Hesperian Health Guides

How children learn social skills

A woman carrying her baby on her lap.

We are not born with social skills. We begin to learn them as babies, as soon as we become aware of other people. As children and adults, we continue to learn and use these skills throughout our lives.

At first these social skills are very simple. A baby learns to return his mother's smile or a child learns to take turns while playing a game. But as a child grows older, he needs more developed social skills to get along with other people.

2 years old
  • asks others when she needs help
  • plays alongside other children
  • imitates caregiver
3 years old
  • enjoys helping around the house
  • likes to be praised for doing simple tasks
  • is aware of other people's feelings
5 years old
  • understands rules, and ideas like fairness and right and wrong
  • expresses many feelings
  • plays with other children
A man kneeling in front of his little girl.
A small boy brushes away his mother's tears.
5 children playing ball together.

The 'right' behavior for your child depends on his age. If you expect more than your child can do, you and he will both be unhappy. But if you expect too little from your child, he will not learn new skills. See more information on when children learn new social skills.

A boy weaving a basket.
Try to become aware of your attitude toward your deaf child's ability. Do you expect him to do less than he is actually capable of?

Children learn social skills in steps

Like all kinds of development, children learn social skills in steps. To develop social skills, a child needs to become aware of other people's feelings. And she needs to learn how to share and cooperate with other people.

2 small girls playing alongside each other.
A boy watches 2 girls eat sweets.
Even though Callam wants a sweet, he has learned not to grab it out of another child's hand.

At first a child plays alongside other children. This means she enjoys being near them as she plays, but she does not actually play with them.

Then she learns to play with others. She learns to share toys and play games where everyone must cooperate.

As children get older, they need to understand rules and
be able to control their behavior.

At home

A man and his older boy speaking as a family eats together.
Please have a little soup, Haseeb.
Can I have some too, please!

Children first learn social skills by watching how parents and family members behave with each other. Children copy what others do and what they say as they interact with each other.

A girl speaking as she and 2 boys play rolling a tire.

Playing with other children

As they play, children learn to follow directions, cooperate, take turns, and share. Play helps young children understand their own emotions, feel proud of what they can do, and develop a sense of who they are.

A man and boy signing to each other in a vegetable garden.
I am glad to have your help keeping bugs off the bean plants.
Mr. Lopes, which bugs are the bad ones?

In the community

Outside their own homes and immediate families, children see how older children and adults talk, play, and work with each other. This is how children learn ways to relate to people outside their families. And in the wider world that opens to them, children learn to practice different responses to situations and different ways of doing things. They develop social skills as they discover their own strengths and weaknesses.