Module 4: Promoting Mental Health in Early Childhood

Toddlers Playing TogetherFriends

Learning Social Skills with Peers

Early childhood is a key time for children to gain social skills through interaction with their friends and peers. Before age 3, children have limited ability to interact with other children, but they can still enjoy spending time with peers. After age 3, social experiences with other children are important for the acquisition of social skills.

Questions to Ask

  • How does your child interact around other children her age?
  • Does your child show an interest in other children?
  • How does your child cope socially in child care or preschool?
  • Does your child play with other children? How often? How do playtimes with other children go?
  • How confident is she socially and emotionally?

Provider Tips

  • Suggest that parents watch their children interact with other children to gain a sense of their social understanding and skills.
  • Advise parents to supervise their child closely and to ensure that their child avoids frequent contact with playmates who are excessively aggressive.
  • Using the guidance listed below, discuss ways parents can help their child socialize with her peers in a variety of situations.

Guidance for Parents

  • Arranging for playtimes with other children is a good way to help your child learn how to behave in social situations. Playing with others can teach her how to:
    • Share, take turns, and negotiate
    • Wait patiently
    • Understand others
    • Deal with her aggressive feelings
    • Deal with aggressive behavior in others
    • Become assertive without causing harm
  • If your child is not in child care or preschool, provide opportunities for her to play with other children by:
    • Inviting other families with children to visit your home
    • Joining organized playgroups
    • Taking part in community activities or at your place of worship
    • Going to public places such as parks or playgrounds
  • Children can usually handle being in groups with the same number of children as their age in years. For instance, if your child is three, she will probably feel comfortable in a group of three children. Begin supervised play experiences by remaining with her for about 10 minutes to see how she is doing. If all is going well, you can gradually separate yourself from your child for increasing amounts of time.
  • Try to offer your child social experiences that include boys and girls with a variety of physical abilities, and from different racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds. These experiences will help your child form an understanding of others.
Resources for Providers and Families

For Providers

Area of Concern: Difficulty Forming Friendships more information

For shy children or children who have difficulty making friends, suggest low-stress, structured play dates such as inviting a friend over to watch a movie, help make cookies, play with play dough, go to the zoo, or go duckpin bowling. Help parents reinforce appropriate social behaviors to help build children’s social skills. A short, successful play date is better than one that lasts too long.

Coleman WL, Lindsay RL. 1998. Making friends: Helping children develop interpersonal skills. Contemporary Pediatrics 15(8):111–129.

For Families

Helping Your Child Make Friends

Keats EJ. 2004. Louie. New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Mathers P. 2001. Sophie and Lou. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks.

McCully EA. 1991. Speak Up, Blanche! New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Udry JM. 1996. What Mary Jo Shared. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.

Wells R. 2001. Shy Charles. New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Zolotow C. 2003. A Tiger Called Thomas (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

Children’s Stories on Special Needs Topics:

Berenstain S, Berenstain J. 1993. The Berenstain Bears and the Wheelchair Commando. New York, NY: Random House.

Cairo S, Cairo J, Cairo T. 1988. Our Brother Has Down’s Syndrome. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Annick Press.

Charles N. 1994. What Am I? New York, NY: The Blue Sky Press.

Lears L. 2003. Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.

Medearis AS. 1994. Dancing with the Indians. New York, NY: Live Oak Media.

Starowitz AM. 1988. The Day We Met Cindy. Washington, DC: K. Gallaudet Press.


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