HomeHealth & BehaviorSocial Skills


Why social skills are key to learning

Before they can learn academics, kids need to know how to behave in a group.

By Ellen Booth Church

You may be hoping your child will learn how to read and write in the first few months of preschool or kindergarten. But there are many other skills she needs to master before an academic focus is appropriate. Studies show that the most important skills to learn in the beginning of the year are social: cooperation, self-control, confidence, independence, curiosity, empathy and communication.

In the first months of school, early childhood teachers are most concerned with children who have behavioral and attention problems. It's simple: If a child is not able to take turns, listen and sit in a group, how can she learn what is being taught? That is why teachers spend a good deal of time early in the year on the basic social skills of preschool and kindergarten. Even if your child has been in a child care center or another type of program, she still needs to learn the social and emotional dynamics of this new group. Luckily, her previous experiences with social interaction both at home and in other programs will help her make the transition. Once these basic social interaction and group behavior skills are in place, she is more ready and able to concentrate on academics.

Your child learns best with a balanced approach supporting her growth in social, emotional and cognitive (academic) skills. So if he is not yet coming home from school knowing new letters or numbers, don't worry! Most early childhood programs slowly introduce more academics as the year progresses. Recent research in brain development has shown that a child's ability to interact with others, control and express her feelings and take care of basic tasks independently are as (or even more) important for success in school as academic skills. The neural pathways needed for learning are actually constructed through positive interactions with others! Your child's teacher will use this brain research information to help your child make connections with others in the class, share and care, listen and speak in a group and feel confident when taking on new challenges.

The first basic skills: The four C's

Here are a few examples of teachers' goals for the beginning of the school year. Ask your child's teacher to tell you about her objectives and for her suggestions on how you can support these skills at home.

  • Confidence: One of the first skills teachers focus on is the development of your child's sense of confidence or self-esteem. This means helping her feel good about who she is, both individually and in relationship to others. This is a lifelong skill that will help her feel competent now and as she continues in her schooling.
  • Cooperation: Games, stories and songs help your child learn how to work with others — no small task at this age! This teaches him how to empathize and get along with others.
  • Curiosity: Perhaps one of the most important skills she needs to develop at this stage is a true thirst for learning. Her teacher will use a wide variety of interesting materials and ideas to engage your child's natural curiosity. Recent research shows that novel or unusual activities and materials engage the brain more than predictable ones, thus causing the brain to pay close attention.
  • Communication: Expressing himself and representing his ideas, feelings and knowledge about the world is a key skill for your child. It is at the core of all reading, writing, math, and science skills. If he feels comfortable talking about an idea or opinion, he will be more open to learning and taking the risks of thinking that are needed to learn anything.

Ellen Booth Church is a former professor of early childhood education, an education consultant and an author.

Comments from readers

"Areally ascending experiance. "
"Actually, the article uses both "her" and "he". It's disappointing when society places more emphasis on the "proper" way of things rather than the "process" of learning things by mistake. I can't blame some of these kids inattentiveness, imagination is a resource not the enemy. "
"Right on, Ellen Booth Church. We are putting the finishing touches on a fun and interactive program for the pre school crowd that inspires kindness, confidence, respect, communications and resilience. Role playing, discussions and activities complete the resource. A must for every parent who wants their child to become a successful learner. "
"Your article refers to the third person child as 'she,' while the proper way to refer to a 3rd person in English is 'he.' While this gaff may seem minor to most, as you are an educator, it is surprising to see such a basic language mistake."