Helping Your Child Succeed Socially in School

Dr. Rona Novick Offers Four Steps Towards Positive Social Leadership

As September approaches, our thoughts begin to turn towards academic pursuits: Which teacher will be best? How much homework will there be?

Dr. Rona Novick

But perhaps students returning to school are most plagued by issues relating to social skills and challenges: Will I make friends? Who will be nice to me? Will I fit in?

Schools are social places. Students spend a considerable amount of time in groups, both as part of their learning and in unstructured activities. Collaboration is a critical life skill, and learning to be a responsible and caring social leader is a wonderful goal. Although developing social skills, empathy and social leadership is a complex, ongoing process, parents can set the stage for success, and help children obtain healthy social attitudes with some fairly straightforward September adjustments.

1. Be positive

Parents should model a positive view towards the social aspects of school and encourage children to be a positive social force in their school environment. In addition to asking children how they will get their homework done or stay organized, parents can ask students who they will include in their games and conversations. Such questions communicate to children that working well with others is important and that being friendly is valued.

2. Be reasonable

Children and parents may have high hopes or expectations that this year, everyone will be friendly. Students may begin the school year planning to make many new friends or undo any and all social problems from the past. To minimize disappointments, parents can manage their own expectations as well as those of their children. Schools should be civil and friendly places, and children have every right to expect to be treated in a friendly way by all. But it is not reasonable to expect everyone to be friends. Not every game can include every student and not every snack can be shared with 20 peers.

Too often, children and adults mislabel all non-friend behavior as bullying. Bullying is a serious problem in schools, but a classmate refusing to share their markers may indicate personal possessiveness, and not vicious bullying. Helping children understand that not everyone needs to be their best friend, and that not every negative interaction needs an intense response or intervention, is important in creating reasonable social expectations.

3. Develop empathy “muscles” 

Empathy, the capacity to understand the feelings of others, is the cornerstone of all social skill-building. To build a child’s empathy takes practice, and often a shift in focus away from a child’s natural self-focus is needed. Parents can support this by asking children about the feelings of others and asking them what they did to be friendly to others. This is difficult to do in the midst of conflict, or when a child is complaining about how they have been wronged, or what is unfair. Parents may find that hypothetical situations offered in books, movies or TV shows allow them to build their children’s skills in understanding and appreciating the feelings of others.

4. It takes a village 

Building healthy social environments for children takes the collaboration of many. Families and schools need to partner in this important work, but also need to respect each other’s strengths and limits. Families will, by their very nature, be focused on their child’s needs, and not necessarily on the needs of the larger group. Schools, while concerned with social issues, need to also address numerous other domains of students’ lives. Only when families respect schools and their unique expertise, and when schools respect a family’s passion and knowledge of its children, can a partnership be formed. With ongoing partnering, lots of patience and a commitment to problem-solving, adults can help shape social environments that bring out the best in children.

Dr. Rona Novick is the director of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Doctoral Program at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. A renowned bully-prevention expert, she serves as the director of the BRAVE Bully Reduction and Social Leadership Development program at YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership.