A Two-Part Series on the Value of Teaching Social Skills (Part 1)

Posted by Erin Green, MS, Director of Boys Town Press and Co-Author of Teaching Social Skills to Youth, Fourth Edition on Sep 7th 2022

Part 1: Social Skills Can Expand (and Limit) Life’s Opportunities

When you hear the phrase “social skills,” you probably think about all the verbal and nonverbal actions and behaviors that happen while interacting with others. Your words. Their words. Your tone. Their tone. Your gestures. Their gestures. Your appearance. Their appearance. All the stuff that comes together and contributes to the success or failure of an interaction.

Being human, we’re naturally social beings. However, the degree to which we feel comfortable in social situations varies widely from person to person. My own kids are testament to that. I have a son who is gregarious by nature. He’s comfortable and confident meeting and interacting with anyone in any situation. My daughter, on the other hand, is much more introverted and reserved. Once she gets to know you, however, the shyness fades and a more engaging side to her personality emerges.

You might assume my outgoing son is more socially skilled. But that’s not really the case. The fact is both of my kiddos are capable of learning and demonstrating appropriate social skills. It’s just that some skills come more naturally to my son, while others come more easily to my daughter.

Social skills involve more than just being social.

Social skills create opportunities for people to successfully interact, but that’s not all they do. They provide the foundation to learn and grow other skills. Skills that help maintain healthy boundaries. Skills that help support mental health. Skills that promote social-emotional development. And skills that empower us to recognize the social conventions and expectations of our environments (home vs. office, classroom vs. playground, etc.).

Psychologists have long emphasized the importance of belonging when it comes to our social-emotional development. This sense of belonging is what motivates us to join activities or be part of community organizations. It’s what motivates us to develop friendships and long-term relationships.

Recent studies show that kids who have or feel a strong sense of belonging are more likely to experience greater happiness and an overall sense of well-being. In addition, they are less likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, or hopelessness (Moeller, Seehuus, & Peisch, 2020).

Skills such as Introducing Yourself, Contributing to Discussions, Maintaining Appropriate Boundaries, Advocating for Yourself and Others, Communicating Honestly, and Distinguishing between Friends and Acquaintances are the kinds of social skills that give us the confidence to join groups and make friends, and instill in us a greater sense of belonging.

Success for life.

Social skills set us up for success in every facet of life. Having a dream job or doing a favorite activity or belonging to a prestigious club still comes with expectations. There will be deadlines to meet, instructions to follow, and feedback to accept. Failing to meet those expectations means unpleasant consequences are likely to follow.

Some consequences might be small… at first. But over time, consequences tend to grow. And bigger failures or misbehaviors tend to have larger, longer-lasting consequences. Consider this: If you conduct an internet search on the “top reasons people lose their jobs,” issues related to insubordination, poor performance, inability to work with others, lateness/absenteeism, lying on a résumé, and violating company policies will show up every time.

Employees who get fired for these reasons are often described as having bad attitudes, personality problems, or a poor work ethic. But the sad reality is, some of these individuals could very well have kept their jobs if they had just been able to learn and master certain essential social skills. Being on Time, Completing Good Quality Work, Asking for Help, Working with Others, Accepting Criticism or Feedback, and Following Instructions are skills that lead to success regardless of setting or situation.

Social skills require practice and patience.

People aren’t born with social skills. Many employers, however, have no time or interest in coaching employees to develop these skills because they assume an adult should already know them.

For the fortunate ones, social skills come more easily because the skills were modeled for them at home, taught to them in school, and reinforced by their friends and family. But for others, who did not have healthy role models or access to opportunities where such skills could be developed, they need more time, patience, and practice.

That’s why I’m such an advocate for teaching social skills, and nurturing skill development in children at the earliest possible age. Logically, the more practice children get, the more success they will have later.

Does that mean a child who hasn’t been exposed to social skills instruction by a specific age is destined to fail? Absolutely not! It’s never too late to start developing and growing social skills… even if you’re already an adult!

In Part 2 of my social skills series, I will dive into the basics of how you can successfully teach social skills to kids regardless of age or ability!

Moeller RW, Seehuus M, & Peisch V. Emotional intelligence, belongingness, and mental health in college students. Front Psychol. 2020;11:93. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00093