playing exercises in enhancing behaviour change in delinquent adolescents that was conducted in 1995 by Marangoni et al (Quoted in Goldstein & Winner 2012, 20). The feedback helped in showing that theory of mind could be trained through feedback to instill and bolster the correct interpretation of other people’s thoughts as well as feelings. With this, the evident implication of how feedback training is essential for the child is encapsulated in the fact that actors are likely to receive feedback training during rehearsal. These findings have gone ahead to reveal the superiority of actors to non-actors when it comes to theory of mind activities when feedback training is involved. In Dziobek et al (2006), a case in point is the ability of individuals, such as psychologists, who engage in extensive thought about mental states to demonstrate heightened performance in theory of mind tasks. Yet, Mar et al (2006) indicate that even fiction readers have an enhanced performance because they engage in extensive thought about mental states. Similarly, it has been shown that dysphoric adolescents exhibit enhanced theory of mind performance and this has been tied to the fact that dysphoric adolescents think extensively about mental states (Harkness et al 2005). A summative recapitulation of these studies and the findings drawn from them seem to point to one fact: acting training leads to growth in both empathy and theory of mind.


From early childhood through adolescence, social skill development occurs through a reciprocal and bidirectional relationship between a child’s individual characteristics (e.g., temperament) and the environment (e.g., parent warmth and sensitivity, family factors, and peers). Children begin developing social skills within the context of the parent-child attachment relationship (Rubin, Bulkow-ski, & Parker, 2006). It is from this relationship that children learn to read emotional cues, regulate their own emotions and behavior, and incorporate the responses of their parents into their own experiences with people and situations; a process known as social referencing (Thompson & Lagattuta, 2006). From observing family members, children learn appropriate social rules and behaviors, which they apply to interactions outside of the family.

In early childhood, children have exposure to other children in childcare settings. As toddlers, children engage primarily in solitary play, but interactions with other children increase with age. Positive interactions with peers help children develop interpersonal skills, communication skills, emotional understanding/regulation, the ability to control aggressive behaviors, and early learning-related skills. A number of developmental changes occur in early childhood that also facilitate the development of social skills, including a significant increase in vocabulary (Thompson & Lagattuta, 2006) and brain maturation in the prefrontal cortex (Blair, 2002). These developmental changes lead to an improved ability to communicate and regulate feelings and behaviors. Children also begin to develop empathy and gain an understanding of the feelings, desires, and beliefs of their peers; skills which continue to impact social development throughout childhood and adolescence.

Friendships become increasingly important in middle childhood and adolescence, especially for the development of social skills. As children improve their ability to understand the emotions of others, they build increasingly mature friendships and strengthen their interpersonal and learning-related skills. Children and adolescents who have difficulty empathizing or self-regulating have few positive social interactions and are likely to be rejected or neglected by peers, which can significantly impact social well-being and academic outcomes (Rubin et al., 2006).


A large body of evidence supports the role that children’s social skills (including interpersonal skills and learning-related skills) play in social and academic success. In general, children’s interpersonal skills have been linked to social outcomes whereas learning-related skills have predicted academic success. Interpersonal skills are especially important for social adjustment in childhood and adolescence. For example, one study found that poor interpersonal skills (e.g., externalizing problems) in childhood, predicted academic problems in adolescence, which in turn led to internalizing problems in adulthood (Masten et al., 2005).

There is also strong evidence that learning-related skills predict early academic achievement (McClelland et al., 2006). For example, one study found that prekindergar-teners who had difficulty using learning-related skills to complete goal-directed activities scored lower on a standardized cognitive achievement measure. These children also exhibited more risk factors, such as family problems, lower parental education, and behavioral or emotional problems (Bronson, Tivnan, & Seppanen, 1995). Another study found that the gains in learning-related skills, specifically self-regulation, predicted gains made in early literacy, vocabulary, and math skills over the prekindergarten year in a diverse sample of children across two sites in the United States (McClelland et al., 2007).

Other research in elementary school has demonstrated that kindergarten learning-related skills significantly predicted reading and math achievement between kindergarten and sixth grade, and growth in literacy and math from kindergarten to second grade (McClelland et al., 2006). Finally, in one recent study, aspects of learning-related skills, such as self-discipline, were stronger predictors of academic performance than intelligence test scores in adolescents (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

A number of studies also support relations between interpersonal skills and learning-related skills for children’s school adjustment. For example, research has shown that children’s self-regulation positively relates to social competence, and that strong self-regulation can buffer otherwise negative outcomes (Lengua, 2002). Taken together, research suggests that promoting interpersonal skills and learning-related skills in young children and adolescents is one way to ensure strong social and academic skills.


A variety of methods are used to assess children’s social skills. When determining a method of assessment, it is essential to select instruments that are reliable, valid, and feasible given cost and time limitations. It is also critical to choose measures that are appropriate for the age, developmental stage, and special needs of the target population (McClelland & Scalzo, 2006).

Naturalistic observations are one of the best methods for assessing interpersonal and learning-related skills. Typically, observations are conducted at school where there is ample opportunity to observe children interacting within social and learning environments. Observers should be objective and trained in how to code and record the frequency, duration, and interval of behaviors that are being assessed. Although observation provides a rich source of information, it is time-consuming and most useful for initial assessments rather than ongoing evaluation (McClelland & Scalzo, 2006).

Behavior rating scales also measure interpersonal and learning-related skills, but are less time-intensive and more cost effective than observations. They have high levels of reliability and validity and can be used to assess children who are too young to report their own behaviors. They do not, however, provide information about the antecedents and consequences of behavior.

Structured and unstructured interviews provide useful information regarding a child’s social context, although they lack reliability and validity. Another limitation of interviews is that children often provide biased responses as they can be suggestible and influenced by social desirability.

Role-play, most commonly used by clinicians, allows direct observation of social skills when naturalistic observation is not possible. In role-play, children are asked to respond to a scenario or staged interaction. Although they can be used to elicit low-frequency behaviors that might not otherwise occur, role-play lacks generalizability because children may not respond to role-play as they would to real-world situations (Merrell, 2001).

Sociometric techniques assess peer relationships and interpersonal skills by asking children to rank classmates and identify peers they like/dislike and peers who exhibit specific behaviors, such as aggression. The reliability and validity of sociometric techniques are very strong, but there are many practical constraints. Sociometric techniques often require consent from all parents in a classroom, and parents are often reluctant to consent for fear that participation will reinforce social rejection (Merrell, 2001).


Research documents that children who are disadvantaged or of minority status may be at risk for having difficulty socially and academically in early childhood. For example, studies have linked growing up in poverty to a number of risk factors, including poor achievement on cognitive and language outcomes, increased behavior problems (both externalizing and internalizing), increased stress levels, and difficulties with self-regulation and emotion regulation (Dearing et al., 2006). Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also have been found to exhibit poorer learning-related skills and do worse on academic indices throughout elementary school compared to their peers (McClelland et al., 2006). These results suggest that income level and minority status can be risk factors in the development of social skills for children and adolescents.

One protective factor of children’s social skills development is parenting. Parents who are warm and sensitive and set appropriate limits for children are more likely to have children with strong interpersonal and learning-related skills. For example, research has found that children’s stress levels can be buffered by sensitive parenting, which can enhance children’s social and emotional development (Gunnar, 2006). Finally, children of chronically depressed parents are more likely to have lower social skills in early childhood (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003), making it especially important to work with parents to effectively promote children’s social skill development.

A number of studies have found that social skills deficits have been more often documented in boys than girls. Compared with girls, boys are more likely to be suspended and expelled at every grade level, drop out of school, exhibit behavior problems, and have lower education levels (Gilliam & Shahar, 2006). Research also indicates that girls have stronger aspects of learning-related skills and more adaptive classroom behavior than boys. One recent study found that girls had significantly stronger levels of self-regulation in kindergarten than boys, and there were greater numbers of boys scoring at the lowest levels on self-regulation over the school year compared to girls (Matthews, Ponitz, & Morrison, 2007).

Taken together, it is clear that a number of factors contribute to children’s positive social skill development. Effective strategies for strengthening social skills involve a multi-faceted approach to working with children and parents.


Social development of the child is effectively tied to the teacher-child attachment and this relationship must be given an approach that enhances the development of the social cognitive skills of the child. This implies that there are particular strategies that must be put in place to enhance classroom learning process and acquisition of these skills. According to the study conducted by Rimm-Kaufman et al (2005), teacher-child relationship has an important role in facilitating social cognitive skill development of the child involved. A number of studies have established that when the teacher-child relationship is warm this generates high levels of cooperation and it is also linked to social competence and enhanced acquisition of learning-related skills in early childhood and basic schooling period. In the same breath, the studies also indicate that teacher-reported negativity, on other hand, has been linked to social difficulties in children. The teacher-child relationship goes to include the teacher-to-children ratio, which has been found to highly correlate with children’s social skills. The study by Rimm-Kaufman et al (2005) further indicates that when the teacher-children is small, it allows for organization of children into smaller units, which not only creates opportunities for them to work closely with teachers on one-on-one basis but also promotes acquisition of learning-related skills and development of positive interpersonal skills. The study clearly illustrates the importance of having a small size of children for every teacher to enhance this relationship hence further boost children’s acquisition of the social cognitive skills and interpersonal skills necessary at their stage of development.

Meanwhile, another strategy that has been emphasized in the existing body of literature is the classroom environment itself. Cameron et al (2005) undertook a study in which they established that classroom environment is instrumental in promoting the child’s development of social skills and the study found that classroom environments that encourage development of the cognitive social skills are those that are child-centered and offer a stimulating. In addition such classrooms are characterized by good organization with abundant opportunity for interaction. Whereas the study by Cameron et al (2005) gives the significance of the classroom environment in the learning process of the child, it also provides evidence as to the fact that children display superior interpersonal and learning-related skills in class environments in which teachers are in charge of providing organization and guidance. Examples of teacher-guided organization include modeling apposite social behaviors and problem-solving skills. The study additionally shows that teachers can make social problem-solving for the children easy by demonstrating how to reason through the phases of a problem and by coming up with opportunities for children to put social skills into practice. This as can be seen connects back to the power of imitation that is extensively supported by previous studies such as Goldstein and Winner (2012) and Jackson et al (2006).

According to the study by Bierman and Erath (2006), children who show evidence of social skills deficits repeatedly demonstrate difficulties with a number of aspects and this could mean any of them or a combination of the mentioned areas, which include communication, difficulty in emotional understanding and regulation, showing aggression, problems with cooperation and difficulties in the area of problem-solving. The authors point out that in order for teachers to be of help to such children, the teachers should provide instruction and try to model appropriate behavior through feedback role-playing training. This will inculcate appropriate responses in the children and help them overcome the deficits. This approach can help the children by allowing them to practice and engage in generalized role-playing touching on social skills via classroom interactions. According to teachers have another role play here of ensuring that they provide positive feedback so that a child who shows appropriate behavior is able to enhance that behavior and the behavior can effectively be promoted throughout the interacting group.


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