Preschool social skills: Evidence-based tips for raising kind and competent kids

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved


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Preschool social skills depend several core competencies, including self-control, empathy, and verbal ability. And while they include a knowledge of basic etiquette — like knowing when to say “please” and “thank you” — the most crucial skills are psychological.

To become socially adept, kids need to learn a lot about emotions and human nature. They need to learn how to

  • cope with negative emotions, like anger and sadness;
  • pay attention the social cues around them;
  • recognize what emotions other people are feeling;
  • consider other perspective and points of view;
  • notice when someone is struggling, and offer help;
  • express sympathy;
  • resolve conflict without resorting to aggression;
  • form and maintain friendships;
  • offer forgiveness; and
  • express remorse and make amends after a transgression.

That’s a lot to tackle, and there isn’t any one end point. We can keep honing our social abilities throughout our lives. But the rewards can be great.

Young children with strong social skills are more likely to be accepted by their peers (Blandon et al 2010). They are more likely to excel academically, and less likely to develop behavior problems (Arnold et al 2012; Bornstein et al 2012).

So how do we nurture preschool social skills? I’ve heard people claim that young children need to spend a lot of time with kids their own age. But history and anthropology tell us otherwise.

In most past societies, children socialized in mixed-age playgroups, not preschools. Toddlers learned crucial social skills from adults, adolescents, and older children — not from other toddlers. And how could it be otherwise?

Young children are less likely to model the right behaviors and responses. They are social novices, so they aren’t the best social tutors.

No, the most helpful social influences are older kids, teens, and adults. They’re more experienced and knowledgeable. They have a more extensive emotional and cognitive tool kit for solving problems, making them more reliable role models.

And parents? Parents are especially important. They don’t merely serve as potential role models and tutors. They also shape their children’s early environment — making kids feel secure; buffering kids from stress; helping ensure that kids get enough sleep. And all of these things have an impact on social behavior.

So here are some suggestions for boosting your child’s social-savvy: Evidence-based tips for fostering preschool social skills.

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

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When parents show themselves to be caring and dependable — sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs — children are more likely to develop opens in a new window 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?

It probably has something to do with stress. As I note elsewhere, opens in a new windowsecure attachments buffer kids from the effects of toxic stress. Kids are less likely to experience anxiety. They are less likely to feel threatened.

So securely-attached children probably feel more comfortable reaching out to others, and they are better able to focus on learning social skills.

This causal pathway may be particularly strong for some kids. Studies indicate that some individuals possess genes that make them especially sensitive to the beneficial effects of secure attachment relationships (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al 2008; Bakermans-Kranenburg and van Iizendoorn 2011; Knafo et al 2011; Kochanska et al 2011).

But let’s be clear: Sensitive, responsive parenting doesn’t guarantee that your child will become a social super-star. It doesn’t even guarantee that your child will become securely-attached. Many other factors — including genetic factors — also play a role.

For example, a child’s ability to pay attention is influenced, in part by genetic factors (Faraone and Larsson 2018). And poor attention skills can interfere with both the development of secure attachments and the development of social skills (Storebø et al 2016; Papp et al 2013).

So sensitive, responsive parenting shouldn’t be the only item on our checklist. The development of secure attachments — and social skills — is more complicated than that. But sensitive, responsive parenting is a crucial starting point. You can read more about the many health benefits of sensitive, responsive parenting in opens in a new windowthis Parenting Science article.

2. Be your child’s “emotion coach.”

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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 opens in a new windowemotion coach.

In addition, see the Parenting Science article, “ opens in a new windowTeaching 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.

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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 or her up. But simply telling a child to be quiet doesn’t help that child 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. Examples?

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; Denham 1997).

4. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep.

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You’ve already noticed that a poor night’s sleep makes your child moody and less attentive. But what if the condition is chronic? What it a child experiences a regular sleep deficit?

Studies keep telling us the same thing: Sleep duration is linked with social skills and behavior problems.

For example, in a study of preschoolers, researchers found that kids were more likely to exhibit good social and emotional skills if they logged more time asleep each night. These good sleepers were also more likely to be accepted by their peers (Vaughn et al 2015).

And another study found that preschoolers with sleep problems were more likely to develop attention and hyperactivity problems  (Touchette et al 2007) — problems that impact a child’s social functioning.

So it’s important not to overlook the impact of good sleep habits. Having trouble? See this opens in a new windowParenting Science guide to solving bedroom problems.

5. Practice inductive discipline.

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Across the world, many parents use inductive discipline, the practice of explaining the reasons for rules, and talking — calmly and sensitively — with children when they misbehave (Robinson et al 1995).

Inductive discipline is one of the key components of opens in a new windowauthoritative parenting, a style of child-rearing associated with fewer behavior problems. And there is evidence that this conversational approach to discipline promotes the development of empathy and moral awareness (Krevans and Gibbs 1996; Knafo and Plomin 2006; Patrick and Gibbs 2012; Spinrad and Gal 2018).

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 practiced inductive discipline (Laible et al 2017).

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

Are you struggling with such behavior? Check out these opens in a new windowevidence-based tips for handling aggression and defiance in children.

And for general tips on how to keep kids on track without resorting to threats and punishments, see my opens in a new windowpositive parenting tips.

6. Seize everyday opportunities to induce empathy.

Empathy is part of human nature. opens in a new windowEven babies show signs of empathy. But that doesn’t mean that empathy develops automatically, without any feedback from the environment. The development of empathy depends, in part, on learning. And that’s something we can help kids with.

If someone is suffering, we can call attention to the fact, and ask kids to imagine how that individual feels.

Research on elementary school students suggests that simply asking kids to reflect on someone else’s plight is enough to increase their feelings of empathy (Sierksma et al 2015).

And researchers have used training exercises in caring — asking kids to actively think about the emotions of other people — to foster greater empathy and social skills in preschoolers (Flook et al 2015).

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

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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 were less giving if they had experienced only “parallel play,” playing alongside a stranger, but without exchanging a ball (Cortes Barragan and Dweck 2014).

8. Inspire children with encouraging words — not criticism.

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Young children thrive on praise, particularly when we opens in a new windowpraise 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 inferior or bad. And that perception undermines their motivation to improve.

So it’s advisable to avoid negative language when a child’s social behavior disappoints. Stop being mean. I can’t take you anywhere.You’re out of control! Why are you so shy? In the heat of the moment, such talk might seem justified. But it isn’t helpful, and you risk making things worse.

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

9. Provide children with free, unforced opportunities to experience the emotional 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 feels good. It gives us a pleasant rush. It lifts our mood. And even young children experience this effect (Paulus and Moore 2017).

So we can foster prosocial behavior by encouraging children to engage in everyday acts of generosity. Kids learn that good deeds are emotionally rewarding, and become more generous over time.

But be careful not to force the issue. When kids are forced to give, they probably won’t experience that pleasant, emotional rush. And an experience of “forced giving” doesn’t teach preschoolers to be more generous. On the contrary, it makes them less likely to engage in future acts of spontaneous generosity (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013).

Your best bet? Follow an approach tested by researchers: Provide your child with free, unforced opportunities to be generous. Is somebody sad? Does somebody need support? Talk with your child about what would make this person feel better, and allow your child to make a choice (Chernyak and Kushnir 2013).

10. Be careful about offering material rewards for acts of kindness.

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 opens in a new windowperils of rewarding prosocial behavior.

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

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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). 

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

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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 opens in a new windoweffort mindset and ways that opens in a new windowadults can help children adopt it.

13. Model — and talk about — 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 opens in a new windowhere.

14. Introduce kids to cooperative games.

As I explain in opens in a new windowthis 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).

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

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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 opens in a new windowbenefits of play, including pretend play.

16. Don’t put off conversations about race.

This is a common miscalculation that some parents — especially white  parents — make. They assume that their children are too young to begin talking about race. My child hasn’t even noticed that racial categories exist. And isn’t that a good thing? Won’t that help ensure that my child will grow up free of racial prejudice?

It might seem intuitive. But studies confirm that our children are picking up on racial cues long before they have learned to speak. They get exposed to racial stereotypes in the popular culture. And when we fail to talk with our children, opening and honestly about race and racial bias in society, our kids are more likely to develop racial biases of their own.

For more information, see my article, opens in a new window“6 mistakes that white parents make about race.”

17. Choose TV content that is non-violent and age-appropriate.

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). 

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

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Some types of sharing are relatively easy for preschoolers. 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?

As noted above (#8), such acts of generosity can make children feel good. But the good feelings arise when kids share voluntarily. When we try to force it, the tactic backfires. Kids end up feeling less generous in the future.

So we need to be patient, and recognize the challenges that children face when they are asked to share. Young children in particular can have more difficulty thinking beyond the here-and-now. If we ask them to loan their toy, they may have trouble believing that they will get their toy back. And, to be fair, sometimes the kids who borrow toys are reluctant to return them.

The takeaway? We should be selective about what we ask our kids to share, and avoid forcing the issue.

19. Break up cliques with a negative vibe, and watch out for peer rejection.

Sometimes kids bring out the worst in each other. For example, 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 should we do if we see this kind of negativity?

If kids are struggling with aggressive behavior problems, we need to teach how to handle conflicts peacefully. These Parenting Science tips can help. And sometimes it’s best to take the additional step of breaking up the clique — finding new playmates for your child to socialize with.

What if your child is on the recieving end of negative behavior — being rejected by peers? It’s equally important to get involved, and research suggests we can help kids by coaching them in the art of making friends.

Studies show that a single peer friendship can protect preschoolers from continued aggression and rejection (Criss et al 2002; Hodges et al 1999). And preschoolers are more likely to win over peers if they behave prosocially  (Vitaro et al 1990; Cote et al 2002; Eisenberg et al 1999) and respond appropriately to conversation (Kemple et al 1992).

For tips on helping kids make friends, see opens in a new windowthis Parenting Science article.

20. 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

Looking for activities that promote social competence? See this Parenting Science guide to opens in a new windowsocial skills activities for kids.

And for advice about helping kids develop friendships, see my article, opens in a new window“How to help kids make friends.”


References: Preschool social skills

A great deal of research has been conducted on preschool social skills. In addition to the opens in a new windowscholarly 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 “ opens in a new windowEncouraging 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 opens in a new windowother 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 opens in a new windowdadblunders / flickr 

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

image of grandmother consoling girl in tiara by  opens in a new windowBenedic Belen / flickr

image of sleeping girl by Deepak Sethi / istock

image of father talking to toddler boy in bed by Liderina / istock

woman smiling at child with plastic nesting cups by Rawpixel / istock

image of father talking to girl about something in the distance by opens in a new windowSteve 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  opens in a new windowAlicia Munoz-Witt /flickr

image of boys sharing strawberries by  opens in a new windowQuinn Dombrowski flickr

Content last modified 12/2020