Making Up for Lost Time: Social Skills Lessons for the In-Person Classroom

Parents and teachers alike are concerned about the effect that a year of enforced social isolation has had on their kids. Younger children, in particular, need social interaction to learn behavioral norms and develop social skills that will help them throughout their lives.

Many teachers are ramping up their social skills lesson plans this year. Here are a few ideas for your classroom to help your kids connect emotionally and learn positive behaviors. 

What Did Students Lose During a Year of Remote Learning?

One of the biggest questions educators are asking is: How much did students lose? What social skills are kids missing out on that they would have learned in non-pandemic times? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.

The loss of social skills varies by family and age, with some children minimally affected (like those from more affluent families) and others significantly affected — those who “experienced the double whammy of less time with parents and less time with other children,” says Amanda Spielman, chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education in the U.K. 

Based on 900 visits to education and social care providers across England, Spielman reports that in some cases, very young toilet-trained students with working parents have reverted to using diapers and have forgotten how to use knives and forks — “not to mention the loss of early progress in words and numbers.”

Researchers looked at how parents handled remote learning and what they did to fill gaps in topics related to social skills development. Dr. Michele L. Stites and Dr. Susan Sonnenschein, professors at the University of Maryland (along with graduate assistant Samantha H. Galczyk) surveyed 166 parents of preschool children to learn what they thought of virtual school. More than one-third (37 percent) said their children were “too young to engage in online instruction without significant support from their caregivers.” The same amount of parents reported being unable to provide that support, due to work or other childcare responsibilities while 65 percent said they supplemented the class lessons with in-person activities. 

“The parents we surveyed wanted short exercises to build social skills while students learn remotely. These activities would help students develop friendships, social norms and emotional awareness,” Stites and Sonnenschein write. Still, not all parents have the time or ability to develop these activities.

Even with students returning to school, today’s classroom looks much different than before, and basic etiquette practices have changed. This means teachers may need to adjust their lesson plans to include COVID-based social rules. 

“So much of typical [social-emotional learning] programs and practices have included a lot of face-to-face interaction between students and between students and adults,” says Justina Schlund, senior director of content and field learning at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. “So I think it’s going to require a lot of creativity on the part of our schools and educators to think about how they’re communicating SEL during this time.” 

Despite these concerns, many educators and child psychologists are optimistic. There are ways for kids to keep learning so they can bounce back to their expected rates of development. 

in-person social skills lessons as students return to school.

7 Ways to Engage Your Students to Build Their Social Skills

As an educator, teaching social skills is likely already integrated into your day-to-day lesson planning; however, there needs to be an emphasis on helping students regain lost ground. These ideas and resources are meant for younger learners, but can be adjusted for older students as needed. 

Students Can Videos to Learn New Skills

The first thing to note with your social skills lessons is that not every activity needs to be interactive. You can use songs, books and videos to introduce or review concepts.

“Social skills don’t have to be learned the hard way, through trial and error,” explains Dr. James Stanfield, whose company produces social competence and transition readiness programs. “Instead, we can learn by watching the social successes and failures of others. This gives students the opportunity to build emotional intelligence and learn appropriate social conduct in the safe, familiar setting of a classroom.”

In fact, there are times when letting students observe an interaction might be a better option than asking for direct participation.

“Very young children tend to engage in ‘parallel play,’” says clinical child psychologist Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski. “Their interest is in playing next to other children with similar toys or activities. They do not necessarily interact as frequently or intentionally as older kids do.” 

This is important to note for parents and teachers who are worried about engaging kids. While you do want to encourage participation, it isn’t the only way to teach valuable social guidelines.

Connect Social Skills to Songs

For one fun activity, kids can sing a song that describes what they should do in certain situations. 

Music therapist Rachel Rambach has a song called “What Do You Do?” that helps kids develop social skills. Teachers can download the song itself or the instrumental track to create their own verses. The song covers basic situations and what is the right thing to do. For example, when you see a friend, what do you do? You can wave to them and say hello.

This song and activity may also help introduce guidelines in the COVID-classroom, where hugging a friend isn’t a good idea.  

Practice Storytelling Formulas

Teaching students how to tell stories can help them better form personal connections while also helping them explain information. Whether you want your students to talk about their weekends or create a magical world with monsters and elves, you can use story formulas to help them learn how to structure explanations. 

“Give your child a formula—tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end using 1-2 sentences for each part,” clinical psychologist Dr. Liz Matheis writes. “Anything more and you have lost your audience. If you (the parent) are getting bored with the story, chances are, so will a same-aged peer.”

Teachers often experience this. A student without storytelling skills will try to tell you about something and wind up rambling on with no real goal or end.

in-person social skills lessons as students return to school.

Have Students Draw Their Feelings

Lauren Gaines, an instructor in the psychology department at DeSales University, encourages her own children to draw their feelings to better express themselves. This activity helps them calm down and gives them an outlet for their emotions. Once the drawing is done, the child can explain what they drew and why, giving them a way to talk through what they were feeling without being agitated.

Set Up School Pen Pals

There are other ways to teach kids how to evaluate and share their feelings. For example, some teachers have had success with pen pal programs. 

By writing letters to students in other schools, students learned how to express themselves in writing. They can also learn how to respond to what others say. 

“Particularly valuable for introverted personalities, writing letters gave students time to collect their thoughts,” writes Nicole Eredic, educator and author of “Inclusion in Action.” “It leveled the playing field for students who had special needs or were non-verbal.”

Give Kids Opportunities to Work Together

While introducing social skills can help, you also want to look for opportunities for kids to practice them. For a jumping-off point, curriculum specialist Kristina Scully provides tips for teachers who want to better prepare kids to work well with others. These include:

  • Create a set of ground rules for teamwork for the class to follow.
  • Let students pick partners sometimes, instead of always assigning them.
  • Develop opportunities for students to collaborate frequently.
  • Create a list of “I feel” and “I think” sentence starters to help students express themselves in group settings.

Scully provides several activities for various social skills. Each skill comes with four or five action items to reinforce the positive practice. 

Include Social-Emotional Learning in the Exit Ticket

Even middle school teachers can practice social skills and healthy self-expression. Jill Fletcher, curriculum coordinator at the Hawaii State Department of Education, shares a few social-emotional learning activities that teachers can introduce to the middle school classroom. 

One suggestion is to change your exit passes so you check in before your students check out. On the tickets, Fletcher asks questions like “How are you feeling?” and “What’s new with you?” She was surprised at how many outwardly happy and engaged students said they were upset or bored. The exercise gave her insight into what each student was going through and allowed her to “address their emotional needs  more quickly and more often.”

in-person social skills lessons as students return to school.

Additional Resources for Social Skills Lesson Planning

Teaching a broad concept like social skills can get overwhelming for educators when there is so much to cover. However, with a solid resource kit, you can pull specific activities to meet your goals and help your returning students. A few key resources include:

  • Dyan Robson, hyperlexia advocate and blogger, created a printable resource with 50 social skills kids can practice. “When it comes to teaching social skills, remember that it should be individualized to the person,” she says. So while a child might have a hard time with something like staying on task, they might be great at using names or encouraging others. Kids learn different skills at different times — even many adults have a hard time with skills like resisting peer pressure or making an apology.
  • Erica Mackay at Organized Mom curated 25 children’s books that teach social-emotional skills. They cover topics like emotions, different points of view, bravery and friendship. 
  • The staff at Positive Action has more than 20 evidence-based social skills you can use in your classroom — many of which can be modified to accommodate social distancing limitations. Preschool students can start with the basics, like rolling a ball back and forth to each other, while older ones can participate in productive debates and improv games.
  • The Apperson team shares three games and has a free eBook you can use to teach social skills. One game is an emotions scavenger hunt, where kids randomly draw emotions and pretend to have them — allowing their peers to identify them with context clues. Another game is called “Anger Catcher” (kind of like a cootie catcher) where kids work through their feelings to calm down and get tips for handling their feelings in a healthy way.  

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