Birth to 5: How to Help Children Build Social Skills

The years before a child turns 5 are critical for brain development.  They are also the time when young children develop the foundations of social and emotional well-being.  Below are some tips for parents to help give their kids the best possible start.

Infants (birth to 1 year)

Help children build social skills - birth to one year

In the first year, babies are learning about the world around them, in the most basic ways.  Focusing their vision, reaching out to grab things, making noises and recognizing the important people in their lives all help develop the building blocks of memory, language, thinking, and reasoning. During this stage, babies are also developing bonds of love and trust with their parents and others, a key component of social and emotional development. The way babies are cuddled, held, and played with will set the stage for how they will interact with others.  Here’s how you can help at this stage:

  • Talk to your baby. Look her in the eyes and give her your undivided attention.  Make sure you’re in her line of sight, which is extremely limited at this age.   Answer when she makes sounds by repeating the sounds back to her. 
  • Read to your baby. Even though he doesn’t understand the words, reading helps in language development.  And sitting on a parent’s lap will help him feel cared for and secure.
  • Sing to your baby and play music. This is great for brain development and also helps develop a love of music.
  • Respond to your baby’s needs reliably.  You build attachment and trust by providing predictable routines and consistent care giving. Within this environment, babies develop into secure and independent children.

Toddlers (1 – 2 years)

Help children build social skills - 1 to 2 years

The second year is all about independence.  At this age, most toddlers can walk and run, and are aware of themselves and their surroundings. Their desire to explore new objects and people is increasing. During this stage, toddlers will begin to show defiant behavior, recognize themselves in pictures or a mirror and imitate the behavior of others, especially adults and older children. Toddlers also should be able to recognize the names of familiar people and objects, form simple sentences, and follow simple instructions and directions.  Here are some ideas for helping your toddler grow:

  • Read to your toddler every day.
  • Integrate games into your daily routine – play “I Spy” with familiar objects and body parts.  Play matching games, like shape sorting and simple puzzles.
  • Encourage exploration and (safe) risk taking.  Let him help with dressing himself and feeding himself.
  • Teach them about emotions.  Use the names for emotions you are experiencing, and explain why, i.e. “I am happy to see you!” or “I am sad that you got hurt.”

Toddlers (2 – 3 years)

Help children build social skills - 2 to 3 years

Skills like taking turns, playing make believe, and kicking a ball, are developmental milestones during these years, and are key for social skills development.  At 2 and 3 years old, toddlers will experience huge thinking, learning, social, and emotional changes that will help them make sense of the world and their place in it.  

To help your toddler’s development during this time:

  • Read with your child. Start to talk about the interactions between characters in stories.  In the simplest ways, talk about how the characters might be feeling and help your child recognize emotions in others. 
  • Play with your toddler – encourage pretend play.  Let your child pretend to be the parent while you act like a child – they will think this is absolutely hilarious.
  • During this stage, toddlers should be able to follow two- or three-step directions.  Let your toddler help with simple chores, like sweeping or putting toys away.  Give him attention and positive praise for helping.
  • This is usually the age where tantrums take hold.  Try to think about this as an opportunity to teach your child acceptable ways to express negative feelings.

Preschoolers (3 – 5 years)

Help children build social skills - 3 to 5 years

This age is full of highs and lows.  Kids at this stage  are starting to tell jokes, but don’t always get the punchline right. They ask a million questions, and have discovered the power of “why?”  They’ve figured out that boys and girls are different, and want to talk about it in the checkout line at the grocery store. At the same time, their need for independence and their more developed vocabulary can mean the start of new battles at home.  

Here are some ways to help your preschooler during this time:

  • Continue to read to your child. Use stories to help her explore her own feelings and interests.  Nurture her love for books by taking her to the library or bookstore.
  • This is a good time for some actual responsibility.  Let your child help with simple chores, dress themselves or make choices about what to eat for their snack.
  • Encourage friendships with other children. Monitor play and model positive conflict resolution.  Help your child through the steps to solve problems when she is upset.
  • Be clear and consistent with discipline. Explain and show the behavior that you expect. Whenever you tell your child no, follow up with what he should be doing instead.

The years between babyhood and kindergarten will feel like a blur, but there’s important brain building going on – every day.  And you are your child’s most important teacher!  Want more ideas for how to help your young child’s healthy development?  Check out Brain Building in Progress, a United Way-led initiative focused on young children.  You’ll find a calendar of local events, activity books, games and more resources for parents and kids!