Sitting somewhere between the conclusion of the previous school year and the start of next school year, now is a fantastic time to bolster your child’s ability to interact with others. Many children struggle with social anxiety for a variety of reasons ranging from general shyness to low self-esteem to anxiety disorders or autism. Regardless of the cause, providing practice for your child so he or she can become more at-ease and confident when interacting with others is essential to growing socially. With that in mind, your favorite neighborhood school psychologist presents the Summer Social Skills Challenge! Guide your child with a positive, encouraging attitude throughout each of the four steps described below, and prepare yourself for the pride that will fill you with each challenge met!
Step 1: Define the challenge of the day.
Be explicit in doing so. It will increase your child’s comfort level to discuss where the challenge will take place, what your goals are for that particular challenge, and what the interactions will look like.
There are literally hundreds of potential social challenges to be accomplished, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Try at least one each day!
“Today you will…”
- Greet the greeter at Walmart and ask how her day is going.
- Initiate a game (i.e., tag, hide-and-seek, etc.) with kids at the playground.
- Pay the cashier at Publix.
- Order food at McDonald’s.
- Share a toy or play item (i.e., slide) at the kids area of the shopping mall.
- Converse with a movie theater employee about his or her (or even your) favorite film.
- Inquire about different entrees at Olive Garden.
- Tell a joke to grandma.
- Introduce yourself to someone your own age at the park.
- Give a compliment to someone at church (author’s note: sweet old ladies are quite receptive to this kind of charm).
- Ask a worker for help finding an item in Target.
Step 2: Practice the interaction.
Role play the event before it happens. Take turns within each role, modeling appropriate behavior for each. For instance, you may play the part of the Walmart greeter by sitting in the kitchen. Have your child walk through the hallway to where you are seated, look you in the eye and say, “Good morning.” Be positive with your feedback while also being very specific, providing practice for behaviors that can be improved (i.e., “You did a great job of looking into my eyes while speaking with me! Now let’s practice again, and I want you to try to smile when saying, ‘Good morning.’”). Within these practice sessions, switch roles or include other members of the family so you can model the desired behavior.
A few basic goals to encourage for each interaction:
- Make eye contact when speaking and listening.
- Shake hands when meeting someone.
- Remain at an appropriate distance – about arms length – from the person you are speaking with.
- Speak with a friendly tone of voice.
- Say an appropriate goodbye when the interaction is finished.
Step 3: Go out and try it!
You’ve discussed the challenge and practiced it, now let’s give the real thing a try! There may be some anxiety beforehand, so encouragement and reassurance leading into the challenge are a must.
Step 4: Praise the effort and discuss what went well and what could be improved.
Offer praise, praise, and more praise! Initiating social interactions is not something that comes natural for children with social anxieties, so an overabundance of commendation and expressions of pride are a must for the bravery exhibited! This will help boost your child’s confidence for future interactions. Within your raving, be specific about what went well (i.e., “Wonderful job of telling your new friend your name and asking what his name was when introducing yourself!”). Also feel free to ask your child what he thought could have gone better or been different. Being careful not to discourage, you can specify a point or two to remember for the future. Practice these potential improvements to apply to interactions soon to come.
The best way for people of all ages to improve their social skills is through practice. With half of the summer in front of you (read: the glass is half-full!), take advantage by providing opportunities for your child to successfully meet each daily challenge!
Matthew Wiggins, Ed.S
Licensed School Psychologist
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