Social Skills

A baby reaches for his mom while his dad holds him.
A baby reaches for his mom while his dad holds him.

Social skills are usually tied to emotional skills development in most of the literature. Social skills begin at birth during the interactions between the caregiver and the child.

Developing trust between caregiver and child is critical to emotional development and all other development. Learning is difficult with someone who does not make you feel safe while you are learning. As the child’s development continues the circle of people the child engages with expands to other trusted adults and peers.

Social skills are dependent on the development of self-identity, communication skills, feelings of competence and curiosity, the ability to self-regulate, and other skills.

Some of the areas of social and emotional development include:

      • Trust, Emotional Security, and Relationships with Others
        • Trust and attachment 
        • Relationships with peers
        • Empathy
      • Self-awareness and self-identity
        • Sense of self
        • Sense of identity
        • Confidence
      • Self-regulation and self-control
        • Behavior control
        • Emotional control
        • Control of attention

Texas Early Learning Pathways

What Impacts Social and Emotional Development?

A young boy takes a time out to calm himself by lying down and mouthing a toy.
A young boy takes a time out to calm himself by lying down and mouthing a toy.

Children with significant developmental challenges and sensory impairments face many obstacles in developing good social and emotional skills. Trust, emotional security, and relationships with others can be effected by negative experiences at birth related to medical issues and procedures, stress created due to lack of or limited information from their distance senses (vision and hearing), and extended time spent in NICUs or hospital settings.

Self-awareness, self-identity, and confidence may take longer to develop especially if the child lacks body awareness due to physical and sensory impairments.

Self-regulation and self-control are impacted by things like pain, illness, inability to communicate effectively with caregivers and others, medications, and constant stress from an environment that does not feel predictable or safe.

It is imperative that these children have caregivers who understand these challenges and who are willing to adapt the environment and their interaction style with the child. Making the world predictable through a regular daily schedule and the use of routines is helpful. Playing turn-taking games, reducing demands, slowing the pacing of activities, giving adequate response time encourage the child to initiate activities and gain confidence.  Using hand-under-hand guidance for interactions allows the child to experience control and self-regulation with activities and in environments that may be new or feel scary.  Utilizing appropriate communication strategies based on the child’s sensory needs means that as much as possible the child is connected to what is going on and can express feelings and ideas with others.

Dr. Nielsen offers excellent guidance to caregivers in her Five Phases of Educational Treatment discussed in Are You Blind? You may want to review these sections of this websitet for more information:

Any activity can be a vehicle for the development of social skills if done using Active Learning principles. But here are some things to focus on:

      • Provide opportunities each day for independent play and interactive play.
      • Provide many opportunities in each activity or learning environment for the child to experience success; focus on abilities.
      • Let the child lead the activity and interactions; follow his/her agenda as much as possible.
      • Let the child play with other children at their own developmental level which may include playing along-side rather than with another child. Having duplicates of materials can be helpful for this reason: the child may not be ready developmentally to share toys.
      • Reduce or eliminate activities and situations that trigger negative responses, especially at first. As the child reaches an emotional developmental age of 2+ they may begin to be able to handle some demands, but it may take more time for them to deal with consequences of their own actions and choices.
      • “Do with not for” a child to help  develop confidence in their abilities. Provide only the level of support that is necessary and allow extra time for them to attempt to do things on their own.
      • Help others to develop greeting and goodbye rituals to use when they interact with the child, especially if the child is blind or deaf.
      • Label the child’s emotions without becoming emotional yourself, then offer a preferred activity or object to distract the child or let the child take a short break to calm his/herself.

Activity Ideas

Here are some ideas for activities that may help them experience others in a more positive way:

      • Four children positioned on Support Benches play with a bin of balls.
        Four children positioned on Support Benches play with a bin of balls.
        Play turn-taking games or “me to you – you to me” games such as hand games (e.g. Pattycake), vocalizing games, movement games (imitate the child’s movement then pause and wait for them to move again before taking a turn) based on what the child is already able to do with his/her body
      • Set up shared play spaces such as a water table or sand table with more than one child can play along side the other
      • Work in a small group (2-3) to do an easy cooking activity such as making a smoothie or instant pudding then share it.
      • Take turns putting lotion on each others arms, legs, feet, hands, and face
      • Play dress-up trying on oversized items or things like hats, necklaces, or glasses that you can try on each other
      • Read a book or experience story together
      • Take a walk outside together and collect objects to make an experience book/bag/box
      • Dance with another person holding hands or touching bodies if possible
      • Make chalk drawings outside on the sidewalk if the child has usable vision

Getting to Know Each Other

In this video, Scott is meeting this baby for the first time. He begins by imitating what the child is doing with his body and voice. A next step might be to offer some objects for the child to explore with him.


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Playing with Spoons

In this video Scott and Kolby play with a collection of spoons. Note he does not place any demands on Kolby, but rather imitates Kolby and offers him other spoons to explore.

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Playing with Blocks

In this video Patty Obrzut takes turns with the young boy as they stack the blocks. Note that she doesn’t make demands on the child and lets him take the lead.

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