Social Skills Grade by Grade

Read our grade-by-grade guide to what social skills teachers tend to look for.

By Shaun Dreisbach



Social Skills Grade by Grade

Step into any classroom, and along with the usual math tables and word lists, you’ll probably see other signs hanging front and center. You know, the ones that say, Be kind! or Be brave! These rules aren’t just there to keep the peace. They underscore what teachers know, yet most parents never think about: Strong social skills are as key to school success as academic ones. In fact, sometimes they’re even more important, says child development expert Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Being able to delay gratification, for instance, is one of the biggest predictors of success. “Research shows that kindergartners who can wait will do better in school three years later than those who came in knowing their letters,” says Borba. Pretty impressive. Here’s what teachers are looking for most at each grade — and how you can build that know-how at home.

Pre-K Skills:


“Give-and-take is the first moral skill kids learn, and it’s hard to go forward without it,” says Borba.

How to teach it 
Take turns talking about what you did that day over dinner and play lots of board games together; these are two of the easiest ways for him to practice waiting. Borba also suggests helping your child come up with fair rules — he gets five minutes on the swing set, then his friend gets five. It will teach him how to problem-solve as well as share.

Being Polite

“A kid with manners is a likeable kid — and you can’t underestimate likeability,” says Borba. “When a child feels accepted, he can concentrate on his school work rather than worry about who’ll play with him.”

How to teach it

Remember your manners. Sounds obvious, but the more he hears “please” and “thank you,” the sooner the soundtrack will become laid down in his head. Also, gently remind your kid when he forgets (and he will) and don’t be afraid to shower praise when he remembers without prompting.


Your kid may be used to relying on you to help calm him down. But now he has to start using his words and working through his emotions by himself (with a little help from the teacher). 

How to teach it

Pinpointing your child’s feelings (especially mad and sad) helps him recognize the emotions — and once that clicks, he can begin to control them when they bubble up. Resist the urge to fix the situation. Instead, encourage him to think of a way to cope with his emotions. One to try: “Take a deep breath and blow the angries away.” 


Kindergarten & 1st Grade Skills:


In the classroom, being patient means waiting your turn and paying attention without fidgeting — no easy feat for the average wiggly kid. “A child who gives her full attention is going to hear and learn so much more from her teacher and classmates,” says Ashley Button, a kindergarten teacher in Atherton, CA.

How to teach it

Give your child lots of opportunities to entertain herself without your help. The next time she wants your attention when you’re busy doing something else, say you’ll be there in a few minutes and have her sing a tune or draw a picture to pass the time. Reading is also a great way to improve kids’ concentration. “As your child gets better at being patient, stretch out the amount of time she has to wait for you, or choose a slightly longer book to keep improving her focus,” says Borba.


Kids need to speak up for themselves by making eye contact and using “I” messages (“I felt sad when you cut me in line”). “I practice with my class, so kids learn to go to an adult only when they can’t work it out on their own,” says Julia Seligman, a firstgrade teacher in Essex, VT. Assertive kids excel because they aren’t afraid to ask questions. 

How to teach it

Practice “I” messages, like saying “I feel frustrated when you leave your backpack in the middle of the hallway” or, in your kid’s case, “I don’t like it when you nag me to make my bed.” They not only help your child become more assertive, they beef up her body language, so she’s less likely to be bullied.


“Many kids need to be taught it’s OK to make a mistake. It’s how we learn,” says Seligman. “When the classroom feels safe, kids let go of ‘What if I get it wrong?’ and take chances.” Gaining this skill now — when mistakes are small — pays off in a few years when, say, he’s called on to do a wicked calc problem.

How to teach it

When you mess up, point it out to your child, says Seligman. Then talk about what you learned for next time. “And compliment your child when he takes a chance — whether it pans out or not,” says Button.


2nd & 3rd Grade Skills:


“Kids like working in a group with classmates who ask ‘What do you think?’ and make them feel good,” says Borba. Learning the knack of respecting other opinions while giving your own boosts likeability and problem-solving skills. 

How to teach it 

Show your child how to see both sides, says Carrie Conover, a teacher in Chicago. If your kid is in an animal project group, explain how he could respectfully disagree: “I think bats are awesome! But I think it would be better to study squirrels because there are so many different kinds.” And seize chances to model compromise: He wants McDonald’s; you, the bistro? Find a place where he can get a burger and you, sweet-potato fries.


With more schoolwork and activities, your kid has to step up responsibility and organization. After all, it’s much easier for him to hit the books when he’s not searching for his pencil.

How to teach it

Maybe you were inclined to do things for your kiddo when he was younger. Now it’s time to impose routines so he can start managing his own stuff (with reminders). At night, for instance, he can make sure his backpack is ready at the door and his clothes are laid out. In the morning, he can put his dishes in the sink after breakfast.


“Kids don’t want to snitch, so they’re less likely to involve adults in squabbles now,” says Conover. They need to know how to express their real feelings to friends so that they can solve their own spats.

How to teach it

Instead of calling the other parent when your child has an argument with a pal, talk through solutions and urge your child to take it from there. Knowing that he can (mostly) solve his own problems — whether social or academic — will give him another big boost in resiliency.

4th & 5th Grade Skills:


Juggling daily assignments with long-term projects is a lot to keep track of. He needs to learn the consequences of forgetting or misplacing. 

How to teach it 

If you constantly schlep his homework to school whenever he forgets it, he’ll never learn to own up to his actions. Be up front about your expectations and the consequences if your tween doesn’t follow through, suggests Conover. Give your kid a couple of reminders, if necessary, but then let him take over. And if he loses his permission slip, tough luck. “That one fail will be a big and positive lesson for your child,” notes Borba.


Along with the responsibility comes anxiety — and the sooner your child learns how to weather it, the better. A relaxed kid, unlike a stressed one, turns into a little academic sponge.

How to teach it

Help your kid pinpoint what wigs her out most: Is it tests or shake-ups to her daily routine? Then brainstorm stress-busters, says Conover, from listening to tunes to going on a bike ride. Come up with a little mantra she can mentally repeat (“It’s okay. I can handle this!”) to manage in-the-moment jitters.

Confidence with Mean Kids

Bullies want a reaction, so your child needs to know how to keep her cool and stand strong.

How to teach it

Arm her with a short but sweet comeback line. She has to say it like she means it, so do some dry runs at home. Strong words paired with equally strong body language is enough to defuse most bullying situations, say experts. And not being afraid to stand up for herself is a real-world skill that every child needs — now and later.


Photo Credit: © David Woolley/Getty Images

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