By the time the final bell rings on the last day of school, most kids are already out the door, eager to begin two months of sunshine and freedom. Friends and neighborhood kids are knocking on your door (or in some cases, just waltzing right in), asking if your kiddo can come out to play. Summertime playdates and social experiences are a crucial part of growing up — but what if your child’s learning differences have hindered their ability to thrive in a social setting?
Maybe you’ve noticed that your child tends to keep to themselves.
Maybe they have trouble identifying certain social cues in the classroom.
Maybe their teacher has reported that they don’t exactly play well with others.
Despite any academic progress reached during the school year, the lack of structure during summer break can present issues of anxiety and shyness that may lead to developmental setbacks. In some cases, many kids simply haven’t learned “appropriate behavior” for social interaction, which can be detrimental to their overall development. In 2015, the American Journal of Public Health conducted a study on social competence and future wellness. Researchers found that strong social skills observed in kindergarten-aged children showed significant correlation with well-being at age 25.
The experts have spoken: there’s nothing that can replace the gratification of positive, face-to-face interactions between two individuals, regardless of age or social capability. The concept of strengthening a child’s social cognition can be a daunting task for some parents — but it doesn’t have to be. Summer vacation is the perfect opportunity to boost your child’s social game, and these four strategies can help you get started:
- Start by honing in on their interests
Organizing social activities can become easier once you determine exactly what it is that your child enjoys doing for fun. If their face lights up when you mention the words “swimming pool,” enroll them in swim lessons at your local public pool. This brings some structure back into their day-to-day, and they’ll get to meet and interact with other kids who share a common interest. Organized activities are usually monitored by other adults, so you’ll have a point of contact who can report on any issues or progress.
- Pretend play (or role play)
It might feel silly to take on the role of a child, but it could be just what your child needs in order to become socially competent. LD Online (a fantastic resource for navigating learning disabilities and ADD) offers parents step-by-step tips for role playing. For example, have your child assume the role of the person who they struggle to interact with, and you take on the role of your child so that you can model appropriate behavior. Then, switch roles so that your child can empathize with each perspective. Be sure to demonstrate positive body language, eye contact and verbal cues. This can be particularly helpful to speech-delayed children.
- Teach kindness, empathy and consideration
“Treat others the way you want to be treated” is the golden rule, and a key player in the practice of social competence. Parents should preach it, practice it, and praise it. Make a clear effort to reward your child when they use polite manners, and intervene when you witness any disrespectful or inconsiderate behavior. You may feel as though your child already exemplifies this type of emotional intelligence, but kids often need to be reminded of the value of kindness.
- Take advantage of summer’s teachable moments
Summer break allows us more time with our kids, which means there is ample opportunity for you to study their habits and showcase positive behavior. Mundane activities like household chores, grocery shopping or even dinner time can present a teachable moment (an event or experience which presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life). It’s as simple as a friendly “hello!” between you and another person at the grocery store; these common greetings show that you’re happy to see someone. Point these moments out to your child so that they can begin cultivating positive relationships with their peers.
It’s important to remember that social cognizance isn’t something that can be learned overnight. It requires willing participants to make a conscious effort in a safe and familiar environment, and summer break is a prime opportunity to put in the work. Imagine how rewarding it will feel to see your child play happily with others — and don’t forget that it’ll give you a few quiet, peaceful moments during the summer, too.