Drawing on her personal experience as an early childhood educator, Mariana Boules of the Australian Catholic University emphasises the vital importance of building children’s social competence at a young age, and discusses the extent to which well-developed social skills can contribute to a child’s academic success.
Social skills are essential for every child, especially from birth to the age of five, as they lay the foundation for future life success and positive contribution to society (Jones, Greenberg & Crowley, 2015). This is because emerging social skills and early experiences influence children’s understanding of themselves and the world (Halle & Darling-Churchill, 2016). Social competence is like a concert in the child’s development, from the time the baby starts listening to and interacting with others. But how important are social skills to future academic success? A child’s ability to utilise social skills at this young age seems to be crucial (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004). It may not be important, or even required, that their academic skills develop at this age, compared to a focus on developing their social competence, because academic skills tend to develop in most children during school years. However, the child will struggle academically if they haven’t practised or developed social skills by the time they start school.
“Parents have full responsibility for developing their children’s social competence before they go to school.”
Parents have full responsibility for developing their children’s social competence before they go to school. This responsibility includes the need to offer activities and resources to children, talk to them, implement their ideas, and engage them in various learning experiences. At this stage, parents are the composers of a melody that the child dances and sways to, but they need to join in too; parents need to participate in their child’s explorations, and take them out on excursions e.g. to museums, art galleries, playgrounds and community gatherings. Of course, this can only happen to the extent that parents are able to afford, in terms of finances, physical ability and time.
However, once the child starts attending childcare, the responsibility lies not only with the parents, but also with everyone involved in the child’s care and education. Educators at the childcare centre have a great deal of responsibility, becoming another composer that adds essential notes to the beautiful melody. The key is to maintain harmony between home and the childcare centre, in terms of their attitudes toward various aspects of child development in general, and social competence in particular. A Pyramid Model for supporting socioemotional competence shows how important it is to build children’s health, social and emotional skills by establishing collaborative partnerships among parents and classroom team members (Fox, Carta, Strain, Dunlap & Hemmeter, 2009).
Childcare centres and kindergartens are very important for developing children’s social skills, such as by facilitating communication among children. Children aged three to five years who play alone tend to exhibit off-task behaviors, and are most often deserted by peers (Gottman, cited in Yanghee, 2003). Without the skills to play beneficially and develop friendships with classmates, students become excluded from opportunities to develop additional and more complex skills that are important for future peer communication (Eisenberg, cited in Mize & Abell, 1996). Teachers should consider and look after these children, who are clearly different from peers, and endeavour to engage them in play with their classmates (LaFreniere & Charlesworth, cited in Yanghee, 2003).
“The extensive communication that occurs between kinder children is of paramount importance. It helps them to use their words, express their feelings, and build their self-esteem and confidence.”
In my experience as an early childhood educator, I see that most children who attend the centre on a full-time basis seem to be much more developed than those attending only two to three days a week. This could reflect the fact that these full-time children are exposed to more interactions and plentiful experiences. Interaction between babies, and the extensive communication that occurs between kinder children is of paramount importance. It helps them to use their words, express their feelings, and build their self-esteem and confidence. This in turn helps other aspects of their learning and development.
We always advise parents with children aged zero to two years to try talking to their children a lot, regardless of whether they respond or not, hoping that this contributes to fostering their social development. Furthermore, regular meetings take place between educators and parents to discuss the child, and to work on their skills. In these discussions there is always an emphasis on social skills, as well as on the ways in which educators and parents can work together to improve their child’s development at kindergarten before the child moves on to attend school.
Many educators disapprove of the notion that they should sacrifice curriculum to teach social skills; such a concept is indeed inaccurate (National Association of School Psychologists, 2002; Lane, Kalberg & Menzies, 2009; Lane, Menzies, Ennis & Bezdek, 2013). Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) is an appropriate curriculum for young children, but it guides children’s programs to foster development in various domains, including a focus on social skills (DEEWR, 2009). Thus, teaching children social skills is indeed part of the curriculum taught in early childhood settings. Our curriculum at kindergarten is based on children’s interests, with the aim of building their social skills. At this age, social skills are more important than academic knowledge or competence.
Educators in early childhood settings such as kindergartens focus on the EYLF and the National Quality Standard (ACECQA, 2017). Social skills are an integral component of this curriculum, for reasons such as ensuring children’s wellbeing, promoting a strong sense of identity, expressing themselves, and building meaningful friendships.
Routine at childcare centres helps children use social skills while learning. This occurs during meal, group, story, relaxation and backing up times, as well as through play and the use of music and dancing. All these activities shape the curriculum of the children’s program, and involve the children in a routine that fosters their social skills.
The EYLF focuses on children’s belonging, wellbeing, confidence, sense of security, communication and interactions with others (DEEWR, 2009). All these foster social skills through learning. However, regardless of whether a child attends childcare (where EYLF applies) or not, it is my belief that they develop significant social skills if they have regular interactions with other children. The early childhood setting has more resources and opportunities that foster social skills, and promote other domains of development concurrently, ensuring that the child learns as they develop and is ready for school. But the key concept is that relationships and participation are essential to learning, as well as to encouraging children of varying abilities to work together collaboratively through the sharing of ideas and skills (Zakrzewski, 2014). The theory of Zone of Proximal Development stipulates that children learn new skills and develop various competencies through being shown “how to” by other children who are more skilled and competent than themselves (Vygotsky, cited in Chaiklin, 2003).
Vygotsky’s theoretical work affirms that children learn and develop through shared experiences that stem from their sociocultural backgrounds (Gauvain, 2008). This occurs when they talk and play with each other, as well as during all other forms of interaction. As per the sociocultural theory, educators need to understand the development of children in the context of their own communities. Vygotsky saw the social environment as being involved in a child’s learning (McDevitt, Ormrod, Cupit, Chandler & Aloa, 2013). The role of culture is so fundamental that educators need to ensure they are well educated on children’s cultures and beliefs. This informs our awareness of children’s level of social skills, and thus enables us to implement different activities and resources suitable for every child’s developmental needs (McDevitt et al., 2013).
School curriculum, on the other hand, focuses more on academic than social skills, and on specific knowledge content such as mathematics, science, history, English and so on. However, for the teacher at school to effectively teach this curriculum they need to engage children in a variety of activities. Many such activities depend on teamwork, and thus utilise social skills. Children’s social skills can be further developed through activities, assignments, excursions, and sharing ideas with others, but are also required for effective assimilation of knowledge in the curriculum and to develop the associated academic skills.
Schools become opera houses in which social competence resonates, while other instruments such as presentations, debates and team projects further amplify its key notes. This is where disharmony becomes more apparent – when a child’s life becomes more complicated and involves many other aspects, such as academic achievement and future vocational planning.
“Social skills indeed enable children to cope with making mistakes, and relate directly to classroom performance.”
Observation of primary school children in their classrooms provides anecdotal evidence that some children lack academic prowess because they are not socially skilled. Social skills indeed enable children to cope with making mistakes, and relate directly to classroom performance and effective understanding of curriculum and learning outcomes (McClellan & Katz, 2001). A study of preparatory and Grade 1 Catholic school students in Melbourne revealed that instructing students in social skills such as emotional resilience improved their social development, as well as boosting the reading abilities of the lower-achieving students (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012). This may explain why early intervention is required in cases of delayed socioemotional skills. Socioemotional and behavioural problems become risk factors that mark academic underachievement, such as grade retention and school drop-out, in later years (Snyder, cited in Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004).
A meta-analysis of results from 213 schools that provided social and emotional learning (SEL) programs to about 270,000 children provides strong evidence regarding the impact of social skills on school performance. Not only did children demonstrate significant improvement in attitudes and behaviours, but also achieved much higher academic results (Durlak et al., 2011). This reinforces my viewpoint that children require appropriately developed social skills in order to also become successful academically. Thus, social competence is necessary both for out-of-class life and for effective engagement in school and class life, which suggests that enhancing children’s social skills is a core focus for teachers, and is an integral part of pedagogical practices that aim to effectively deliver curriculum outcomes.
Social skills are generally what Gardner described as interpersonal intelligence in his Multiple Intelligences theory. In a learning environment, where dynamic teamwork affects integration and success, teachers ought to advocate such skills and develop them so they optimize students’ academic achievement. Interestingly, interpersonal intelligence is highly sophisticated in teachers, as stated by Gardner himself (Gardner, 2006), despite most teachers ascertaining that they themselves never received social competence instruction as part of their teacher education or pre-service training (Campbell-Comerford, 2013).
At school, children express their unique personalities and show strong identities, dealing with a large social network. In my opinion, children are more social with other same-age children than with adults, and although from age five to eight they can be shyer, this does not mean they lack social skills. My experience working with children has shown me that some of them may present as shy and initially reluctant to be engaged with educators, but after a short while, their social skills come into full play. Teachers just have to give them time before they blow their trumpet.
Though parents and educators compose the social competence melody, using diverse instruments, the child remains the conductor who will need to pull it all together, to orchestrate the concert that the world finally applauds them for.
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