It is essential that children’s social and emotional skills are nurtured and taught as early as possible, in order to give them the best chance of developing healthy emotional and social intelligence later on. Tina Rae offers programme ideas and explains how you can measure progress

The development and roll out of the SEAL curriculum and its approaches (DCSF) is currently ongoing across all key stages. An overall awareness of the importance of developing these skills has been raised significantly in recent years. It now appears to be more commonly accepted that basic social skills and the development of an emotional vocabulary are essential to children, and are best instilled early on. Young children need these skills if they are to develop appropriately and function effectively within both the social and learning contexts.

The need for social skills training in the early years

It is during the early years that young children begin to develop certain social skills, such as learning to co-operate, take turns and solving every day social problems. Children need to learn how to wait their turn, share, resolve conflicts, cope effectively with anger, respond assertively in certain contexts and gain confidence in social situations.

If these skills are not learnt in the early years there will naturally be an impact upon overall future development. There are some children who do present as more socially withdrawn early on, and are consequently in need of additional support in order to develop these basic skills of social interaction. For these children, additional teaching to learn to interact socially, ask for help and support, assert themselves and manage anxiety and stress will be necessary. However, it could be argued that all children, regardless of their level of development, will clearly benefit from access to such opportunities. It is also important to highlight the fact that those with Aspergers syndrome or autism will also require additional support in order to develop basic social skills such as making eye contact, recognising emotions and developing empathy.

Reinforcement and generalisation in everyday situations

The fact that young children learn best through modelling and practice is not in dispute (Edwards & Schwartz 1973). However, a frequently noted problem is the generalisation of such newly trained skills to significant environments (Berta, Ross & Dragman 1982, Cook & Apollonia 1976, LaGreca & Stangrossi 1980). This is particularly difficult when training is conducted away from the child’s natural environment and, in such instances, careful attention needs to be paid to identifying ways to enhance generalisation and incorporate these into any intervention plan.

What works?

Programmes that work generally encourage children to socially interact and become confident and capable social beings by fostering the following:

  • Basic skills such as looking at others when talking to them
  • Listening and not interrupting
  • Following the classroom rules and routines
  • Taking turns and sharing with others
  • Complex skills such as recognising the emotions of others, responding in an appropriate way to other’s feelings, managing conflict situations without resorting to aggression and being able to express their own needs and desires in an appropriate way.

The use of circle-time approaches, stories, puppets and turn-taking games all support the development of such skills. However, it is important that these are generalised into a range of contexts, for example both the classroom and playground routines. Setting specific targets with individual children regarding their social behaviours is also helpful alongside the delivery of group-based or whole-class programmes. These can be monitored by significant adults on a daily basis and children can access appropriate rewards for pro-social behaviours in each context.

Developing social and emotional skills in the early years programme

This programme has been trialled in Hillingdon schools and found to be extremely effective in promoting pro-social behaviours in early years groups. Each of the 20 sessions focuses upon specific skills and these build upon each other with increasing complexity during the course. These skills are taught via scenarios conducted between two puppets – this is an extremely safe way for children to learn social skills as it avoids identifying children as not displaying these qualities themselves. Instead they are being taught to observe pro-social skills in others and then begin to understand and incorporate these skills into their own ways of being. The programme is structured in four parts as follows:

Part 1: School BehavioursPart 2: Our FeelingsPart 3: Friendship Skills

Part 4: Social Skills

Measuring progress and setting targets

Criticisms of such programmes are usually aimed at the fact that actions are not always effectively taken to enable a measure of progress. It may therefore be useful to refer to a range of key skills and behaviours when delivering any kind of social skills intervention, in order to keep track of related progress. These can be grouped into the following:

  • School behaviours
  • Feelings
  • Friendship skills and social skills

The following lists of objectives may then be used when instructing a social skills intervention and measuring progress of the individuals participating:

School Behaviours

  • Looks at an adult when called
  • Looks at another child when called
  • Can maintain eye contact when talking
  • Does not interrupt the speaker
  • Waits for a turn to talk
  • Understands what is being said
  • Follows instructions appropriately
  • Uses appropriate volume when speaking
  • Uses the appropriate vocabulary to express needs, wants and ideas
  • Can sit appropriately to listen to a story/teacher’s instructions
  • Can concentrate on an activity without interrupting others
  • Knows what is ‘safe’ to do in class
  • Knows what is ‘unsafe’ to do in class
  • Knows how to play and interact safely in the playground
  • Knows when behaviour is unsafe in the playground
  • Follows classroom routines and rules to keep safe
  • Follows playground routines and rules to keep safe


  • Can recognise and label how they are feeling
  • Can recognise how others are feeling
  • Can show empathy towards others
  • Can tell an adult when they feel distressed
  • Can tell another peer when they feel distressed
  • Can distinguish between comfortable and uncomfortable feelings
  • Has appropriate emotional vocabulary to express feelings accurately
  • Can express anger without physical aggression

Friendship Skills

  • Shows interest in other pupils
  • Can approach a peer and ask to play with them
  • Understands the concept of kindness
  • Understands the concept of sharing
  • Understands the concept of turn-taking
  • Can identify one or more friends in class
  • Can identify one or more friends in the home
  • Will apologise to a friend when necessary
  • Will help out a friend when necessary
  • Has shown the ability to sustain a friendship

Social Skills

  • Can take turns appropriately in conversation.
  • Can take turns appropriately in a game.
  • Plays well with other pupils in a game/turn-taking activity
  • Can work well alongside one other pupil on a class base learning task
  • Can participate well in a group activity i.e. helping, turn-taking, supporting others in need
  • Co-operates with peers and plays effectively in the playground

Involving parents

Any social skills intervention will benefit from the involvement of parents, and it is strongly advised that parents are provided with adequate information as to what the course entails and how they can also support the development of these skills within the home context. Those delivering any intervention should provide parents with details of any social skills games and activities undertaken in the group. For example, if children are engaged in making use of the ‘bag’ game (this is a game in which young children pass a bag of objects around the circle and take it in turns to introduce and discuss each object in turn) this will then allow parents to repeat the process in the home context, ideally with the family group. This reinforces the importance of developing new skills in a range of contexts to the child, as well as the fact that their social interaction will be more positive if they can begin to develop these skills in all areas of their lives.

Some useful references

  • Cartledge, G., & Milburn, J.F. (eds) (1980) Teaching Social Skills to Children New York: Pergamon Press
  • DCSF (2007) Secondary National Strategy for School Improvement Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning for Secondary Schools (SEAL) Guidance Booklet
  • Eisenber, N., Fabes, R., Murphy, B., Karbon, M., & Smith, M. (1996) The relations of children’s disposition empathy related responding to their emotional regulation and social functioning Developmental Psychology 32 (2), (192-209)
  • Greenberg, M.T., & Kusche, C.A. (1993) Promoting Social and Emotional Development in Deaf Children The PATH programme Seattle University of California Press
  • LaGreca, A.M. & Santogrossi, D.A. (1980) Social skills training with elementary school students: A behavioural group approach Journal for Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48, 220-227
  • Rae, T. (1998) Dealing with Feeling An Emotional Literacy Curriculum Lucky Duck Publishing
  • Rinaldi, W. (1992) The Social Use of Language Programme NFER Nelson
  • Schroeder, A. (1996) Socially Speaking Cambs LDA

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country

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