Some children seem to get along with others easily. They bound in and out of groups effortlessly without a care in the world. For others, joining in or getting along with others does not seem to come so naturally. This may be because they have not yet learned the social and emotional skills they need to get along with others.

When teachers and early childhood educators are in tune with what is going on for the child they can help the child to develop the skills they need to get along with those around them and enjoy the company of others. Having good social relationships benefits children in all aspects of their development.

Young children don’t learn all these things at once but gradually over time. Don’t expect too much and give praise when you see your child learning a new friendship skill.

Some things early childhood educators may be doing

Modelling social skills by connecting with each child

  • Make sure that your service has an atmosphere of treasuring children and caring for others
  • Smile at a child across the room
  • Make little gestures to support children’s social interactions
  • Get down to their level to talk and make eye contact
  • Show you are interested by commenting on what you see them doing without judging or adding your own suggestions.

Intentionally teaching social skills to the group

Do not just expect children to know how to be a friend or join a group just from modelling.

  • Staff may teach social skills using puppets and asking the children to solve the puppets’ problems. This helps all the children in the group to understand what they need to do about things like sharing and what is fair
  • Talking about stories is another way to help children think about being a friend
  • Involve children in activities that help others
  • Involve children in making rules about how to treat others
  • Providing extra support for children who appear to be experiencing difficulty getting along with others
  • Observe what is happening and what friendship skills the child or other children might still need to learn (e.g., if a child is feeling left out or excluded)
  • Coach children in the skills they need to develop and provide them with feedback when they do well
  • Talk with parents and carers to share information and find out if there is anything worrying the child at that time
  • Assure parents and carers you are observing and will help and let them know how their child’s relationships are developing
  • Children with additional needs also need relationships and may need extra help

How school staff can help

School teaches children about society and helps them learn to find their place in it. All the experiences children have at school help them to learn about social rules and relationships. Having clear and positive rules and policies, providing an integrated social and emotional learning curriculum, and supporting children’s social needs and relationships are some of the important ways that schools can support children’s social development.

Teach by example

Children learn a great deal about the most appropriate ways to behave by observing the actions of those around them. When teaching social values it is especially important not to just talk about them, but to show through your actions the kinds of caring, respectful and responsible behaviours you expect of students. 

‘Do’ rather than ‘don’t’

Classroom and school rules are most effective when they are stated in clear and positive ways that children can understand. They are best kept simple and few. Discuss rules and expectations with students and show them the kinds of behaviours you regard as appropriate. Involving children in discussing your rules and encouraging them to suggest rules themselves are important ways for teaching staff to support children’s social and moral development. 

Be firm, fair and flexible

Being firm and consistent in applying rules that are framed positively and have been well-taught helps school staff establish and maintain respectful relationships which enables the classroom to function well and can also be transferred to other areas of the school. It also helps students to know where they stand. Being fair in applying the rules rather than singling out students for more severe punishment or favouring others is very important. School staff who are seen to be fair are more readily respected and are more effective at supporting all students’ social development and wellbeing. Being consistent and fair does not mean being rigid. It is also important to be flexible and take into account individual circumstances that may impact on a child’s ability to meet expectations, for example by checking if there is a reason why a child is late before deciding whether there should be a consequence.

Set the scene for classroom cooperation

Cooperative classrooms support both social development and academic success. School staff encourage cooperation in the classroom when they structure cooperative learning activities where children work together on a specific task or project and teach children the skills to work together effectively. Providing opportunities for all students to take on particular roles and responsibilities also helps to build a cooperative classroom environment and encourages children to take pride in their contribution to school life. 

Appreciate social and cultural diversity

Find out about the social and cultural backgrounds and values of your students and their families and look for ways you may be able to accommodate their needs and perspectives. Be open to adjusting your style of teaching and communication and ensure that common classroom practices are clear and appropriate for all students. Create opportunities to include different perspectives and encourage children to explore and appreciate the differences. 

Deal promptly with discrimination and harassment

Teach children about stereotyping and discrimination and make it clear that these are unacceptable behaviours. When discrimination, harassment or bullying occur ensure that you take action based on your school’s policies.

See also:

Social development: Suggestions for families

Social development: Further resources