Conversation tips for kids who struggle with social skills

For many kids, having a conversation isn’t challenging or something they even think about. They know how to make appropriate comments and join in when other people are talking. But for kids who struggle with social skills, the normal flow of conversation can be hard.

Important skills, like reading body language and knowing what to say (and when to say it), don’t come easily. Here are tips for helping kids learn to navigate different parts of a conversation. 

Joining a conversation

Group conversations are tricky because there’s more than one person to connect with. Trouble reading body language might keep kids from knowing if a conversation is private or open to others. They may not sense whether it’s a good time to join or pick up on a tone of voice that means it isn’t. Plus, kids may not know that they need to talk about whatever the group was talking about.

How to help:

  • Use real-life situations (or videos and TV shows at home) to point out situations where a group is turned away or talking privately. Also, point out when people in a conversation are looking around and seem open to others joining.

  • Model how to wait for a break in the flow of conversation and then ask a question, like “Is it OK if I join you?”

  • Remind kids to listen and say something related to what others are saying. They can use “wh” questions (who, what, when, where, and why) to get up to speed.

Starting a conversation

The first step is figuring out if this is the right time to have a conversation. Some kids may not be able to get a “feel” for whether it’s a good time. Kids who are impulsive may burst into a conversation without any greeting.

How to help:

  • Teach basic greeting phrases to use with familiar people (“Hi, how are you?”) and with unfamiliar people (“Hi, I’m Joe — I’m Miranda’s sister”).

  • Show what someone’s body language looks like when the person does and doesn’t want to talk. Also show examples of a neutral or uncomfortable face that might mean a lack of interest.

Maintaining a conversation

Making conversation requires following a number of social rules — and not just for a minute or two. Kids who are impulsive may interrupt a lot or talk nonstop. Trouble with nonverbal cues may keep them from realizing that the other person is losing interest. Or they might be so stuck on one thought that they can’t let go of it. Other kids may tune out of the conversation.

How to help:

  • Teach how to ask follow-up questions to show they’ve heard and are interested in what the other person is saying. Give scripted examples to practice and use.

  • Help kids practice keeping a thought in mind instead of blurting it out. Tell them it’s OK to say, “Remind me that I wanted to say something about that once you’re done.”

  • Brainstorm words or phrases they can use to show they’re paying attention during conversation, like “right.” 

  • Role-play how saying something off-topic or at the wrong time can make it sound like they’re not interested in what someone else is talking about.

Ending a conversation

Ending a conversation can be as challenging as starting one. Kids may not read the situation correctly to know if it’s the right time to wrap it up. They may also not have the words to end it appropriately. Kids who are impulsive or who struggle with communication skills may end a conversation abruptly without saying “goodbye” — just walking away or hanging up the phone.

How to help:

  • Demonstrate some of the nonverbal cues kids may see when someone is trying to end a conversation, like checking the time, turning away, or yawning.

  • Teach some of the verbal cues that show someone is trying to end a conversation, such as saying things like “So…” or “Well….”

  • Teach phrases that they can use to know if the conversation is over. One example is: “Are you OK to keep talking, or do you need to leave?”

  • Help kids learn and practice how to close with a sentence like “It was good talking to you,” or “Well, I have to go now,” before walking away.

For kids with social skills challenges, learning the art of conversation takes lots of direct instruction and practice. It’s important to be patient, and know that you may have to reinforce these skills over and over.

Learn more about the four types of social cues. Read how a mom got her son to stop interrupting. And find out how the “chicken wing” rule can help kids learn to respect personal space during conversations.


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