7 Ways To Help Your Kids Practice Social Skills In Distance Learning

Parents can teach their children these skills at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

As school districts begin to announce their reopening plans for fall sessions, it looks like millions of American kids won’t be returning to the classroom any time soon.

Eleven of the nation’s 15 largest school districts will be starting the academic year with online-only instruction, according to a July 29 update by Education Week magazine.

Remote learning has some parents worried not only about their children being stymied from hitting certain academic benchmarks, but also about how the kids will develop social and emotional skills if they’re not getting face-to-face interactions with their peers during class time, at lunch and on the playground

Through in-person encounters, kids “practice reading social cues and learn constructive social responses — including the give-and-take of conversation — how to self-regulate when they get annoyed at another person, and how to ask for what they need in a socially acceptable way,” clinical psychologist Laura Markham — founder of the site Aha! Parenting — told HuffPost.

If you’re one of the parents concerned about the lack of socialization in quarantine, don’t despair, said educational psychologist Michele Borba.

“If we realize that our kids are missing out on opportunities to practice social skills, there are ways to compensate,” said Borba, author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”

“If we realize that our kids are missing out on opportunities to practice social skills, there are ways to compensate.”

- Michele Borba, educational psychologist

It may comfort parents to know that children tend to be quite adaptable and resilient, even in challenging circumstances.

“Even though this is unusual, most kids will come out of this fine because we’re biologically wired to adapt,” Dr. Jack Shonkoff — a pediatrician who is also an early childhood development expert at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child — told The New York Times in June.

Below, experts share ways you can help your child hone these skills at home until it’s safe for them to return to school and other social activities.

1. Schedule play dates — even if they’re online.

“Relationships enhance kids’ mental health,” Borba said. “So use the virtual world to help children maintain positive peer connections.”

One-on-one virtual playdates will probably be more enjoyable and enriching than trying to get a larger group of kids together on Zoom.

Even virtual playdates are beneficial to kids' wellbeing. 
Even virtual playdates are beneficial to kids' wellbeing. 

Help your child find a hobby that appeals to them and one of their friends — maybe knitting, baking, painting, writing or dancing.

Parents “can provide materials like knitting needles and yarn or find a YouTube link that teaches the skill,” Borba suggested. “Or parents can take turns serving as the online teacher for daily or weekly project time.”

2. Be intentional about the conversations you have.

Pandemic life has left many parents anxious, exhausted and, in some cases, numb. When you’re frazzled, it’s easy to go through the day without having a meaningful conversation with anyone — much less your kids. But carving out time to have a thoughtful dialogue is important, marriage and family therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford said.

“Ask your child open-ended questions, allow the conversation to flow into different topics and be intentional about emphasizing body language,” said Smith Crawford, owner of Kaleidoscope Family Therapy. “Children’s social life as they know it is gone. It’s important for them to still be able to learn and have the ins and outs of communication and conversation modeled.”

Use this time to practice skills like eye contact, listening, good manners and respectful disagreement.

“Just be more intentional about weaving social skills into daily life like at dinner conversations, family meetings and everyday moments,” Borba said.

3. Use video calls with loved ones to practice picking up on social cues.

FaceTimes are great for staying in touch with family and friends during social distancing, but they can also be a good opportunity for your kiddo to work on recognizing and responding to the emotions of others. Granted, it may be more challenging for some children to pick up on nuances in facial expressions or tone of voice through a screen — but it’s doable.

“You can prime your child ahead of the call,” Borba said. For example, “Watch Grandma’s face for signs that she might be tired so you’ll know if you should say good-bye,” or “Tune in a bit closer to your friend to see if he agrees with you.

4. Connect them with a virtual study buddy.

Some parents are already forming “pandemic pods” or “learning pods” for the fall — in which several students will gather at someone’s home or yard for in-person lessons from a tutor or teacher that the parents have pooled their money to hire. While this arrangement could enhance learning and social skills, it’s cost-prohibitive for many families — and experts say these pods may worsen existing racial disparities in education. Plus, these gatherings could present potential health risks — even if masks are worn, physical distancing is encouraged and other precautions are taken.

Another idea? “Find a parent with a child in your kid’s class to become his or her learning partner,” Borba said. “At a set time each day, the two kids practice spelling, math facts or vocab words through Skype or FaceTime.”

5. Host family game nights.

With youth sports on hold in many places for the foreseeable future, basketball or Wiffle ball games with the family or board games like Monopoly can help foster good sportsmanship at home.

Use family game nights as an opportunity to practice and communicate good sportsmanship.
Use family game nights as an opportunity to practice and communicate good sportsmanship.

“Model the rules of good sports as you play together: Stick to the rules, no excuses or criticizing, play to the end, congratulate the winner,” Borba said. “And deliberately allow yourself to lose sometimes so you can show how to lose gracefully.”

6. Encourage teamwork.

Look for opportunities to work together on different household tasks and projects, Borba said, in order to practice collaboration, cooperation and supporting others.

“Plan home projects that encourage teamwork like cleaning a closet, planning a menu together, learning a family hobby, filling a box of gently used toys to give to needy kids or a shelter, or just playing a game,” she said. “But make sure you model and encourage those timeless teamwork comments, like ‘Good job!’, ‘We did it,’ ‘High five!’”

7. Give feedback in the moment.

If, for example, your child keeps interrupting when you’re mid-conversation with your partner, take a minute to explain why it’s respectful to wait your turn to speak. Then come up with other strategies for ways they can politely get your attention.

“Being able to pause a social interaction, give some feedback and then redo the interaction allows the child to become aware of blind spots and also allows them to begin again and have a better framework socially, the next time a similar situation arises,” Smith Crawford said.


A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus
Children's Books That Teach Kids About Emotions