Helping Young Children Develop Social Skills During the Pandemic

By Molly Breen

Helping Young Children Develop Social Skills During the Pandemic

This time of teaching and learning in the pandemic is, no doubt, historic and unprecedented in our lifetimes. We cannot possibly predict all the long-term effects—good and bad—that this experience will have on our lives. And in the midst of a great deal of uncertainty, we are constantly being called to transform, to adapt, to be evermore resilient. This call to transformation is amplified by the current social and political climate, which is equally imperative and unpredictable.

As educators, whether we are teaching remotely or in-person, we need to set a tone, an example, for children of how to be in the swirl of our new, masked normal. How do we set the “right” tone with our young learners so that they may develop the important social skills naturally emerging at this time in their lives (which happens to coincide with a pandemic)?

I imagine that many wonder how masking will affect development in young children. Masking is perhaps one of the most visible changes precipitated by the pandemic, and therefore likely top-of-mind in terms of its impact on young children: Will they have the same facial recognition skills as kids who spent their early years interacting sans masks? Will motor function and articulation be affected because kids aren’t able to see the mouth movements of teachers and peers? And what about auditory skills? Will they tune in or tune out if it’s difficult to hear a voice through the muffle of a mask?

But perhaps our masking worries are less impactful than the overdose of anxiety that children are getting, often vicariously, through us!

As teachers, we know that social development happens within the context of relationships—masked or unmasked, in person or remote. And we know that kids have excellent abilities to perceive our attitudes (how we make them feel) over what we intend to “teach.” Most of the social competencies require practice in social settings and with people. Helping our learners develop these crucial life skills without the context in which to practice them is a whole new professional challenge. First, we must check our own temperaments: Are we able to practice what we preach, so to speak? So, check in with yourself with a quick social competence self-assessment:

  1. Am I self-aware?
  2. Am I able to manage my emotions (executive function)?
  3. Am I connected to my internal motivation?
  4. Do I listen and respond empathically to my friends, family, and colleagues?
  5. Do I have adequate opportunities and relationships to practice my social skills?

Once you have checked in with yourself and feel equipped to authentically guide children’s development when it comes to social skills, I recommend setting up some guideposts for modeling social skills in your daily practice. For example:

  • I will look each child in the eye and, if in-person, use a reassuring touch.
  • My mantra is connection over perfection. I will keep relationships central to our learning, and it will be felt by my students and, in turn, activated in their daily activities.
  • I will make time to ask questions, comment, and compliment each child during our weekly time together.
  • I will listen when children are speaking to me, and I will summarize what they have said and/or follow up with a comment or question.

With these guideposts in place, it is important to determine how to differentiate and support the development of social skills through remote learning or in-person learning with pandemic protocols.

As always, books and social stories are an excellent way to access highly relatable and “teachable” content about social skills in addition to positive modeling. Allowing children to come up with their own social stories, draw pictures, and describe what’s happening (a game we brilliantly call “What’s Happening?” in my setting) can help them process social situations and challenges more abstractly.

For remote learning, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of very small group time or one-on-one calls. Even if it seems like your students are disengaged, the example we set by showing up, reading a story, asking some questions, and sharing a bit about ourselves is monumental. If a child is especially reluctant, ask their adult caregiver to sit in on the call and model some positive social interaction with the adult. Some teachers swear by using puppets or other teaching props to address social skills—it’s depersonalizing to have a shy hand puppet help children process their feelings as opposed to asking children if they’ve ever felt shy!

My personal philosophy in teaching is this: keep it relational; trust is everything. This time, this historic and unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes time, is not one for striving toward curricular goals and achievement. Do we need to be mindful of deficits and support healthy development? Absolutely. Can we do this in tandem with a deepened commitment to relational teaching and learning? We must. Model resilience and mental flexibility. Model compassion and empathy. Be the teacher that children need us to be right now. We cannot predict what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be on our social and emotional development, but we can guide children toward prosocial skills that, hopefully, lay a foundation for a better tomorrow.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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2 Responses to Helping Young Children Develop Social Skills During the Pandemic

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  2. Liz Mulroy says:

    This is a wonderful article!

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