Beyond the Playdate: Practicing Social Skills at Home

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Beyond the Playdate: Practicing Social Skills at HomeIn my other, pre-parent life, I was a professional actress. And while that may sound glamorous, it usually meant long hours rehearsing plays or musicals for shockingly low pay. Some say the rule of thumb is one hour of rehearsal for every minute on stage—so, a one-hour play represents sixty hours of rehearsal. It was hard, grueling, and sometimes incredibly boring work, but the performances made it all worthwhile.

I have often been asked (as I’m sure every performer is) whether I got nervous before a performance. My answer is that although I was usually excited, I was rarely nervous, especially if I felt well rehearsed (and I usually did).

Ready for Anything
I have found that this penchant for being well prepared—especially through rehearsal—has served me well offstage, too, especially as a parent, and as it applies to my child’s social-emotional skills.

Any school-based social-emotional curriculum worth its salt involves this concept. Some call it role play; others call it skill practice. Whatever the moniker, the idea is to get lots of practice with social-emotional skills in a safe, calm environment so when children are faced with similar situations in everyday life (or situations that may be more emotionally charged), the necessary skills will come more easily to them.

Practice Makes Perfect
Most parents, however, won’t want their child to wait until school to start learning these skills, or their child’s school may not offer a social-emotional learning curriculum. And although playdates are great ways to learn social skills, parents may not want to depend on them as their child’s sole source of socialization.

That’s where rehearsal at home comes in handy. With your children, you can create (or re-create) socially challenging situations, explore different ways of reacting, and then choose and practice the most prosocial responses.

An Early Start
Take, for example, my daughter when she first started preschool at age three and a half. A boy in her class (we’ll call him Alan), who was a year older and quite a bit bigger than her, was bullying her. This involved taking toys away from her and pushing her down the slide before she was ready. But the action that most brought out the mama bear in me was that he made disparaging comments about her clothes so frequently that we went through a period during which, every morning, she would ask me, “Do you think Alan will like my outfit?” As you can imagine, I was eager to shut that down immediately.

I started out by telling my daughter to tell her teacher or another adult whenever the bullying would happen, but I soon learned she wasn’t. I realized this was because she wasn’t quite sure what to say. So we started rehearsing whenever we had a free moment—at home, in the car, on the walk to school. I would give my daughter a scenario (“Alan just took your ball away from you on the playground,” for example) and pretend to be her teacher. Then, she could take her time figuring out what she wanted to say in an environment where there wasn’t so much pressure.

Say What You Want to Say
This also gave us an opportunity to practice her assertiveness skills, which are extremely useful in both social and academic situations. If she kept her eyes on the ground and mumbled, I could gently correct her to stand straight and tall, look directly at me, and say what she needed to say in a calm, clear, and strong voice. After a couple weeks of rehearsing these skills at home, my daughter felt ready to report Alan’s bullying in real time, which stopped it.

We also rehearsed refusing the bullying. The key to practicing these situations is not to rehearse the bullying itself, but rather to start right after it happened. So I’d say, “Let’s pretend Alan just said something mean about your shirt,” instead of, “Okay, pretend I’m Alan: ‘Your shirt is really ugly!’” My daughter could again practice her assertiveness skills: standing up straight and tall, looking directly at Mommy-as-Alan, and saying (firmly but politely), “That’s bullying. I don’t like it. Please stop it.”

Practical Applications
Rehearsal works with all sorts of social-emotional skills: emotion recognition (“Look at my face. How do you think I’m feeling right now? How about now?”), emotion management (“When you feel mad, what are some things you can do to calm down? Let’s do them together now.”), empathy (“Pretend I’m sad because I lost my teddy bear. What could you do to help make me feel better?”), and problem solving (“Let’s say you and I want to play together, but I want to build blocks and you want to play Matchbox cars. What could we do so that we’re both happy?”), just to name a few. And since pretend play is practically a young child’s default setting, odds are you’ll get enthusiastic participation—not to mention some quality playtime with your kiddo.

“And the Oscar Goes to . . .”
In case you’re wondering how the Alan thing ended, it turned out he didn’t actually realize his behavior was bullying. So after being stopped in his tracks a few times by my daughter assertively pointing it out for him (plus some vigilance on the teacher’s part), it stopped. And, like her mother onstage after adequate rehearsal time, she wasn’t nervous—just proud of her accomplishment.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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