Social Intelligence for Elementary Schoolers

By Dr Laura Markham


How can you help your child learn to make friends and get along with peers?

  1. Listen when he has peer challenges, which all kids do. If you tell him what to do, you imply that he’s incompetent, and you aren’t helping him learn. Instead, help him to clarify his feelings, and to problem solve the issue.
  2. Don’t take sides when she fights with her friends. Listen to her views. Reflect her feelings. You can hypothesize with her about the other person’s point of view, but don’t make one person wrong (“I wonder if Angelina’s feelings were hurt when you and Jing Lin wouldn’t join her club.“)
  3. Help him learn how to express his needs without attacking the other person. This is a challenge for all of us, so kids need our guidance, and to practice. “Can you tell Josh that you like to wrestle with him, but you need some rules to feel safe, like STOP means STOP?”
  4. Avoid negating your child’s perceptions about another person. Instead, reflect and help clarify. As their feelings are acknowledged, we all restate, refine, and move past our upset. For instance, instead of saying “I don’t think Kiesha meant to be mean to youand of course you can’t disinvite her to your party!”it would be more effective to say “It sounds like when Kiesha said that in front of the other kids, it really embarrassed and hurt you. You think she did it on purpose, and it makes you so mad you don’t even want her at your party.” 

With this kind of mirroring, she’s likely to get past her hurt and anger and make a better decision about how to proceed.

  1. Bossiness is often a challenge with early elementary schoolers. All kids both want to get their own way and still have other kids play with them. Learning to negotiate is a critical skill at this age. Try asking questions to guide your child to solve the problem: “Is it more important to you to play the game your way or to have Catherine play with you?”

When another child is bossy, your child may need suggestions from you about tactful ways to negotiate with her friends. Help her with scripts: “I really want to play with you, Jasmine, but we’ve been playing dress-up all morning, and I don’t feel like it anymore. What can we do that we both want to do?”

  1. Help him to think through various problem-solving options. Often, once kids work through their feelings, they know what action to take. “I’m not mad at Sam anymore and I miss playing with him. I’m going to knock on this door.” But if he doesn’t, help him brainstorm. Sometimes he’ll need help from you to know how to say no in a way that keeps both his friend and his integrity.
  2. Be sensitive to cues from other parents and children, and intervene early. When kids get into patterns of relating, these can become habitual. Using force is a great example; parents often excuse this tendency as understandable in little ones (which it is) but then feel helpless about how to respond when their 8 year old socks a playmate. When kids (even two year olds) act aggressively, it’s a signal that they need our help with the big feelings driving their behavior (usually fear). When an elementary schooler is still resorting to force, that’s a red flag that your child needs your help.

For instance, if a parent says your son hit her son, take it as a wake up call. Help your son think about how he would have felt in the other child’s shoes, and help him write a note to apologize. Explore fully with him what happened and what he can do to control himself next time. Be clear that regardless of provocation, what he does with his body is always his responsibility.

Then take a hard look at your son’s life. Is he witnessing force being used against others in your home or on TV? Are you using force (including dragging him to timeout) as discipline? (For more info on why this kind of discipline always backfires, please see my section on positive discipline: .) Is your son a sensitive kid with lots of big feelings locked away that he needs your help to process?

Start doing daily special time with him, half an hour a day, during which you play and let him get those feelings out. Laughter is as good as tears to accomplish this, but at some point during your games, laughter will probably turn into tears, or rage. That’s a sign that you’re on the right track. For more ideas on the games to play, please check out Lawrence Cohen’s book: Playful Parenting.