Jason is a 4 year old boy in preschool. When he sees a group of his friends in the sandbox, he wants to play, too. But how should he approach them? Should he walk up and ask? Should he sit down next to the group and start playing without being invited? Should he grab the truck toys to scoop the sand? What if the kids ask him to build a castle but he doesn’t know how to?
Initiating contact with peers is a key social situation Jason is about to tackle. Developing social competence will depend on how successfully he interacts in specific situations like this.
What is social competence
Social competence is one’s ability to interact effectively with other people in a social setting. It involves being able to read social cues, respond appropriately, and resolve social conflicts when they arise.1.
In social situations, competence involves interacting with others, influencing them, engaging the environment, or using personal resources to achieve social goals in appropriate ways. It is also the ability to solve social problems in complex interpersonal interactions while maintaining a positive relationship2.
Why is social competence important
As a child grows, social relationships and interpersonal skills with peers become increasingly important.
Social activity involving other children rises from about 10% at the age of 2, to 20% at age 4, to slightly over 40% between ages 7 and 113.
Children’s social competence is directly related to peer acceptance in early childhood. Socially appropriate behaviors usually distinguish popular children from unpopular ones4.
In contrast, externalizing behaviors such as disruptive and aggressive behavior are more likely to result in peer rejection, especially for boys.
Over time, the antisocial behavior becomes reinforced by negative and biased treatment from other children5.
Opportunities for constructive interactions with other children that enhance prosocial behavior decline.
It becomes increasingly likely that the child will remain trapped in an antisocial position as they slip to the extremes of social incompetence and antisocial dispositions.
Psychologists have long discovered the strong correlation between social competence in childhood and life outcomes6.
Social competencies in preschool children are often a powerful predictor of their academic achievement later.
Socially adept children tend to have social acceptance by their peer group and do well in school. Those who are socially rejected are especially at risk for academic failure7.
Children lacking strong social skills tend to have lower self-esteem.
With lower self-esteem and unsuccessful social interaction, a disliked child may avoid others and strike out when angry to further sabotage their social relations.
A lack of important social skills and positive interactions can impede psychosocial and social development leading to mental health issues in late adolescence, such as depression, anxiety, social withdrawal8, substance use9, etc.
Children with poor social behavior are typically disagreeable, impulsive, aggressive, and disruptive. They are often disliked and avoided by other children. Eventually, they may end up with deviant peers who are equally aggressive and rejected, or display delinquent behavioral problems.
Children who are influenced by these peers are at risk of delinquency, crime, and other negative outcomes10.
How to develop social competence in children
A child’s social competence can be improved by developing a set of social-cognitive skills with their parents’ help.
Despite the seemingly wide range of specific skills required, they all revolve around parenting. In fact, parent-child relationships and the quality of interactions play an important role in a child’s social experiences.
Children with parents who are warm, responsive, and supportive are more likely to be socially competent11. They develop better emotional skills and communication skills.
Conversely, children with authoritarian parents who are cold, unresponsive, and unsupportive tend to have poorer behavioral skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression12.
Very young children see themselves as the center of the world. As the child develops, they begin to realize other people may not view an action or a situation the same way they do.
A child’s ability to take another person’s perspective enables them to understand what others are feeling and saying.
For a more mature and advanced level of relationships to form, having social awareness and being able to see others’ perspectives is essential13.
Parents can help their children develop perspective-taking skills by encouraging them to look at things from different angles.
Social problem-solving skills
The social world is encouraging and welcoming to children who can solve interpersonal dilemmas successfully. But children who lack interpersonal problem-solving skills may feel unwelcome in this environment14.
Supportive parenting, which encourages children to resolve conflicts, helps them develop conflict resolution skills15.
Taking on the perspective of others to find solutions that are mutually satisfactory also enhances one’s conflict management skills16.
Being able to empathize with others is one of the most important social competence skills.
It requires both affective empathy (responding to others’ emotions) and cognitive empathy (taking into account others’ perspectives).
Warmth, responsiveness, and support from parents contribute to a child’s development of empathy.
Interpersonal relationships can be greatly impacted by one’s emotional health.
Children’s ability to flexibly control their emotional reactions is central to their social-emotional development.
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