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IEL Interactive Chat: Supporting Children's Social Development: Strategies for Parents and Caregivers About
Lilian Katz, April 2002 (Revised 2015)

In this Chat, Lilian Katz discusses ways of defining social competence in the early years, provides an overview of what the research indicates must be achieved in the early years, and indicates ways that adults—parents and teachers—can support and strengthen this important aspect of young children's development. Questions answered in this Chat include, “What social skills should a child have by the age of 2 or 3 or 4?” “What can be done to encourage a shy and withdrawn child to interact with others?” “As a teacher/parent/caregiver, how do I know if a child's behavior requires some additional professional intervention? Are there some "red flags" of behavior for children this age?” “What are some things a teacher, caregiver, or parent can do to promote healthy social development?”

Introduction to the Topic

The discussion will include ways of defining social competence in the early years, an overview of what the research indicates must be achieved in the early years, and ways that adults-parents and teachers-can support and strengthen this important aspect of young children's development

An accumulating body of evidence indicates that unless a minimal level of social competence is achieved by roughly about the age of six, a child is likely to be at risk later on in several ways. For example, children who do not overcome early difficulties with peers are more likely than their successful peers to do poorly in school and to drop out of school. Research suggests that they may experience problems in adulthood with employment and family relationships.

Social competence in the early years is indicated by a child's ability to have one or two friends. Friends are peers about whom a child really cares-cares enough even to continue the relationship after a squabble. The capacity for friendship should not be confused with popularity. It is not necessary for children to be popular-that is, liked by lots of other children.

Adults can help children learn the processes of initiating and maintaining relationships with peers in many ways. For example, they can make suggestions about effective ways to approach other children and compare them to ineffective ways. For example, when a child approaches others by referring to himself-e.g., referring to herself or himself by saying something like "I can build a bigger block tower than that!" instead of referring to the other child by saying something like "What are you going to do next?" the child is more likely to be welcomed. This example of learning to use references to the "other" rather than to the "self" is a life skill that is best learned early.

Adults can also help children by encouraging them to be "experimental" as they approach difficult situations. If a child complains to her parent or teacher that someone will not give her or him a turn with a tricycle, the adults can ask the child-in a positive tone-"Well, what have you tried so far?" In this way, the adult teaches the child that (1) in tight situations we can try things, (2) there may not be one strategy for all cases, and (3) experimenting might help in many such predicaments. Often when a young child answers the questions "What have you tried so far?" the adult learns how the child understands how social relationships work and is in a better position to help the child clarify the issues.


Dr. Lilian G. KatzLilian G. Katz is professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she served as co-director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education and principal investigator of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She is a past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and founded the first on-line peer-reviewed early childhood journal, Early Childhood Research & Practice.

Professor Katz is author of more than one hundred publications including articles, chapters, and books about early childhood education, teacher education for the early years, child development, and parenting of young children. For thirteen years she wrote a monthly column for parents of three- and four-year-olds for Parents Magazine.

Dr. Katz was founding editor of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, and served as Editor-in-Chief during its first six years. She also served as chair of the editorial board of the International Journal of the Early Years, published in the UK.

Her most recent book, co-authored with J. H. Helm, is Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years (2nd ed.). Her book titled Talks with Teachers of Young Children (1995) is a collection of her best known early essays. In 2014, she published the third edition of Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, co-authored with S. C. Chard.

Dr. Katz has lectured in all 50 U.S. states and in more than 40 countries. She has held visiting posts at universities in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, India, Israel, the West Indies (Barbados campus), and many parts of the USA. Dr. Katz is the recipient of many honors, including two Fulbright Awards (India and New Zealand), an honorary doctor of letters degree (DLitt.) from Whittier College in Whittier, California, and an honorary doctor of philosophy from the University of Goteborg, Sweden. In 1997 she served as Nehru Professor at the University of Baroda in India.

Professor Katz was born and raised in England. She attended Whittier College in Whittier, California from 1950 to 1952. She became a U.S. citizen in 1953. She received her B.A. degree from San Francisco State University (1964) and her Ph.D. in child development from Stanford University in 1968. She and her husband, the late Boris Katz, have three grown children, five grandsons, and one granddaughter.

Questions & Answers (Edited Transcript)

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Greetings everyone! Welcome to this live interactive chat about one of the biggest topics in the field of early childhood development, care, and education. I am looking forward to hearing from you.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: What social skills should a child have by the age of 2?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: By 2 years of age, most children show an interest in other children and generally welcome opportunities to observe them and make contact with them. Most children have some of the basic skills involved in initiating interactions with peers and can respond fairly well to the approaches of others. Nevertheless, most of them are still shy or wary in new situations and with strangers. This wariness is a good sign because it indicates that the child has close attachments and recognizes the difference between familiar and unfamiliar others. So, shyness, in and of itself, is not a cause for concern, especially when the child responds well to the reassurance of adults or older siblings she or he knows and trusts.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: What social skills should a child have by the age of 3?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: By 3 years of age, most children are generally confident in their approaches to peers and are able to approach them positively. Their increasing verbal skills play a large role in their ability to approach and respond to others.

While they are likely to be shy among strangers at first, they usually overcome this shyness with some reassurance and with sufficient opportunity to become familiar with those new to them. They now have many conversational and social skills to enable them to maintain friendly interaction with one or more peers for short periods. They are also beginning to learn how to cope with frustration and disagreements, both of which are essential to learning the basics of turn-taking, which is a very important element in most interactions with others.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: What social skills should a child have by the age of 4?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: By the age of 4, children not only have a range of skills required for initiating and maintaining interactions with a variety of peers and also have the beginnings of the complex skills required for resolving the kinds of conflicts that are inevitable in the dynamics of early social interactions. They also should be able to handle rebuffs fairly well.

They also are building and strengthening their capacities to "read" other people's interests, wishes, preferences, and other essential elements of thinking about social events. With increasing experience, they become more accurate in predicting and imagining how others will respond to their approaches, what others would find interesting or uninteresting, and ways to engage them in continued cooperative action. Also by this age, most children can manage sustained relationships with one or two others close in age so that the intensity of commitment to these friends is just enough to provide satisfying experiences, but not so close as to be possessive and thereby to damage the friendship.

Participant [jpm]: Thank you for being here, Dr. Katz. I like your positive framing of shyness. At what point might it become a concern?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: If, by the age of 3, a child is so shy that he or she won't go to a birthday party of friends or relatives, or won't go to a picnic with the family plus some strangers, then it would be a good idea to try helping the child to deal with the shyness.

Participant [sophie]: Dr. Katz, I have a child in my classroom who is 4. He is Asian and has been in the class for almost a year and continues to struggle with English and relating to the other children. I know that his parents do not speak English in the home. What are some suggestions for helping him develop socially in our classroom?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Sophie, tell us what things you have tried so far? Can you also tell us which language the child does speak at home?

Participant [sophie]: We have tried modeling questions for him, providing a lot of structure in the classroom so that he can get into the routine, and speaking with the parents consistently to try and provide suggestions for helping him interact with the other children. He speaks very softly and does not have a lot of confidence. Recently, he has started to speak louder and more clearly, however, he does try to get the other children's attention by doing things that are not consistent with the classroom rules. He speaks Chinese in the home. Thank you.

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Sophie, these strategies sound fine to me. As to doing things contrary to the routines, I am not sure how to interpret that. Have you found any activities he shows special interest in? It might be a good idea to emphasize those or provide more of them. Is it possible to find a volunteer—perhaps another parent—who speaks Chinese to help him learn some useful English phrases that he can try?

Participant [sophie]: Dr. Katz, a volunteer is a great idea, and I will offer that as a suggestion to the head teacher. He is especially interested in fine motor activities, and there are plenty of them in our classroom. By acting contrary to the rules I mean physically interacting with the other children in an inappropriate manner. Such as kicking, wrestling, pushing, etc. Thanks for your suggestion.

Participant [Nancy A.L.]: Should I push my shy child to be friendlier?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Nancy, how old is your shy child?

Participant [Nancy A.L.]: She's 10 years old.

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Nancy, if she has one or two friends, it is not necessary to worry about her. If she has no friends at all, then some strategies should be tried. But I don't think "pushing" would be appropriate. Encourage her to try approaching others and perhaps include one or two others in an outing.

Participant [trey]: Dr. Katz, how can we encourage a child in our classroom to become interested in her peers if the child is above average to the point where she just wants to interact with adults, yet she is socially behind with her peers? I have tried joining play with my students and encouraged the child to join, but as soon as I leave, she follows me.

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Trey, this sounds like a gifted child. If so, they often do have trouble learning how to make friends with the rest of us! But they should be helped to be patient with others, and it is important to let him or her know that you expect him or her to be helpful and patient with others who might know less or do things more slowly.

Participant [Miss Ann :-)]: What can be done to encourage a shy and withdrawn child to interact with others?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Miss Ann, a lot depends on the age of the child. By about 3, it is important not to push or pressure a child who is shy. One approach is to reassure the child that you understand he or she is not "ready" to enter a group or join with others, but then always add, "If you want me to help you, I'll be right over there. Just let me know when you are ready." That way, the child is not locked into his role of the "shy one," and you are giving him a chance to take the initiative in approaching others.

Participant [connie]: [President George W. Bush was then] pushing for more preliteracy education in the early childhood classroom. There is a tendency for many folks to see this as a way of pushing down curriculum and taking away play/developmentally appropriate activities. What impact do you see this making on our children's social development when so much emphasis is placed on cognitive skills?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Connie, many of us share your concerns. I think we have to get together as a profession and find the best ways to respond to this pressure and, at the same time, provide ample opportunities for children to cooperate on activities and to play as well. Perhaps we have to take some things out of the curriculum too.

Participant [Peggy]: What is your opinion of the impact of the use of computers in early childhood classrooms on the development of social skills in young children?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Peggy, I am not aware of any research that indicates that we should worry about it. I have a doctoral student studying the cooperation that occurs when children work in pairs and trios at the computer at the kindergarten level, and it is interesting to note how many good social skills are at work as they make suggestions and give information to each other.

Participant [Pam]: I have a child similar to what Trey describes above, except that we question whether she is really above average or simply used to being doted on by parents at home. She invites me to play, but she is not so interested in peers and actively works to exclude them when I facilitate. She is 4.6 years old. Parents say she interacts "fine" with older children at home but is "bored" by children her own age.

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Pam, what makes you think that she is "doted on by parents"? This could help account for what you are describing. Are the parents concerned about her lack of peer play in school? Do you think she is way ahead of most of her peers in knowledge and skills, etc.?

Participant [Pam]: The girl I describe is an only child, and her parents often spend time playing with her at school and at home. They value knowledge and uniqueness over her social skills and would like to see her in kindergarten next year (November birthday). She is a creative thinker but is not above and beyond her peers. I wish the parents WERE more interested in her social skills and less interested in pushing the academics.

Participant [sonbeam]: Is there any reason for children to be/become "shy" that can be guarded against in an early care setting?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Sonbeam, keep in mind that shyness by itself is not a source of concern. On the contrary, a very young child who would go to anyone, who would show no wariness in a new situation with total strangers would be someone to worry about! It would imply that the child has not developed any strong attachments. If the child is very young—a preschooler—and shy in the new situation, it requires patience, understanding, and a lot of reassurance to let the child know that you understand. Express your understanding that the situation might be scary or strange, and indicate again that you are ready to help him or her connect with the others whenever the child is ready.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: As a teacher/parent/caregiver, how do I know if a child's behavior requires some additional professional intervention? Are there some "red flags" of behavior for children this age?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: If, by the age of about 4, a child still constantly clings to adults when around other children, refuses to participate in any kinds of play with peers, or is too shy to join in playground or classroom activities at any time, then it might be a good idea to observe the child closely and ask for a specialist's evaluation.

A meeting with the parent or other person who is responsible for most of the child's care is another important step before calling in the specialists. Informal conversations with that person about the child's overall functioning helps to round out the picture of the child's development. Questions about his or her general demeanor, sleeping and eating patterns, typical mood, range of emotions, playfulness, curiosity, responses to adult authority, and expressions of affection help to put the problem behavior into perspective and to give a fuller understanding of how he or she is doing. If the parent or caregiver's descriptions of the usual behavior in these areas suggests that the child is not thriving, then calling upon a specialist to observe him or her more closely is very likely to be warranted.

Participant [Pam]: In Dr. Katz's response to Connie re: literacy education, she writes, "Perhaps we have to take some things out of the curriculum." Can you say more about this?
(NOTE: See Dr. Katz's answer to Miss Ann's almost identical question below).

Participant [Miss Ann :-)]: Dr. Katz, what things do you think need to be taken out of the curriculum to make more room for pre-literacy education, learning through play, and developmentally appropriate activities? Thanks! :-)

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Miss Ann, of course I don't know how much time is given to these things in every program. But I see a lot of them that allocate too much time to holidays and to the daily calendar ritual. So, perhaps those things could be given a bit less attention. I think it is OK to give about 15 minutes, three times a week to some formal literacy type activities, BUT use the rest of the time well! This is a really big topic that can't really be covered in detail tonight.

Participant [sonbeam]: Dr. Katz, I have long wondered if there are studies about the effect of staff-to-child ratios and nurturing (response to infant needs) in infant care in terms of socio-emotional development of the individual and his or her success in relational maturity later, through adolescence and adulthood.

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Sonbeam, I am not sure that we have such long-term studies that would connect early infant care experiences and adolescent or adult social competence. The studies of similar issues that do extend over the long period of childhood and adolescence suggest that these very early experiences do have long-term consequences because early social behavior invites responses that tend to lead to more of the same of it and tends to create a cycle that gets stronger over time. If the child starts off in a negative cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to break as the child gets older. That's why getting into the positive cycle early is so important.

Participant [Susan]: I have come to learn that there is some controversy about developing systems to limit the number of children in particular learning centers. Limiting the number of children in a center seems to be a good way to prevent problems, but I understand that some early childhood experts are opposed. What are your thoughts?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Susan, interesting question. I am not sure. It depends a bit on the ages of the children. If they are at kindergarten age, I would encourage the children to solve the problem themselves. If their solutions don't work, then you could impose some rules. Another thing to keep in mind in the disputes that arise over who can be where and when is to indicate that not getting a turn at a particular activity or center is not a tragedy! You could say, "Sure, I know you are disappointed. But there's always tomorrow!" That helps children to cope with setbacks and difficulties and not view each one as a major event!

Participant [hopedeffer]: Dr. Katz, how can we teach more life skills in the classroom to counteract anger and stress? How can we as educators provide skills or strategies without distracting from lesson plans? Any available resources to help?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Hopedeffer, these are big questions! There is a growing literature on the development of "self-regulation" and the important developmental implications of learning to regulate one's emotional responses. We will add more resources on this topic to this Web site when we put up the transcript of this chat session in about two weeks.

Participant [hopedeffer]: Thank you—it is a growing problem in the school system, especially in the higher grades. We need to develop plans and educate our educators as well. I will look forward to the transcripts.

Participant [sonbeam]: Concerning children who have had little or no interaction with others their age, they are around older siblings or adults. What is the underlying challenge that we are facing as caregivers? Is it a trust factor or a lack of skill and understanding to interact in an appropriate fashion or....?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Sonbeam, it may simply be a lack of experience from which to have learned how to talk to age mates, how to "read" the thoughts, motives, and interests of the same-age peers. A child whose social experience is mainly with older siblings will not have had enough experience of anticipating the responses of children of his or her own age. A child whose experience is mainly with younger siblings will similarly not be familiar with the typical responses of peers. So—it is really a matter of experience!

Participant [sonbeam]: Glad to hear about the extra info on "self regulation," i.e., self control.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: I have a 4-year-old girl in my preschool class who never speaks at school, even though she has been in our class for seven months. Her mother assures me that she is a natural talker at home with siblings and neighborhood friends. What strategies can I try?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Very often, children who refuse to speak away from home are put under great pressure to do so. In many cases, this causes the child to sort of "dig in her heels" and stay mum. I observed such a case several years ago in which the preschool teacher tried to coax the 4-year-old girl—a quite natural talker at home and in the neighborhood—into speaking in the preschool by saying "If you want your snack, you will have to say so." She seemed to have no trouble giving up the snack. Her refusal to talk also seemed to cause the other children not to speak to her because we tend to learn very early to speak to those who speak to us!

The strategy we tried was to say, calmly and matter-of-factly but in a friendly way, something like "I know you don't feel like talking to me now. That's OK. But when you're ready, I'll be over there!" We also talked to her more often in a natural and relaxed way as though we expected her to respond, but with no pressure to do so. Within a week, she was talking with the other children and the teachers in a natural way, probably because we had clearly taken the pressure off and she was encouraged to take the initiative—to make her own decision about when to talk.

Young children have control over very few of their experiences; one of the few they can control is their own talking. This little girl struck me as having the potential to be persistent and stubborn, and with the right kinds of experiences, she'll be able to use these traits to accomplish a lot in the future!

Participant [Ruth]: How appropriate in a preschool classroom is it for a child to sit on a teacher's lap? This would be mostly at "book time." We love to offer cuddles but have received mixed messages on this topic. Can this hinder a child's independence or progress in any way?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Ruth, it depends on whether this child asks for the lap constantly. Once in a while would seem quite appropriate. What could be more pleasant than sitting in a comfortable lap and listening to a story? But if it is persistent, frequent, and intense or demanding in tone, then it might be a good idea to look more closely at this child's development and develop some strategies to increase his or her autonomy.

IEL moderator [Email-submitted Question]: What are some things a teacher, caregiver, or parent can do to promote healthy social development?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: A first step is to provide opportunities for the children to be with others at and near their own ages, in a safe and sufficiently rich and well-supervised environment and where an adult is available to support interaction among them.

As difficulties arise, the adult can let the children know that he or she is nearby to offer assistance as needed, but not so intrusively as to prevent the children from attempting to solve the inevitable problems that arise in the course of the dynamic interactions of young children at play.

Sometimes, children benefit when an adult gives them suggestions of strategies to try out or phrases to use. For example, it is known that a young child who approaches others at play and who wants to be accepted into an ongoing group is more likely to be accepted if she or he approaches the group with comments about them and their activity rather than with comments about herself or himself. So, for example, the adult might say to a child not yet skillful in this area something like "Why don't you go over there where the others are (e.g. building with blocks) and say (modeling a calm and friendly tone) 'What are you making?' or 'Can I help on this side?'" The adult adds, "And if that doesn't help, come back, and we can discuss other things to try." In this way, the adult indicates that in social situations it is useful to "try" things, to experiment till you find out what works.

Furthermore, the adult here is teaching the child how to approach others by referring not to himself or herself, but to the other children whose activity he or she wants to join. Children who approach others by saying something like "I can make a bigger one than that" are referring to themselves rather than to the others. Making this distinction between approaches that are other-referenced rather than self-referenced is a basic element of social competence.

Participant [sonbeam]: What are some strategies when a child "shuts down" after a conflict with another child and they won't respond to your questions about the event?

Guest [Dr. Katz]: Dear Sonbeam, why not just let it go at that? You could say something to the child like "I see you don't really want to talk about it this now. Maybe later on we can talk about it some more. Let me know when you're ready." If he or she doesn't indicate a readiness to talk about the incident, you could raise the issue again a bit later. But be sure that talking it over is really necessary! Conflicts among young children are inevitable and form the basis of learning about real life. Talking a lot about them might not be very helpful. It depends a bit on the particular incident and on the particular participants. On the whole, it would seem best to let it go in this case and maybe pick it up when everyone has calmed down. Good Luck!



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