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Social Interaction and Communication Skills- more than a SEN issue

As children start to return to school, the Department For Education is prioritising certain things for students to ‘catch up’ on.

While they have missed lesson time, Jessica from Alice Benzie Teaching argues that teaching/ revisiting social skills is essential for all pupils from EYFS to 16+.

Social skills Jessica Turnbull

Seven years ago if you’d asked me about my social skills knowledge level I’d have thought it pretty high; my passion as a Primary teacher had been PSHE and a lot of my work with MPFT Speech and Language Therapy Service was based around developing relationships with children in order to help support their early language skills.
Then I started running Social Skills groups and I realised how little I knew!  It was also completely terrifying as I had zero experience of working with Secondary aged pupils. As it turns out I loved it, from the little people through to those who towered over me. And it sent me on a mission to bring social interaction skills to the attention of all educators and parents. 
I can only describe it as a steep learning curve. Every group session threw up new questions and off I’d go to try and find the answers. It wasn’t that easy. Lots of activities and information was out there about personal awareness, awareness of others, relationships and emotional development; not so much about the core social interaction skills such as initiating, looking/observation, listening, waiting, turn-taking, choice-making and so on.  Often, I’d find a few activities for younger children but for my secondary students, it was very limited and virtually never mentioned in any curriculum. 
It as if, magically, once you passed the end of Reception these skills are done with and there is no need to continue developing them. 
Only, how many of the social situations you encounter when you are 6 are the same as those you come across at 16? 
In fact, as you get older and become more independent, demands on the core skills increase greatly, you are expected to be able to use different strands simultaneously and process the information quickly. 
Lack of core social interaction skills which might be considered ‘cute’ at six or seven years old become inappropriate and potentially have serious consequences as you get older. Imagine that Year 2 pupil who always stands or sits too close, now think about how that might turn out when they’re 16 and sit too close to a stranger at a bus stop. 
PSHE and many academic lessons heavily rely on the ability of children to interact, observe, listen, respond when appropriate, work as a team, discuss, make decisions (choices) and back these up but what happens if the pupil struggles with these core interaction skills? How many of us have complained about that Year 6 child who can’t listen, doesn’t look, can’t take turns or can’t work in a group (the list is endless), only for the Year 1 teacher to say they were like that in their class. As hard as it is for us to admit, the strategies we have in place aren’t working for that child.
Then there is the importance of memory with regards to social interaction; so many of our conversations with friends and acquaintances rely on us drawing on conversations we have previously had with those people. If there are issues with memory then this can impact the types of social interactions taking place.
The burning question is how are we supporting and teaching these skills in classrooms?
And it was a question I started to ask increasingly as I became aware that there were significant numbers of children who struggled with these skills, all the way from EYFS to Secondary. 
The replies I got bothered me; educators relied on modelling, praise and reward systems. Rarely has anyone ever spoken about supporting through targeted activities or having supported “social time”; but interestingly the ones that do, have all, anecdotally, seen huge improvements in social skills, with high involvement levels from the children.
When I taught in school, I would have practised these social interaction skills, although they would’ve remained secondary to the academic targets. Modelling and positive praise used to support and probably an occasional spiel about taking turns, or sharing, or looking at the person talking to you. But I never looked at the children and observed their interactions with any great meaning, never thought about the core social interaction skills which perhaps they needed support with. Now I would do it so differently. Now I recognise there were children, of all academic ability, who needed focused activities, who needed support and then frequent opportunity to practise. 
And it doesn’t have to be time consuming or an added burden, it can be as simple as turning your ‘golden time’ into supported ‘social time’ (not a reward but a given) or focused games/activities at the start of the day. Whatever best suits your pupils and your school.
Post-COVID will no doubt throw up issues surrounding social interactions, which is to be expected; bear in mind that for a year social interactions have been severely limited, and Zoom, whilst great, is no substitute for face-to-face contact. For the youngest children, this could be close to a quarter of their life, even for the eldest secondary students, this represents a 16th of their life.
So whilst the DfE goes on about ‘lost learning’ (sorry but that phrase gives me shivers!) try to think about all the social interactions and experiences which haven’t happened, think about all that practise that even the most sociable child in the class has missed out on; yes lots will bounce back but there will be some who struggle. 
And here’s a thought to leave you on- research indicates that good social skills have absolutely no impact on someone’s likelihood of getting a degree, nor will they earn more money but what they do help with is long-term wellbeing and improves community cohesion, which has got to count for something.

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The author

Jessica founded Alice Benzie Teaching as a platform to bring Social Skills and Interaction to the attention of parents. She had previously worked as a Primary Teacher (Early Years/KS1) mainly in the North East and then for MPFT Speech and Language Therapy Service, where she was heavily involved in working with Early Years settings and later SEN Schools. COVID-19 hit just as she left her previous role to start her new venture, admittedly not the best timing! However, this provided an opportunity to refocus, with the aim now being to provide a mixture of support to schools, through training and intervention, alongside working with families.

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