Social skills are critical to success at school and in programs. A dear friend once coached me on how to set expectations regarding my child’s friendships. She said, “Your child only needs one friend to feel validated. Teach her how to have one good friend!”

With this concept in mind, here are some simple and effective parenting tools to teach your child how to be more social at school and in after-school or weekend activities. With your encouragement, your child may be able to make even more than one friend!

1) Develop confidence and self-respect.

Before a child can venture outside the safety of her family nest, she needs to trust and believe in herself. To foster confidence, believe in your child, and let her know it. Teach her the value of trying and succeeding or rebounding after an un-met expectation. Accept your child for who she is and where she is developmentally. Show interest in projects and programs by asking questions about them. This will build pride in your child’s accomplishments.

2) Help your child to understand non-verbal cues.

The ability to process non-verbal social cues is an essential part of normal communication. While some children are naturally very adept at picking up signals through body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, other children struggle in this regard. It’s perfectly fine for your child to struggle with these cues. With a little practice, she can catch up with her peers.

Facial expression flashcards and silent movies offer wonderful opportunities to practice learning non-verbal cues together. Studies show that just eight weeks of targeted non-verbal social attention can significantly improve a child’s social awareness, which will certainly aid in making friends during after-school programs.

3) Read fiction stories.

New research shows that reading books to or with your child may enhance social skills and the ability to develop a “theory of mind.” A developed theory of mind enables a child to see the world from the perspectives of others, to have a sense of empathy, and to understand that other children have motivations that may clash with her own.

After reading a story, ask your child for her opinions about events and characters in the story. Point out certain scenarios that demonstrated how to (or how not to be) a good friend. Your child can use these small lessons (how to share, empathize, etc.) while participating in activities with her peers.

4) Find other children who share interests with your child.

Odds are, your child already has some common ground if she’s in a particular program or activity with peers. This can serve as a wonderful foundation for a budding friendship. Enroll your child in programs that truly match her interests and hobbies, not simply classes that are geared toward increasing academic knowledge (unless, of course, she loves solving math problems in her spare time, too!).

5) Be a good role model.

Parents should participate in networking groups and attend parent workshops and speaker programs where they can make new friends of their own. Then, perhaps, parents and kids can have a combined playdate! Children who get to witness their parents interacting in a healthy and vibrant social setting will pick up cues and integrate these social skills into their own lives.

6) Encourage children to be metacognitive about social situations.

Metacognition simply means “thinking about thinking.” All children have thoughts and feelings about social situations, but many children struggle to understand how the information racing through their minds fits into the bigger picture.

Scientific studies show that talking to your children and encouraging them to think about their thoughts can improve their social skills through awareness. “Why do you feel uncomfortable around Susan?” “Being around Kevin makes you happier? Is that because he is honest with his words?” “Mark seems like he shares well; is that why you like to have playdates with him?”

Enabling children to sort out their thoughts and feelings goes a long way toward making them capable and confident in social situations. Help your child to use words to solve conflicts, recognize emotions, and self-regulate.

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