Grade-schoolers who struggle with social skills may need some coaching on how to connect with other kids. Here are some ways you can help.
1. Prepare for social interactions.
Teach your child conversation starters, like “I liked your show-and-tell” or “Can I play with you?” Practice unexpected situations using “what-if” scenarios: “What if Steven says you can’t play with him?”
TV can be a good practice tool. As you watch with your child, ask questions like, “How do you think her friend is going to react to what she said? What would you say if someone said that to you?” Then brainstorm other ways the character could have interacted.
2. Keep practicing.
Teaching your child what to say to other kids is a good start. But it doesn’t have to end there. Talk about and role-play social situations regularly. Kids with learning and thinking differences can often learn the script, but they may have trouble remembering it in a stressful situation. Ongoing practice can help.
3. Explain that lots of kids find it hard to make friends.
Your child’s challenges may contribute to trouble making friends. But other grade-schoolers have social challenges, too.
Tell your child, “I know this is hard for you. Making friends is hard for lots of people. But you’re a great kid and together we will make this work for you. You’ll make a great friend for someone.” If forming friendships is something you struggle with, you could share that. It can take some pressure off your child.
4. Talk about different types of friends.
Kids need to know that friends aren’t “one size fits all.” Explain to your child that there are friends to play sports with, friends to do school projects with, and friends to talk about life with — but not every friend will be all of those things. Remembering the different kinds of friends and the limitations of a friendship can help avoid hurt feelings.
5. Help your child figure out what matters most in a friend.
You know why you want your child to have friends. But do you know why your child wants friends? Go ahead and ask. It’s as easy as saying, “What kinds of things do you want to do with friends?” or “Why do you want to be friends with Alex?”
6. Work to identify potential friends.
Talk with your child about who seems like someone it would be fun to spend time with. Ask questions like, “What do you and Bree have in common?” and “Is Steven easy to talk to?” Be open to what your child is saying, even if you worry it’s not a good match.
7. Talk about what makes a good friend.
Talk about the qualities of a good friend. It can help your child know what to look for, and also how to be a good friend. For instance: Good friends try not to hurt each other’s feelings. Good friends help each other solve problems. Good friends can disagree without being mean.
8. Help friendships take hold.
Provide chances for kids to be with each other. That means making your child’s friendships a priority. It could be as simple as inviting a friend to come along to make a trip to the grocery store less boring.
9. Explain that friendship doesn’t have to be forever.
Around fourth grade, kids start being more aware of differing values and points of view. When a friend crosses the line into doing things like lying, cheating, or bullying, your child may feel uncomfortable and might not know how to handle it.
Let your child know that friendships can change over time. It’s OK to want to hang out with kids who have the same interests. Sometimes friends just drift apart as their interests change.
10. Understand your child’s friendship needs.
Different kids have different needs. Listen closely to your child and pay attention to any signals. Does your child seem withdrawn when your other child has friends over? Does your child feel left out when not invited to a birthday party? Those might be signs of needing help with making friends.
If your child seems content, keep in mind that solitary isn’t the same thing as lonely. Sometimes kids with learning and thinking differences have so many things to manage that adding friends to the mix is too much. And some kids just prefer their own company.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.