Helping Children Develop Social Skills Through Play

By Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., author of the Learning About Me & You, Learning to Get Along®, and Being the Best Me!™ series

Play can take on myriad of forms depending on the developmental maturity and personality of the child, the setting and resources available, and the child’s group of peers. Some might assume that if children aren’t involved in an adult-planned activity that they aren’t developing or learning anything important. Yet play isn’t just a frivolous way for kids to spend time when nothing else is structured for them. It can benefit them on many levels, including physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Play can, in fact, influence a child’s overall growth as a person.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways children can mature through play:

  • Physically: Children learn dexterity and strength as they engage in outdoor play. They develop curiosity as they explore the world around them and manipulate various materials.
  • Mentally: Children learn to think critically and problem-solve as they experiment, create, construct, imagine, and probe the way things work.
  • Socially: Children are learning to communicate, negotiate, and cooperate. Higher-level social skills like friendship building, perspective taking, teamwork, and collaboration can also be developed as children mature. Almost all children love to play, and play is the perfect medium for children of diverse backgrounds and personalities to intermingle.
  • Emotionally: Children learn about fairness, trust, and caring for others through play. They learn to build confidence and creativity, and play can give them a safe outlet for balancing stress in their lives.

Looking at the stages of play can help us understand roughly where a child’s play fits on a social spectrum. These stages become more socially integrated and complex as the child matures. It’s good to remember that while these guidelines give a point of reference, children don’t necessarily move chronologically from one stage to the next and should not be compared with their peers due to individual needs, strengths, and preferences.

Here are the typical developmental stages of play:

  • Solitary play. Young children about two to three years old often play alone without noticing or interacting with other children.
  • Onlooker play. A child may watch as others play. Some conversation may occur, but the child observes without joining in.
  • Parallel play. A child may play near another child and may use the same materials, but children are generally playing side by side without much interaction. The child is learning to share space with another child, as well as learning play skills.
  • Associative play. Several children play together. They interact, take turns, and share equipment.
  • Cooperative play. Children play together and work together toward a common goal that requires them to interact and contribute. The play may involve imagination such as role play.

Here are some suggestions to help children develop socially through play:

  • Give opportunities to mingle. You might open your home and invite school and neighborhood peers to play with your child in a setting that you can supervise. Or you might enroll your child in a preschool program, attend library readings for children, join play groups in your community or place of worship, or play regularly at a local park. Especially if your child does not have siblings close in age, these opportunities to learn from peers can help your child develop communication and social skills as well as foster friendships.
  • Teach fairness. All children want and deserve to be treated fairly. They hate to see unfairness in the world, and they have many instincts toward kindness. Praise children when they include others, share, and think of the needs of another child. When a child feels the sting of not being treated fairly, talk to the child about how that feels. Encourage children to treat others the way they want to be treated.
  • Emphasize cooperation. Taking turns and playing cooperatively can help build friendships. Emphasize the role that each person has in things going smoothly for everyone. Encourage cooperation in simple activities such as putting together a puzzle, building a block tower, or stringing beads. Teamwork gives children an opportunity to work on a common goal and learn sharing skills in the process.
  • Encourage your child’s efforts. Be an example of respect, kindness, and equity in your relationship with your child. Be encouraging and nurturing so that children feel safe to be themselves and learn through trial and error, peer influence, and your loving support.

Cheri MeinersCheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.

Free Spirit book series by Cheri Meiners:


Being The Best Me

Learning About Me and You

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Posted in Early Childhood, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Get the Most Out of Parent-Teacher Conferences

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

How to Get the Most Out of Parent-Teacher ConferencesI don’t know about you, but I got a little deer-in-the-headlights at my first few parent-teacher conferences for my daughter. We sat down with her kindergarten teacher, who is about as kind and nonthreatening as a person can be, and learned all about what our daughter was learning and where she could improve. I found myself wanting to soak up every little detail, worried that I would forget some crucial tidbit that would help my daughter succeed and be happy in school.

I have since learned that it helps to take a few minutes beforehand to think through what it is I want to get out of the conference. For me, that preparation looks like writing a list of questions. But are they the right questions? It occurred to me that teachers themselves may have some advice to share about how to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences (many of them are, after all, parents themselves), so I asked several of them from two very different places: Seattle, Washington, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Linda Murphy is a retired elementary school teacher who now substitute teaches and tutors in the Seattle area. Her suggestions focus not so much on the conference itself, but on the before and after. “Let your child weigh in beforehand,” Murphy says. Explain that you’re going to school to talk to his teacher, and ask if there’s anything he’d like you to talk about. Is he having any problems? Is there anything he’d like his teacher to know about? “Your child might surprise you with something he or she has never mentioned before,” she adds.

Once the meeting is over, Murphy says to talk to your child about it. He will want to know the positive things his teacher said, and together, you can make a plan to tackle the areas that need improvement. Make it clear that you’re all working together: You, your child, and the teacher are a team!

In terms of questions teachers suggest parents ask, they generally fell into two broad categories: academic and social/emotional/behavioral.

Christina Hayes, a kindergarten teacher in Cheyenne, suggests asking how your child handles setbacks and whether she’s adapting well to her new grade and classroom. Hayes includes a question that many teachers I talked to suggested in one way or another: “What can I do at home to support her academically?”

Some phrased this concept in terms of how parents can help teachers directly. Holly Rose, who is a substitute teacher and the acting dean of students at a Seattle-area elementary school, suggests asking, “What kind of opportunities are there for us to volunteer in the classroom to help you manage the group more easily?” And Tammy Bayless-Anderson, an elementary school teacher in Cheyenne, puts it this way: “How can we help support you with our child? Is there anything you might need help with in the classroom?”

Several teachers I spoke to referred to independence and resilience, especially as they apply to academics. Kathi Titus, who is a music specialist in Seattle schools, suggests a general, “Is my child struggling with anything?”

The teachers also had a lot to say about social-emotional and behavioral questions. Heather Landen Artery teaches in a Cheyenne elementary school and suggests asking how your child is doing socially. Along those lines, Holly Rose adds, “Does my child have any friends in class? How does my child treat other students?”

And if your child has behavioral issues, Tammy Bayless-Anderson suggests asking, “What strategies work with their behavior struggles?”

Some of the questions tie academics and social-emotional learning together, such as the one Seattle-area elementary school teacher Abbey Buchert suggests: “Is my child respectful to teacher and peers during whole-group instruction? Carpet time? Partner work?”

As you think about your child and his teacher, you very well may come up with other questions you’d like to ask. But arming yourself with a list of these questions, suggested by teachers themselves, may help focus your next parent-teacher conference so it will be as productive as possible. The outcome? A better school-home connection, ideally resulting in a happier, more successful kiddo. Good luck!

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

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Conflict Resolution for Students with Special Needs

By Benjamin Farrey-Latz, author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up

Conflict Resolution for Students with Special NeedsConflicts are an expected part of life. All children need tools to help them resolve the conflicts they experience. The tools teachers use to help students learn this skill will vary based on the needs of the children in their classrooms. A format for helping students with behavior concerns in general is “Prevent, Teach, Reinforce.” Conflicts are not, in and of themselves, a behavior concern, but the way students handle conflicts can become a concern.

Here are basic guidelines and activities for helping students with special needs resolve conflicts.

We cannot always prevent conflicts, but there are things you can do. Start by thinking about what situations lend themselves to conflicts: recess, lunch, transitions within the classroom and from classroom to classroom, and so on. Take time to observe students in these different situations. Are there ways the environment could be modified to assist students in making this a time for fewer conflicts? For example, I have brought students to lunch a minute or two early so they don’t have to go through the line when it is too busy and when there is too much stimulation and sensory input from being in the middle of a crowd. Practice and review expectations for these times of day. For students with more significant needs, use visuals (pictures of expected behaviors) and frequent reminders of expectations. For students who have the verbal abilities, check in after lunch, recess, and other trying situations daily to see how things went and what could be done differently next time.

Something that can be very difficult for children with special needs, particularly those with autism, is the unpredictability of unstructured social situations. Their anxiety may already be higher in these situations because of all the unknowns. Role-play conflicts students may encounter and how they can handle them. For example, have students pretend someone takes their ball at recess, someone won’t include them in a game, someone “budges” in front of them in line, or someone bumps into them and they don’t know if it was on purpose. Students with more significant needs may need to watch models of kids demonstrating appropriate behaviors, for example, peers role-playing or a video. You may even make videos of students themselves demonstrating appropriate behaviors. (If you use video modeling, make sure you have the appropriate permissions from parents.)

Teaching general education peers about differences in needs or abilities can also be helpful. For example, some students are better or worse in math or reading; the same is true with friendship skills. Some students need more help with how to be a friend. Explaining this can help prevent some conflicts with students in the general education setting. Do not single out the child with special needs. If there is a serious concern about how general education students are treating students with special needs, you may get parental permission to have a more specific discussion with the class about that student. Confidentiality is important, so do not disclose a student’s specific disability without permission from parents.

Students may need a sensory break before an activity that could lead to conflicts. Helpful sensory breaks include playing with putty or modeling clay, swinging in a net swing, building with blocks, and using a weighted vest or blanket.

Social skills lessons should include lessons on conflict resolution. This includes lessons on accepting responsibility and sincerely apologizing for our part in conflicts. This can be very difficult for some students. Some students with autism have a very hard time seeing the other person’s perspective in a conflict. They may also misinterpret another person’s behaviors or intentions. This will require a lot of practice and processing of conflicts. Remember to always wait until the student is calm to do this processing.

Building on the role plays in the “Prevent” section, continue to practice the conversations or reactions that are expected in each situation. It is also important to help students understand the size of the problem. For example, someone budging in line is not nearly as serious as someone punching another student in the face. Review multiple situations and have students place each problem on a continuum for a visual of the seriousness of various problems.

Here are some other “Teach” activities that can be effective.

  • Teach students that it is okay to ask for help. It is not tattling if you need help resolving a conflict peacefully and don’t know how to do it.
  • Teach students calming strategies: taking deep breaths, counting to ten, taking a walk (if appropriate and can be done in a safe and acceptable place), using a fidget.
  • Teach students to self-monitor so they can recognize signs that they are getting angry or upset. Discuss with students how their bodies feel when they are getting angry. Write down some of these signs on a chart: body shakes, head feels hot, and so on. Students can make a mark when they feel one of these signs. Pair this with teaching calming strategies.
  • Teach students to reflect on conflicts—what they handled well, what they could have handled better. One format includes writing or drawing pictures about what happened: How did I feel? How did the other person feel? What did I do? What could I have done differently?

Give students specific praise for resolving conflicts by themselves or asking for help when needed. Be sure to consistently give positive feedback for this. Some students may need a sticker chart or other concrete reinforcement system (working for specific rewards) if they are frequently involved in or instigating conflicts.

Conflicts are going to happen. The above techniques are ways to help children with special needs prepare for and handle conflicts in an appropriate way. This will be a lot harder for some students than for others. Helping build up students’ “tools” is a big part of helping them know what to expect in conflicts and how they can stay calm and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Benjamin Farrey-Latz is a special education teacher at Jefferson Community School (grades 2–6) in the Minneapolis School District. He has worked in education since 1996 in private, public, and charter schools as both a general and special education teacher. After working several years at the elementary level, Benjamin completed his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. His thesis focused on methods of teaching social skills to children with special needs.

I Can Learn Social Skills! Benjamin is the author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up.

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Ten Strategies for Developing a Growth Mindset in Gifted Students

Ten Strategies for Developing a Growth Mindset in Gifted StudentsHow exactly do you help students switch mindsets? Here are some strategies that have proven effective for helping them make this transition.

  1. Help students recognize their strengths and their weaknesses. Show them how to use their strengths to develop their weak areas or find learning partners who are strong in areas where they may be weak.
  2. Provide descriptive, accurate, and constructive feedback that focuses on how students can develop themselves in specific tasks or skill areas.
  3. Focus praise on the effort students put forth toward a goal.
  4. Offer authentic challenges on issues they or others care about that will take time, effort, and persistence to solve.
  5. Teach specific skills of studying, organization, metacognition, time management, goal setting, and monitoring.
  6. Use preassessments to help students recognize what they already know/understand and are able to do, and what they don’t know/understand and are not yet able to do. Be mindful that students may perceive preassessments as shameful (especially if they are in the fixed mindset). Reassure students that preassessments are meant to focus teaching and learning.
  7. When teaching discrete strategies, show students how using the strategy will help them develop certain skills. Some gifted students are whole to part learners and may avoid practicing discrete strategies (part) if they don’t understand how it leads to greater skill development (whole).
  8. Structure time throughout the day when students can reflect on their learning process, talk with others about tasks that were easy or difficult, or take note of their personal feelings on the topic.
  9. Create learning activities where students will need to rely on others to complete the tasks. In these “unlike” groups, students learn to appreciate other people’s skills and realize they have skills unique to themselves.
  10. Continually support students by showing them how their efforts lead to success.

From Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics by Diane Heacox, Ed.D., and Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., copyright © 2014. Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; For more strategies for teaching gifted students check out Differentiation for Gifted Learners.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Helping Kids Build Resilience to Shame

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series

Helping Kids Build Resilience to Shame As I’ve been thinking about writing this post about helping kids overcome shame, I’ve been struggling to capture my thoughts about the issue. Based on my experiences, there is nothing harder to deal with as a therapist, as a parent—and it would seem as a writer—than shame.

Shame, or the sense that there is something wrong with oneself (as opposed to guilt, which is the sense that one has done something wrong), is like a worm, digging its way inside and laying nasty, defective thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not worthy,” and “I’m inadequate.” What is even more unfortunate is when these defective thoughts take up permanent residence inside of us, where they have the potential to cause significant mental health and interpersonal issues. Simply put, it’s very hard to love or respect yourself or have healthy relationships if you think you are a piece of garbage.

Now that I’ve freaked you out about shame, let me give you some good news. We, as adults, can make a tremendous difference in helping children become more resilient to shame. It’s not all bad.

Children experience normal feelings of shame all the time. When students make a mistake, we often see their faces turn red. When they get caught doing something wrong, they feel ashamed and gain a sense that they are not omnipotent. When the shame becomes too hard to handle, kids become flooded physically, initiating the fight, flight, or freeze response.

If handled properly by adults, shame can help kids get a deeper sense of learning from their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. It all starts with the attitude that we adopt toward kids’ wrongdoings and shame. Think of the proverbial I don’t approve of your actions but I always approve of you. Or, I don’t like your choices but I always like you. As we’ve all experienced, adults’ words, attitudes, and behaviors toward kids are often the linchpin that determines whether shame will be a learning tool or will turn into a wily worm.

As the teacher Haim G. Ginott said in his book Teacher and Child, “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”

These words are framed and hang on my office wall. Though Ginott is speaking specifically of the teacher-student relationship, his words stand as a reminder of the important role I play in protecting children and my other clients from shame. As adults, we all must wield our power wisely, with an eye on protecting our students from shame and on building shame resiliency.

I grew up in a family in which I often felt shamed for expressing my emotions and for simply being a kid. “Billy, you’re being silly” and “Kids should be seen and not heard” were common remarks that still resonate deep inside me. I often mishandled my shame by throwing temper tantrums or by shutting down. I remember a specific time when I was ten years old and was accused of cheating while playing cards. I ended up throwing the cards and running out of the room in tears. Nobody ever told me, “It’s okay, Billy. What you are feeling is shame.” I wish they would have normalized the experience and asked, “Where did you feel the shame in your body?” I wish they would have taught me how to breathe and talk myself through my difficult feelings of shame. Instead, I was shamed for my shame response, and the worm embedded itself deeper into me. My parents weren’t cruel. They didn’t know better and most likely followed in the footsteps of their own parents.

We never know what shame experiences our students bring with them into the classroom. Although each child is an individual, we can look at some patterns to help us understand children as they relate to shame. The way I see it, some children have very good abilities to handle shame, can spontaneously recover from shameful situations, and are able to integrate their shame experiences into their lifestyles in positive ways. Other children have adequate shame resiliency, which involves harder, longer-lasting work to recover from shame. And still others have poor shame resiliency, which leaves them dysregulated and perhaps even wounded following a shameful incident, making it much harder to surmount the experience.

Children’s varying abilities to cope with shame are a combination of their neurological, psychological, and biological makeups, which are part of their genetic inheritances and environmental experiences. Mindful teachers are aware of their students’ shame resiliency, take nonjudgmental mental notes about their students’ abilities to handle shame, and adjust their teaching and relationships as needed with each student.

A good reminder in helping students is the ABCDEs of building shame resiliency.

  • Awareness. We need to help students become more aware of their behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and the current situation that surrounds the shame. Being aware is what allows us to grow and make changes. Otherwise we are ships sailing on the sea without a rudder or sail. Promoting and developing awareness in our students through mindfulness, creative visualization, meditation, self-reflection, and other awareness activities is crucial for helping students overcome shame and for their overall success.
  • Be gentle. Shame resiliency can be hard work. Teach students to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes or experience shame. When students struggle, they often develop negative mindsets such as “I’m not good enough” that, if we’re not careful, can stick with them the rest of their lives. We need to help students develop positive mindsets such as “I am good enough,” “I’m important,” “I can handle it,” and “I belong.” We can do this by teaching them to use positive self-talk and by helping them feel and deal with shame and the situation at hand.
  • Create a safe place. Shame resiliency is often gritty, messy work that may trigger your own hardships of being a child or of struggling with relationships. In many ways, it is much easier to focus on math or reading than it is to delve into the ambiguity of emotions, self-talk, and relationships. Therefore, it is vital that students feel comfortable bringing their shame and other worries into the classroom and sharing them with adults. In many ways, our classrooms and the cultures we create are like invisible conduits telling students whether or not it is safe to bring up this gritty stuff.
  • Develop active coping skills. One thing that affects our abilities to cope with difficult emotions like shame is whether we take an active or a passive approach. Inspire and reinforce that students be a part of their own shame resiliency. The sense that “I can do it; I can make a difference” is an important countermeasure to shame. Write social stories showing students how to take an active role. Use examples from books, movies, and the news. Be a good role model when your face turns red.
  • Encourage students to reach out. Help students develop a supportive network of peers, adults, and family members with whom they can share their shame. One of the antidotes to shame is telling someone your shame story and being received with empathy. Empathy can purify the festering worm.

I realize that it is not a simple task to help students become resilient to shame. But seriously, although knowing the capital of Kansas or learning to add 2 + 2 is important, realizing they are good enough and that they are worthy people is perhaps the most valuable lesson we can teach students. It is one we can hope to implant permanently into their memory cores.

bill-mulcahy-webWilliam Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.

Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:


zachgetsfrustratedzach-makes-mistakesZach Stands Up

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