Preschool Social Skills

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Preschool social skills depend on several abilities, including:

Many people assume that children need to spend lots of time with same-aged peers to develop social skills.

They don’t.

Play-dates and preschool attendance can enrich your child’s life. But socialization — the process of learning how to get along with
others — is not the same thing as socializing. Spending the day with same-aged peers is not necessarily the best way for young children to learn about
cooperation, sharing, and emotional self-control.

In fact, the opposite might be true. Too much time with peers might make kids behave badly. In studies of American preschoolers, the more time preschoolers spent in center-based care, the more likely they were to develop externalizing behavior problems.

We shouldn’t assume it’s inevitable, because some child care arrangements are associated with little or no risk of increased behavior problems. For details, see this article on the effects of peers on preschool social skills.

But the widespread links between center-based care and behavior problems are at odds with the idea that youngsters need peers to acquire good social skills.

On the contrary, when it comes to learning positive social skills — behaviors like cooperation, understanding other perspectives, showing sympathy, offering help, making amends, extending forgiveness, and observing social etiquette — the best tutors are older children and adults.

Why adults and older children are better than peers

Preschoolers can’t offer each other the feedback they need
to learn about emotions, conflict resolution, and self-control. They’re all
struggling with the same developmental disadvantages!

But adults — and even older children — are a different
matter. They have a more extensive emotional and cognitive tool kit. They know
how to behave appropriately, and they can use their insights to help teach
preschoolers what they need to learn:

  • how to cope with negative feelings
  • how recognize emotions in others
  • how to take the perspective of someone else
  • how to express sympathy
  • how to form and maintain friendships
  • how to resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression
  • how to offer help, make amends, and be forgiving

Here are some suggestions for making it happen: Evidence-based tips for fostering preschool social skills. 

1. Maintain a loving, secure relationship with your child.

xMother son secure attachment by dadblunders flickrCCby2.300x211.jpg.pagespeed.ic.hYQB3J5gQN - Preschool Social Skills

When parents show themselves to be caring and dependable — sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs — children are more likely to develop secure attachment relationships. 

And children who are securely-attached are more likely to show social competence (Groh et al 2014; Rydell et al 2005). For instance:

  • Preschoolers with secure attachments at ages 2 and 3 have demonstrated greater ability to solve social problems, and less evidence of loneliness (Raikes and Thompson 2008).
  • Young children with secure attachments are more likely to show empathy, and come to the aid of people in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989; Barnett 1987; Elicker et al 1992). 
  • Preschoolers with more secure attachments are more likely to share, and more likely to show generosity towards individuals they don’t like (Paulus et al 2016).

Why are secure attachments connected with social competence? You might wonder if it merely “runs in the family.” Maybe the same genetic tendencies that foster secure attachments also make children more likely to develop good social skills. 

That probably accounts for some of the association. But the environment still plays a crucial role in the story. Genes don’t program traits by themselves. They respond to environmental inputs.

For instance, we know that young children develop differently depending on the threats they perceive. They tend to show less prosocial behavior — like kindness and generosity — when they feel worried or anxious.

So it’s likely that secure attachments (including secure attachments to teachers and other individuals) can boost prosocial behavior by making children feel less stressed and more confident. 

And some children may possess genes that make them especially sensitive these effects (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al 2008; Bakermans-Kranenburg and van Iizendoorn 2011; Knafo et al 2011; Kochanska et al 2011). 

2. Be your child’s “emotion coach.”

xemotion coaching father son ball by monkeybusinessimages300x min.jpg.pagespeed.ic.zp jqNKC19 - Preschool Social Skills

Emotional competence is the key to strong preschool social skills (Denham 1997). The better children understand emotions, the more they are liked by peers (Denham et al 1990; McDowell et al 2000).

For example, shy children are at greater risk of being rejected by peers, but when shy children possess a well-developed ability to recognize emotions, this risk is much reduced (Sette et al 2016).

So how can we help kids understand emotions? By engaging them in conversation. By talking with them the situations and events that trigger emotions.

What makes us feel angry? What makes us feel sad? What makes us feel happy? Worried? Frightened? When adults explain emotions and their causes — and share constructive suggestions for coping with negative feelings — kids learn how to better regulate themselves.

In one study, parents who used “more frequent, more sophisticated” language about emotions had kids who could better cope with anger and disappointment (Denham et al 1992).

In another, parents who were specifically encouraged to coach their children were rewarded with improvements in behavior. Preschoolers were better able to handle their frustration (Loop and Roskam 2016).

For advice about helping kids understand emotions, check out my guide to being your child’s emotion coach.

In addition, see the Parenting Science article, “Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children.”

3. Be calm and supportive when children are upset, and don’t
dismiss their negative emotions.

xEmotional support by Benedic Belen flickr ccby2 280x186.jpg.pagespeed.ic.85eknseLF9 - Preschool Social Skills

This goes hand in hand with being your child’s emotion
coach. When a child launches into a seemingly irrational crying jag, it’s
natural to want to shut him up. But simply telling a child to be quiet doesn’t
help him learn.

Research suggests that children are more likely to develop
social-emotional competence if we acknowledge bad feelings, and show children
better ways to solve their problems.

In a study tracking toddlers for twelve months, parents who
took this approach were more likely to end up with highly prosocial children. This
was true even after researchers adjusted for a child’s initial tendencies to (1) become distressed and (2) engage in prosocial acts  (Eisenberg et al 2017).

Other studies indicate that young children who receive
emotional support are less likely to direct negative emotions at peers (Denham
1989; Denham and Grout 1993). They are also better liked by peers (Sroufe et al
1984), and rated as more socially-competent by teachers (Denham et al 1990).

Finally, research reports links between preschool social competence and a child’s perceptions of his or her parent’s emotional availability.

In one study, preschoolers were asked to predict how their parents would respond to them in various situations. Children who predicted that their parents would offer reassurance and comfort were rated by teachers as more skilled with peers, more empathic, and more cooperative (Denham 1997).

4. Practice inductive discipline.

Across the world, many parents use inductive discipline to
instill preschool social skills.

This is the practice of explaining the reasons
for rules, and talking — calming
and sensitively — to children when they misbehave (Robinson et al 1995).

Inductive discipline is one
of the key components of authoritative parenting, a style of child-rearing
associated with the best-behaved kids. And there is evidence that this
“teaching through conversation” approach to discipline helps children
become more conscientious and prosocial (Krevans and Gibbs 1996; Knafo
and Plomin 2006; Patrick and Gibbs 2016).

For example, in a study that tracked approximately 300 preschoolers over the course of three years, Deborah Laible and her colleagues found that children were more prosocial  if their mothers used inductive discipline (Laible et al

An earlier study found that the preschool children of
inductive mothers were more prosocial and less likely to engage in disruptive,
anti-social behavior. They were also more popular with peers (Hart et al 1992).

And research suggests that children exposed to inductive discipline are less likely to develop aggressive behavior problems (Krevans and Gibbs 1996;
Knafo and Plomin 2006). 

If you are struggling with
such problems, see these evidence-based tips for handling aggression and defiance in children.

And for general tips on how to keep kids on track without threats and punishments, see my positive parenting tips.

5. Teach kids to take turns, and encourage them to practice turn-taking in everyday life.

xturn taking preschoolers by YanLev shutterstock300x min.jpg.pagespeed.ic.tDf2sBa09A - Preschool Social Skills

Taking turns is essential for all sorts of social interactions. It promotes a sense of order, mutual respect, and reciprocity. And as Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Carol Dweck discovered, it may even trigger acts of kindness.

In a series of experiments, the researchers showed that young children became more altruistic after engaging in a simple, reciprocal activity.

After a brief game — rolling a ball back and forth with stranger — these kids showed generosity toward their new playmate. Given the opportunity, they were more likely to share a prize.

By contrast, kids assigned to engage only in “parallel play” (playing side by side with a stranger, but each with his or her own ball) were less giving (Cortes Barragan and Dweck 2014).

6. Inspire children with encouraging words.

Young children thrive on praise, particularly when we praise
their good choices and actions. What about criticism? Here we must tread
carefully, because kids can get the impression that we view them as inherently
disappointing or bad. And that perception undermines their motivation to improve.

What works best is a constructive approach, challenging
children to think of ways they could do better. Read more about it in my article, “Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes.

7. Provide children with opportunities to experience the emotion rewards of giving…

Why do people act generously toward each other? There are many reasons. We feel empathic concern for people in need. We may feel a sense of responsibility. Or a moral imperative to act.

But there’s also a self-serving motive. Giving — helping — feels good. It gives us a pleasant rush. It lifts our mood. And it’s important for young children to experience these emotional reward.

Many young children understand that being generous feels good (Paulus
and Moore 2017), but, like adults, they may need a reminder.

If we present kids
with opportunities to help — and call their attention to the happiness their
good deeds cause — we can increase their interest in giving (Chernyak and
Kushnir 2013).

8. …And be wary about material rewards to children for being kind.

Research on toddlers and primary school children suggests that we might undermine our kids’ impulses to be helpful when we bribe them with tangible rewards for being kind. For details, see this Parenting Science article on the perils of rewarding prosocial behavior.

9. Talk with children about their social relationships, and introduce them to concrete, upbeat strategies for getting along.

xConversation joint attention bySteve Baker ccbyND2 300x280.jpg.pagespeed.ic.jFBOz0n eQ - Preschool Social Skills

If your child has social problems with peers, encourage a
positive, constructive attitude. Let your child know that everybody gets
rebuffed and rejected sometimes. In one study, about half of all preschooler
social overtures were rejected by peers (Corsaro 1981).

Kids with the strongest social skills treat rebuffs as
temporary setbacks that can be improved. We can encourage this attitude by
helping children interpret rejection in a less threatening light. Maybe doesn’t want to play because he’s shy.
Maybe she just wants to play by herself right now.

In addition, we can help children brainstorm solutions, and
encourage them to predict how different social tactics might work.

Such thought experiments encourage children to consider what
other people are feeling (Zahn-Waxler et al 1979). They also help children to
explore ways they can adapt and “fit in.”

For instance, a child who’s met
with resistance (“You can’t play firefighter with us because there isn’t
enough room in the fire engine”) might find another way to join the game
(“Help! My house is on fire!”). This is one of the secrets of children with strong preschool social skills. They are responsive to the play of others, and they know how to mesh their behavior with the behavior of potential playmates (Mize 1995). 

10. Show kids how to apologize, make amends, and offer forgiveness.

xmaking amends kids beach by KarinaBost istock300x min.jpg.pagespeed.ic.VMxWVd0asV - Preschool Social Skills

Fascinating experiments on toddlers show that they understand the difference between the unintentional harm they cause and the harm caused by others. For example, when 2- and 3-year-olds believe they caused an accident, they feel a greater urge to help make things right (Hepach et al 2017). 

Moreover, experiments indicate that young children notice when transgressors fail to apologize and offer to help. It might not lift a victim’s bad mood, but it can mend bad feelings toward the transgressor. When transgressors fail to reach out in this way, they harm their standing with peers. Over time, they may find themselves increasingly rejected by other kids.

So children are ready to learn about reconciliation, and have a natural incentive to do so. But what exactly should you do after you’ve gotten too pushy, and knocked over somebody’s castle of blocks? Or blurted out something mean-spirited that makes someone cry?

It can be hard for young children to figure out what to do in these situations. We can help by showing them concrete actions to take — how to speak up, apologize, pitch in to help reverse the damage, and offer the victim something cheering or friendly (like an opportunity to play a game together). 

We can also show kids how to accept apologies with grace, and remember that everyone makes mistakes. It’s important for kids to adopt an effort-based mindset: An understanding that people aren’t good or bad, but rather imperfect individuals capable of learning from their mistakes.

Studies show this mindset protects children from feeling overwhelmed and helpless to change. For more information, see these Parenting Science articles about the effort mindset and ways that adults can help children adopt it. 

11. Model — and discuss — gratitude.

Expressions of gratitude help grease the wheels of the social machine. They are essential for getting along in polite society. But experiments suggest that they also improve our mood and outlook. They make us feel less alienated, and more connected to friendly, caring others. In fact, just remembering a received kindness can make us more prosocial. 

For these reasons, researchers who design preschool social skills programs emphasize the importance of gratitude.

In a preschool curriculum developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, children read stories about the acts of everyday kindness that people perform for each other throughout the world. They learn about people in their communities who help others (like firefighters, doctors, and bus drivers), and take on the roles of these people through pretend play. Teachers share their own feelings of gratitude, and show, by example, how to express it (Flook et al 2015).

Researchers are making this curriculum available to the public for free. You can sign up for a copy here.

12. Introduce kids to cooperative games.

As I explain in this article, cooperative games are better-suited to the developmental capacities of preschoolers. And — like turn-taking games — cooperative games appear to encourage children to behave more generously toward each other (Toppe et al 2019).

13. Break up cliques with a negative vibe, and watch out for
signs of peer rejection and bullying.

Sometimes, children bring out the worst in each other, and the best remedy might be to break up the group and encourage kids to play with new friends. 

In one study, researchers observed children during free play periods at a preschool. They noticed which kids tended to play together, and watched their behavior. 

Some of the groups featured an unusual amount of emotion negativity and antisocial behavior, and these negative groups were rated as less
socially competent by their teachers and parents. 

Moreover, participation in a negative group was predictive of poor preschool social skills a year later (Denham et al 2001).  

What if your child is being rejected by others?

important to take notice, because peer rejection at an early age puts a child
at increased risk for developing behavior problems (Dodge et al 2003). By
contrast, peer acceptance may have protective effects (Criss et al 2002).

If your child is the victim of peer rejection, help him or
her cultivate a friendship with at least one peer. Studies show that a single
peer friendship can protect preschoolers from continued aggression and
rejection (Criss et al 2002; Hodges et al 1999).

In addition, take stock of your child’s social
skills. Sometimes rejected children need help developing prosocial behaviors,
like helping, sharing and showing concern for others (Vitaro et al 1990).
Preschoolers like peers who show positive affect (Sroufe et al 1984),
helpfulness (Cote et al 2002), and spontaneous sharing (Eisenberg et al 1999).
They also like peers who respond appropriately to conversation (Kemple et al

And what about bullying?

If your child is being targeted,
it’s important take the same defensive measures that you would for peer
rejection. In addition, talk with him or her about how to respond assertively
(e.g., “Don’t do that. It isn’t nice and I don’t like it…”). And the
bullying takes place at school or in daycare, discuss your concerns with your
child’s teacher.

If your child is behaving aggressively, he or she may need help
learning to understand and control his impulses. Encourage kids to discuss their feelings and help them think of constructive ways to cope. Above all,
make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated. For tips, see this article
coping with aggressive behavior in children.

14. Provide opportunities for pretend play with older kids and adults.

xPlaying with older friends by Alicia Munoz Witt CCby2.0 280x185.jpg.pagespeed.ic.2ClscJMVY2 - Preschool Social Skills

During the preschool years, pretend play is one of the most important ways that children forge friendships (Gottman 1983; Dunn and Cutting 1999).

Preschoolers who pretend together are less likely than other kids to quarrel or have communication problems (Dunn and Cutting 1999).

And dramatic pretend play — where kids act out specific scenarios, and portray the actions and emotions of different characters — may help children develop certain forms of self-control.

For example, a recent experimental study found that four-year-old kids improved their emotional control after participating in group sessions of dramatic pretend play (Goldstein and Lerner 2018).

So pretend play is a promising tool for buildling social competence, but keep in mind: Preschoolers may need a nudge from us to reap the full benefits.

In the experimental study of dramatic pretend play, the researchers
didn’t just tell preschoolers to play make-believe. They assigned kids
specific challenges (like, “put on a chef’s hat and bake me birthday
cake”). Adults encouraged kids to “physically enact the games, and to
stay on task” (Goldstein and Lerner 2018). And that adult involvement
might have been crucial.

Another point to consider? It’s important to avoid being bossy. Research indicates that kids with strong preschool social skills have parents who play with them in a cheerful, collaborative, way (MacDonald 1987).

For more information, see my Parenting Science article about the benefits of play, including pretend play.

15. Choose
TV programs that promote preschool social skills.

Research suggests that it
makes a difference.

In a randomized, controlled
study, Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues assigned some parents to
substitute nonviolent, educational TV shows (like  Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer) for the
more violent programs their preschoolers usually watched. 

Six months later, children in this group exhibited better preschool social skills — and fewer behavior problems — than did children
in the control group (Christakis et al 2013). 

16. Realize that some forms of sharing are easier than others.

xCost free sharing by Quinn Dombrowski flickr CCbySA 280x210.jpg.pagespeed.ic.l5ffm6kEow - Preschool Social Skills

Is sharing a fundamental component of preschool social skills? Yes and no. Some types of sharing are relatively easy for children. If there is a large supply of goodies to share, giving has little downside. But what if giving is a zero-sum game — like loaning your favorite toy to someone so you can’t play with it yourself?

That’s what researchers call “costly sharing,” and we should keep in mind: Even adults can be reluctant to engage in it.

It’s much tougher for young children, who have difficulty thinking beyond the immediate future. If we ask them to loan their toy, they may have trouble understanding that they will get their toy back. And, to be fair, sometimes the kids they share with don’t give their toys back!

Most young children have trouble with sharing, and kids are less–not more–likely to share after the toddler stage (Hay et al 1991).

So be patient, and when you encourage sharing, try to make it as comfortable as possible. Take your child’s perspective, and avoid insisting on high-cost sharing. 

Experiments indicate that preschoolers are more likely to increase their generosity if they have experienced the pleasures of giving without being coerced. When adults forced the issue, children may actually became less inclined to give later on (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013). Before your child has a play-date, it may be wise to think ahead, and put away special items that your child won’t want to share. 

17. Don’t take it personally.

Despite the popular Hollywood image of kids as wise cynics who know better than their parents, young children are hampered by a poorer understanding of the world.

For instance, they have trouble tracking the mental perspectives of other people. In particular, most children under the age of 4 haven’t yet
mastered the notion that different people can believe different
things–even things that are objectively false (Gopnik et al 1999).

So it’s not surprising that children also have trouble grasping the concept of a “lie” (Mascaro and Sperber 1999). Young children tend to characterize all false
statements–even statements that a speaker believes to be true–as lies
(Berthoud-Papandropoulou and Kilcher 2003).

And while they understand that lying is bad, they lack an older
child’s ability to anticipate how their words will make other people
feel. The impact of lying–and the morality of lies–is something they
must learn.

If your preschooler says something rude or hurtful, don’t take it
personally. But don’t ignore it either. Take the opportunity to explain
how words can hurt our feelings. When your child gains insight into the
power of words, he will improve his preschool social skills.

More reading: Activities to boost preschool social skills

For more ideas, see my evidence-inspired social skills activities for kids. And if you’re looking for advice about helping your child develop friendships, see this Parenting Science article, “How to help kids make friends.”

Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.

For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: Preschool social skills

A great deal of research has been conducted on preschool social skills.
In addition to the
scholarly references cited in this article,
any introductory textbook on cognitive development should help you gain
insight into your child’s preschool social skills.

Online, Jacquelyn
Mize and Ellen Abell, professors of child development, offer a research-based guide to teaching preschool social
skills in “Encouraging social skills in young children: Tips teachers can share with parents.” 

You will also find advice about preschool social skills in chapters 7-8
of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (2004) by K. Hirsh-Pasek, R. Michnick
Golinkoff, and D. Eyer.

If you found this article on preschool social skills helpful, check out
other offerings at ParentingScience.com.

Image credits  for “Preschool social skills”:

image of preschoolers eating lunch on the grass ©iStockphoto.com/Nicole S. Young

image of mother and son playing over top of a chair by dadblunders / flickr 

image of father and son with basketball by monkeybusiness images / istock

image of grandmother consoling girl in tiara by Benedic Belen / flickr

image of father talking to girl about something in the distance by Steve Baker / flickr – no derivatives 

image of young boy consoling toddler on the beach by KarinaBost / istock

image of little girl on older girl’s shoulders by Alicia Munoz-Witt /flickr

image of boys sharing strawberries by Quinn Dombrowski flickr

Content last modified 11/2020


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