| Parenting Tools | Preschool | Kindergarten | Behavior + Discipline

Socialization: helping kids learn to take turns and cooperate

Anyone who's ever seen an infant coo, smile or reach out realizes we're social animals from day one.

As the months go by, a baby's interaction increases as he looks to his parents for approval, engages them in play and insists upon their (nearly constant) presence.

By toddlerhood, he learns something about sharing, as he begins to communicate his needs and wishes and starts to play with other children.

Educators hope that by the time a child begins school, those fundamental social skills will evolve and develop enough to enable him to take turns, cooperate, respect others and form friendships.

The goal? That in kindergarten, kids will begin successfully navigating their social world-an essential skill that should help them hold their own in the classroom and throughout their lives.

"Learning to live comfortably in the company of peers is a necessary requirement for your child, a critical challenge that begins at a very early age and will continue for many years," child development expert Kenneth Rubin says in his book, The Friendship Factor.

It is a skill directly linked to later academic success, says Jamila Reid, clinical psychologist at the University of Washington Parenting Clinic. "Can the child share? Recognize a peer's intentions? Listen to the teacher's instruction? Those things are as important as reading, letters and numbers."

Don't underestimate the impact friendships can have on children, says Terry Hollinsworth, a child and family therapist. "Social acceptance has a huge bearing on a child's sense of self--and it transfers into the classroom. It's hard to concentrate when you're miserable."

Collaborative learning

Educators today are putting more and more emphasis upon the importance of learning collaboratively, says Leslie Fields, counselor for Redmond Elementary School in the Lake Washington School District. "Collaborative learning goes on all through school; children must prepare for that." Kindergarten, she says, provides a natural setting for teaching the collaborative process.

With a little help from parents, much of that learning can happen before kindergarten. "Parents should give their young children plenty of opportunities to play with other kids," says Fields. "They can talk to them about listening to the other side, about how to play fair, and about letting others go first in line."

Often, says Rubin in The Friendship Factor, parents don't view social competence as a learned skill. But kids become socially adept the same way they develop an understanding of math and science-through "exploring by trial and error, working out problems...and through building knowledge step by step, all with the help of friends and wise and responsive adults," he writes.

What else can parents do to help foster their children's social know-how? Here are some suggestions from Reid and Fields:
  • Model behavior by role-playing with puppets and dolls: "My puppet is sad because someone wouldn't give him the block. What should he do?"
  • Praise your child's efforts at sharing: "I'm going to share this toy with you. Great, you just shared that with me!"
  • Have children over for play dates.
  • Talk about how hurtful it is to be teased.
  • Play board games to reinforce how to play fair.
  • Give children vocabulary that will help them get what they want instead of hitting or shoving.
  • Give children vocabulary that will help them understand emotions and feelings-and emphasize the positive: "You're excited!" "You're happy!"
  • Label acts such as helping, sharing and trading, so kids begin to know what those behaviors are.
  • Talk through potential situations and offer solutions: "What happens if you're second and not first?" "What do you have to do to make a friend?"

Preschool age children have a window of opportunity to begin learning how to live in the company of others, says Hollinsworth. "It's a huge developmental task," she notes. "It is a time things are learned for life."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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