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Peer-Social Competence: One of the Greatest Challenges for Children with Developmental Delays
“Kids with poor social skills in early childhood get themselves trapped into a vicious cycle.”
Children with developmental delays can confront many cognitive, physical and cultural challenges early in their lives, but the struggle to develop social skills may be among their greatest.
Building relationships with peers is a central aspect of a child’s development, but children with developmental delays often struggle to develop necessary social skills, according to Michael Guralnick, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Human Development and Disability. In fact, these children often have greater delays in social development than in cognitive and language abilities, he adds.
Children with delays can struggle to develop close friendships, resolve conflicts, enter social groups and maintain play with their peers, says Guralnick, one of the nation’s leading experts on social competence of children with developmental delays. That’s partly because they often have problems interpreting and evaluating social information in rapidly changing interactions with peers.
Underdeveloped social skills can have a cascading effect throughout the life of a child with developmental delays. It can leave them isolated – as much as 65 percent of young children with intellectual delays face substantial social isolation at school and in the community - slow their development even further, damage their self-confidence, contribute to depression and erode their quality of life.
This isolation means children miss critical opportunities to develop. They hear less language and have fewer opportunities to make friends, join in play, resolve conflicts, and otherwise learn to navigate social situations that become increasingly complex and subtle as they get older.
“It has a cumulative effect and over time they fall further and further behind,” said Guralnick, who recently completed a major research project supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development on early intervention for social skills in children with developmental delays. “Kids with poor social skills in early childhood get themselves trapped into a vicious cycle.”
These poor social skills can have a lasting impact. The development of social competence with peers during the first years of life is directly associated with later quality of life issues, Guralnick writes in “Early Intervention Approaches to Enhance the Peer-Related Social Competence of Young Children with Developmental Delays: A Historical Perspective.”
To help avoid problems in early childhood and later in life, researchers have learned it’s critical to intervene early. Early intervention can improve the ability of a child with developmental delays to regulate emotions, communicate and build relationships, Guralnick says. It can also help prepare a child for school. Social preparation reaches a critical stage when a child is 3 to 4 years old, as children are in more social situations, such as preschool classrooms and extended childcare.
The importance of early intervention emerged over the last 40 years as researchers developed strategies to help children with developmental delays improve their overall development. Chief among strategies for peer social skills was the idea of inclusion, where a small number of children with developmental delays were included in a classroom with typically developing children.
But, inclusion’s social benefits have been limited. The strategy helped children with delays develop what is known as surface social behaviors – simple responsiveness and brief initiations with peers – but it did not help them with more complex social situations, such as how to engage in play with another child, researchers learned. It is these broader social skills that together form the basic element of social competence with peers, according to Guralnick, who is also a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Washington.
Inclusive settings, however, are ideal environments for peer social skills interventions. In recent years researchers gained a better understanding of the complexity of social interaction for these children. Today, researchers know a great deal about the psychological processes involved, can translate that knowledge into practice, and are positioned to develop more effective social interventions, Guralnick writes, though the work remains both complex and challenging.
What Can Parents Do?
One of the most important steps parents of children with developmental delays can take is to ensure social skills are developed as early as possible.
Once a child enters a classroom, parents need to work with teachers to make social skills a top priority in a child’s Individual Education Plan, the customized educational plan for children with disabilities that’s required by federal law.
Today, many teachers still focus on classic classroom skills, such as paying attention and following directions, while also emphasizing cognition and language. Peer social skills, though, require special attention. Unfortunately, these programs do not always incorporate social development into intervention plans, according to Guralnick. While traditional classroom skills and other areas of development are important, ultimately, social skills play a vital role in determining a child’s quality of life, Guralnick adds.
When talking with teachers, parents should ask for a thorough assessment of their child’s social interaction with peers. Does their child have a hard time regulating emotion, joining groups or sustaining play with other children? Ask for ideas about how to encourage playdates after school.
Work together to develop strategies that will allow a child to engage in activities outside of school that encourage development of social skills, Guralnick suggests. An effective early intervention strategy should extend beyond the classroom to engage the broader community.
Finally, inquire about new assessment tools. Researchers are developing new tools that can help teachers and parents develop better strategies.
- Developmental Milestones, Centers for Disease Control: A useful set of important milestones for a child’s development and signs to watch for, broken down by age group. (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html)
- Building Early Intervention Partnerships with Your Child’s Doctor: Tips from and for Parents. Washington State Department of Early Learning. (http://www.del.wa.gov/publications/esit/docs/ParentTips_English.pdf)
- Overview of Early Intervention, National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (http://www.nichcy.org/babies/overview/Pages/default.aspx)
- Special Education Services for Preschoolers with Disabilities (http://www.nichcy.org/EducateChildren/Children3-5/Pages/default.aspx)
Council for Exceptional Children, A group that works to improve education for special needs and gifted students. (http://www.cec.sped.org/index.html)