Don’t Neglect Essential Social-Skills Development

By Timothy Gunn, Psy.D.

Parenting - Social Skills Development

Encouraging children to participate in group activities, including sports play, helps foster essential social skills development. PHOTO BY NENETUS/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET

“Don’t miss the forest for the trees,” so the saying goes. When it comes to parenting, the “trees” are the many academic milestones and measuring sticks society tends to focus on, and the “forest” is the bigger picture of overall development and social skills in our children.

Society tends to be achievement oriented and, once children reach ages 3 to 5, their ability to verbalize, add, subtract and write takes center stage as a developmental goal. But this academic focus can sometimes come at the expense of social-skills development, which might be more important to actual life success.

Robert J Sternberg, author of the book Successful Intelligence, notes that many of his students at Yale University were highly intellectually and academically accomplished, but that it was often the less accomplished, but more socially skilled students who had successful careers. And when Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D., author of The Millionaire Next Door, asked wealthy individuals what factors contributed to their success, 94 percent rated “getting along with people” as very important, while just 20 percent cited “having a high IQ or superior intellect.”

Perhaps society neglects social-skills development because academic skills are easy to measure and to teach, whereas social skills are more difficult. Many parents who are comfortable teaching their toddler or preschooler letters, numbers and shapes find themselves at a loss if their child is having difficulty getting along with others. As one parent said, “He knows all his letters and numbers, but how do I get him to stop hitting people?” Parents have the additional challenge of trying to gauge whether a child is struggling with a particular skill more so than other children his or her age, or whether the child’s difficulties are common.

Basic social skills are those that help a child learn to be polite (e.g. saying hello or making introductions), while more advanced social skills include:

  • How to be empathic and compassionate,
  • How to tell if others are taking advantage of you,
  • How to identify unreasonable demands and decline them (how to say no),
  • How to set boundaries with demanding or unreasonable people,
  • How to work in groups,
  • How to persuade others of your point of view without being offensive/demeaning/belittling,
  • How to make others comfortable and invite them into your social settings,
  • How to take another’s perspective (put yourself in their shoes),
  • How to understand sarcasm or other non-literal speech,
  • How to read body language and
  • How to understand emotions.

I worry especially about high-achieving kids who get too focused on academics and fail to develop these skills. They usually don’t realize they need such skills until they are out of school and struggling to find or keep a full-time job.

It can be hard to tell if a child is lagging behind, but I would advise parents to trust their instincts and talk to others who see the child in a social setting. Teachers are a great source of information in this regard. If in doubt, consult a professional, preferably someone who regularly runs social skills groups.

Children who struggle socially should be identified and provided with additional services in the same way that services would be provided for a child who was unable to read or write. The public school system has a legal responsibility to educate children socially (although some school employees may claim otherwise).

Even if a child seems to be doing well, it is important to keep a focus on development of these vital skills. This means making sure children have opportunities to participate in social settings that are safe and productive, including playing sports, having play dates, and participating in Boy or Girl Scouts, chess club, debate club, Pokemon club and other social activities –– with or without an academic focus.

Don’t let excessive focus on academics crowd out these opportunities for social development, which is essential to a child’s long-term success. For additional information, visit the National Association of School Psychologists and Understood, a coalition of nonprofit organizations dedicated to learning and attention issues.

Parenting - Timothy Gunn Psy.D.Timothy Gunn, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in pediatric neuropsychology and appears as the Question Validator on Lifetime Network’s “Child Genius.” He runs a group practice with several offices throughout Southern California. You can find out more about his practice at

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