Making friends takes practice, parents offered tips

Posted by Alicia Smith on 12/3/2018 2:40:00 PM

Making friends takes practice.

By practicing a number of social scenarios with their children, parents can help them navigate social relationships and have an easier time making friends, the district's behavior interventionist told parents at a recent presentation at the Alice E. Grady Elementary School.

“In social behaviors we think they should come naturally, and they don’t,” Emily Katz, Ph. D. said.

Ultimately, Dr. Katz said, “it’s all practice.”

The event was hosted by the Special Education Committee of the PTA and drew a group of parents and educators who were looking for advice for their children and those with special needs who may have difficulty interacting with others.

When children have a better understanding of how to enter a conversation or an activity, offer a compliment, receive feedback, accept rejection and show empathy they gain valuable life skills.

“These are huge milestones kids need to experience in order to be truly social,” Dr. Katz said.Dr. Emily Katz

Some children may demonstrate social skill deficits, they do not interact or respond to others or make eye contact.

In order to begin to help a child, Dr. Katz recommends parents consider what their child is doing — are they unable to interact socially because they do not know or understand the subtleties of how to do this, or do they simply have no interest and won’t interact with others?

One of the best thing’s parents can do to help their child be more social and feel more comfortable doing so is to get out and interact with others as much as possible. Dr. Katz suggested trips to the park and the library, having friends over, or signing up for a weekend activity.

“This is being intentional about it,” she said.

Parents can also ask their friends or older siblings to assist. These peer mentors help demonstrate appropriate social skills.

Role-playing can also be a valuable tool for parents. In these instances, parents and their child act out a hypothetical situation using appropriate words and body language.

For example, parents may demonstrate how to initiate a conversation by sharing how to introduce themselves or asking questions and then having their child engage in a pretend conversation.

“We call them behavioral rehearsals,” Dr. Katz said.

Dr. Katz is not opposed to offering a reward to a child who is struggling socially, at least temporarily. When a child demonstrates an appropriate social behavior or meets a goal, such as talking to three other children, he or she can be given a reward initially, which will be faded out as the practice becomes more common.

“They might need some motivation to get to that place,” Dr. Katz assured.

It is also important to help children identify emotions. One exercise parents can use is to find pictures of people showing different emotions and label them, such as a smiling person would be labelled “happy.” The images can be used to have a conversation with your child by asking questions about the image: Why is this person happy? What about the image shows that they are happy?

Another activity parents can use is a script as a way to build skills. A script can include introducing oneself, asking how someone is doing, and a response when the person asks how he or she is, etc.

“The ultimate goal is we want it to be as natural as possible,” Dr. Katz said. “If you teach with scripts, use a variety of scripts. Over time children will mix up the scripts on their own so they can be more spontaneous.”

There are also videos which can help convey the message too.

“Video modeling has been shown to be effective,” Dr. Katz said. “It’s another visual aid that can help your child.”

Other visuals include charts and lists.

Dr. Katz demonstrated one chart relating to being at the playground which visually laid out expectations when visiting. For example, interacting with three friends, playing on specific equipment such as the swings, and what the reward will be if all of the expectations are met.

“It starts to build a capacity to engage with kids,” Dr. Katz said.

Another chart or visual would be a list of rules to share with your child. For example, if working to improve your child’s skills with sharing, the list of rules might include: Let the friend have a turn, Ask to have a turn, Have a positive attitude.

A chart on how to vave a conversation may include: Make eye contact, Bring up a Topic, Make eye contact again.

Parents can also create a list of conversation starters simply by writing a few topics down and any questions relating to that topic. This activity can help model a conversation and prompt some questions a child can later use in another conversation.

“It expands to helping a child stay on topic and also builds vocabulary,” Alice E. Grady Elementary School Psychologist Rose Hoey said of this practice.

Dr. Katz said she has noticed this activity spark a positive moment among children when they realize they can also talk about other topics.

Ms. Hoey agreed, “it’s like priming the pump,” she said.

Many of these activities are things Dr. Katz said can happen at any time and require little or no resources. Often it is just a matter of talking to your child or setting aside five minutes for a role-play activity.
“It’s just practice. These are all different forms of the same thing,” Dr. Katz reiterated.

Some of these activities may develop on their own. When a parent or child sees someone else behaving a certain way, it could serve as a conversation starter. What do you think happened, what did you notice about that, what would you do are questions that may arise.

Much of what parents are trying to do is to teach their child empathy, which Dr. Katz said is a difficult concept to teach another person.

“It’s hard for many adults to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “I think the best way to do it is in real life. For example, if you see a child crying in a grocery store, talk about it with your child.”

Ms. Hoey said she views these types of teaching moments as a teacher might when they develop a curriculum for their students.

“First it’s the language,” she said. “You have to give them language skills. You start by giving them a lot of language. Then you start to discern between thinking and feeling. They have to know the difference between their thinking bubbles and speaking bubbles.”

“Each step is more difficult but you build on each step,” added Dr. Katz. “The more exposure they have, the more they are equipped to handle a situation.”

Finally, if a parent is truly struggling and not sure how to help their child, Ms. Hoey recommended reaching out to the school which has people and resources that can help.

“We need to support each other because it’s such a hard job,” Ms. Hoey said.