This is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This post follow’s on from last week’s post on basic social ability and will give you information about how to assess higher order social ability in 4 year olds.
Interaction with peers
As described in last week’s post, a child’s interaction with peers is more difficult for them to navigate than interaction with adults. A child that interacts confidently with adults may struggle to interact with peers. This is as 4 year old peers are immature in social skills and are themselves learning to acquire these skills. This is easy to understand if you think about tennis. A child beginning to learn tennis can play with an expert adult as the adult can direct balls at the child and return errant balls. Get two children who are just beginning to learn to play tennis to play with each other and it is much more difficult and frustrating for the children as neither can play properly.
Both Big Sis and Lil Bro went to nursery from a young age and so had much exposure to interacting with other children. From this I was able to get good accounts of their social ability with peers. Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is able to take turns, share toys and join in with other children (for instance joining in with actions to songs such as “The wheels on the bus”, or a game of hide and seek). Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is aggressive in interactions. If your child is constantly victimized (which you will know about as you are required to sign an incident form in a nursery if your child is bumped/ bruised/ bitten/ scratched or harmed in any way), as well as questioning what the nursery is doing about this, you should question what your child is and is not doing to end up in this situation so frequently. Children who are frequently victimised or frequently aggressive are more likely to need extra attention as they may be vulnerable to difficulties.
Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is polite (says “please” and “thank you” – very important social skills that do require to be taught) and caring (what they do in response to another child that has fallen over). They should also be able to give information regarding play. If they don’t, you should ask about it.
The importance of play for children cannot be overstated. Not only as a means of relaxation and enjoyment, but it is in play that children are able to order, understand, rehearse and cement social understanding as well as be creative. Play is often heavily influenced by what the child has experienced in their social environment. It is sad, but no surprise that some children I know in South Africa, following an armed break-in started to play a game of “robbers” involving tying each other up. Back at home, I know children who are more likely to play “I’m mummy, getting ready to go out to a party”. What these children have in common is that they are all learning about their own social environments and about ways to behave in them. It’s no wonder that “play” with a dolls house and family characters is the preferred way that shrinks find out what is really happening at home when we assess children of this age group. If children play about the mummies and daddies shouting at each other, this doesn’t mean a direct call to social services, but does prompt questioning and assessment on the parental relationship and what bearing this may have for the child. Observing what my children play act left to their own devices is one of my favourite pastimes, and if it is about setting up a school and marking a register and reading stories to the assembled stuffed animals (which it is frequently), I can heave a sigh of relief. It’s no wonder that watching children play, and interacting in play with children is one of the main assessment tools in a child psychiatrist’s armoury.
As well as to gain insight into the child’s real social environment, children at this age will be beginning to develop imaginative and interactive play, both precursor skills required for good social ability. Dressing up and pretending to be a princess, a superhero or both is usually a good sign of imaginative play, in particular if they take on the roles, act out stories that they have generated themselves and if they play this with other children, each understanding what the other is pretending. Many adults may see this type of play as “silly” or a “waste of time”, but imagination and role playing is a rehearsal of the ability to think about how someone else is thinking and how this may affect their behaviour, the basis of “mentalization” the new buzz therapy in psychiatry.
Interactive games, such as hide-and-seek, allow observation of practical interaction skills between children. Is your child able to take turns? Will your child cry or get aggressive if they lose? Is your child able to follow and understand the rules? How does your child react if someone else transgresses the rules? Does your child take charge of the game or stand back?
Your child’s nursery can give you this type of information; else you can observe your own child’s play with their sibling (if they are close enough in age to play together) or at a play date.
If you want a real test of social skill, or are just a mean child psychiatrist like me, then you need to work in a few spoilers. Most children will be able to display good social ability when everything is hunky-dory and going their way. But what about compromise and negotiation? What about staying out of trouble? Most children are taught compromise when children are invited over to play and “Guests” are given privileges. “Let your friend go first, because they are the guest”, “Let your friend have the bigger slice of cake, because they are the guest” – this type of thing that happens all the time on play dates. If your children are able to accept this, chances are, they will be able to come to terms with compromise. They understand the social rules and etiquette and are able to conform to them. If they predictably have a tantrum, even when the situation is explained, then problems at school can be anticipated. Getting along with other people, good social ability; includes understanding that getting along with others is sometimes more important than the bigger slice of cake.
Other spoilers can be less easily arranged, but these situations arise all the time naturally and it is often a good idea to stand back and observe how your child deals with situations rather than to wade in and intervene at the onset of trouble. When I took Big Sis to a public sand pit one day, I noticed another child who was more boisterous and disruptive playing there. The boy approached Big Sis, clearly wanting to interact, but he had already disrupted the play of some other children. Big Sis turned subtly away and kept her head down doing what she was doing and saying nothing. The boy got tired of no response and went away to disrupt someone else. Big Sis had clearly clocked this boy was trouble but she managed to deal with the problem in a way that was not rude or confrontational and that achieved its objective with minimal fuss. She was able to see trouble coming and avoid it. It may not be the most obvious social skill, but it is a highly valuable one. We all know some children who are “always” involved in trouble even if they are not necessarily the instigators and I would argue that avoiding trouble is as much a social skill as the ability to make friends. I felt confident that Big Sis could handle herself at school after this.
What happens at the highest levels of social ability – the battle for social dominance? Next week’s post is the conclusion in this series on assessment of social ability and will answer this question. Later on, I will write about what can be done to help support children’s social skills.
 I say “sometimes” as children who always suppress their own needs for others will have other issues that need addressing, and being the class “doormat”, is also not particularly desirable.