Plain language summary
All kids can run into problems when it comes to making friends and keeping them; preemies (those children born before their expected due date, sometimes by only a few weeks but for some, it may be that they are born up to 16 weeks before their due date) sometimes struggle more. When people talk about “social skills” they are usually referring to what someone does (or what behaviours someone uses) when interacting with other people. These behaviours affect how a child makes and keeps friends, how well the child is liked by his/her peers, how successful a child is within the school community, and the degree to which a child knows what to do in difficult situations with friends and other peers.
Struggles with social skills are common and for some children these struggles can last for a long time. When a child has trouble fitting in it can be stressful for the child and his/her parents. The child’s difficulties may be related to one or a combination of the following kinds of social skill difficulties: (1) The child doesn’t know what to do, for example, she doesn’t know how to join in and get involved in play with her classmates at recess time; (2) The child may not want to engage in a particular skill or behaviour, for example, he does not maintain appropriate personal hygiene; (3) The child may know what to do and wants to but has a hard time interacting or carrying out the skill, for example, he tells a joke to make his friends laugh but the timing, delivery, or the joke itself was not quite right.
According to studies, compared to full-term peers, kids born preterm seem to have more difficulties with social skills; the difficulties may be greatest for those born very preterm. Problems with fitting in and making friends can be very complicated and solutions to make it better usually involve more than one strategy. There is a lot of information online about social skills and there are many programs out there that are designed to improve social skills in children. It is very difficult to know what kinds of programs or supports would be best for any one child so parents have to be smart consumers when it comes to looking into and signing up their child for social skills training programs. Based on our review of the scientific evidence, social skills training programs that seem to be the most useful usually involve the following:
- The program is used as one part of a bigger plan and is delivered in the child’s school;
- What is taught in the program is a good match for the child’s particular difficulties;
- The program is at least 60 hours and occurs over a long time;
- Skills are taught directly and involve practice in role plays and in real life;
- The program is taught by trained people using a manual;
- People close to the child (like parents, peers, and teachers) are involved and help the child practice the skills.
It can be helpful for parents to learn more about social skills to help teach their children what to do through modelling (showing) and encouraging lots of practice. Parents can advocate for their children to get support they needs through school to help create positive school communities in which all children feel like they belong. There are reputable resources available online to help parents and educators find appropriate social skills training programs for their schools. The Neonatal Follow Up Clinic at Sunnybrook can support parents and educators with knowledge and resources to help children develop important social skills.