Strategies to Support Language and Social Skills in Young Children

By Shari Kurtzman

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Language and social skills are continuously a focus in a young child’s development. Sharing toys, taking turns, using words instead of pushing; these abstract ideas can be difficult topics to teach. But we forget sometimes, and the research has shown young children learn through play and interaction. With a quick review of milestones and some tangible, engaging, developmentally appropriate ideas to practice, parents and teachers can help to support these skills in young children both typically developing and with special needs.

Development Milestones

Children develop at their own pace, but within an average range, reach developmental milestones. These are important guidelines (and they ARE guidelines, no child just gets up and starts walking because they turned one) to help parents and caregivers understand what to expect and support. Pediatricians also track these milestones during checkups. If you have concerns, make sure to talk to them first. For children with delays or special needs, simply meet them where they are and work on the next step, using adaptations where needed. Here’s a quick review with some ideas to work into your everyday play.

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Between 6-9 months, a baby will start playing with language, stringing together vowel sounds “ah-eh-oh”. They’re also smiling spontaneously and in response to social interactions, so make sure you’re getting on the floor during tummy time and making faces and sounds with them! Babies are also starting to show preference and reaching towards items they want; this is a great time to promote language by bringing the item they want to your face and labeling it: “I see you’re reaching for the cup! You want the cup!” Faces are immensely important, promoting social growth and interactions as well as language, so starting these skills early is important for both caregivers and babies to get the practice in.

At 12-18 months, the baby, now turned toddler, starts to know familiar objects (phone, brush, spoon) and says or shakes head “no” (think of that preference at nine months getting stronger every day). They probably also have several simple single words “mama”, “dada”, “cup”, “me”. Toddlers should be pointing to show something interesting (Plane? Dog?) and showing affection for familiar adults. Point out interesting items on a walk to the park or coming home from school. Keep practicing bringing items or pictures of songs/food to your face to label and promote using words instead of just pointing! The more times the child sees the word formed, the more likely they are to imitate it.

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Song Cards

You can use song cards with Velcro or magnets on the back and leave them in an area you and the child play in regularly (kitchen, circle time, rug at school). Bring two pictures up to either side of your face and ask the child, “Do you want ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ or ‘Row Your Boat’?” Bringing the card to your face promotes eye contact and social interaction to request. Follow their eye gaze or point and label the choice that they made. “You pointed to ‘Row Your Boat’! Great. We’re going to sing ‘Row Your Boat’. Ready, set, go!”

Create Language Development Activities  

Routine Chart and First/Then Board

By 18-24 months, these little people start to know some body parts and follow simple instructions such as, “Put the block in the box”. Socially, toddlers are beginning to copy both peers and adults and show independence, especially in eating, building, or daily routines such as brushing teeth. Some fun ways to work on these activities are playing imitation songs and games while putting items on your head, knees, and feet and inviting the child to try it too. Music and visual cues are a great support for fighting that toddler independence. Routine charts support independence while allowing adults to keep the day moving without getting stuck.

Create Language Development Activities  

Emotion Face Activity - Printable

Three year old children start to understand more difficult nuances of language such as prepositions “in”, “on”, and “under”. They also understand more diverse feelings. Socially, they are learning to show affection and concern for a friend and how to take turns in games. Visual reminders can be helpful in practicing these skills, such as using cartoon faces to change the way they feel and feeling charts to express different emotions for themselves or their friends.

Use the blank face printable to play games with kids about emotions or facial features. Using play-dough or printouts from pictures, ask children to make happy/sad/angry/frustrated/etc. faces. You can talk about a time they felt that way and how they handled it.

There are multiple options for printing from Storyboard That, so you can choose what is best for you and your child.

Print Options

Short Story, Mix and Match Sequencing

When a child is four years old, they are beginning to tell stories, though there might not be a clear beginning, middle, and ending. They are also still learning to discriminate between real and make-believe, so those stories could get very interesting! Help creative kids (or quiet kids, or any kids, really) tell their story through pictures, either hand-drawn or on a child-friendly platform, while you write down their words to tell their own story. You can also work on sequencing by mixing up pictures of a beginning, middle, and ending and asking the child to sort them.

Create Language Development Activities  

By five, kids are telling simple stories using full sentences. Socially, they want to please and be like friends, so it’s extra important to model positive language and turn taking. Pull out those visual supports as reminders for turn taking, routine, and rules.

Create Language Development Activities  

Pictures help children, especially young children or children with special needs, learn/practice language and social skills. By meeting a child at their current level and supporting their development with creative, engaging interventions, these skills can be cultivated and expanded to use in everyday situations. Remember to play and have fun with the skills and they will, too.

More Resources and Ways to Practice Important Skills

Birth to Three

  • Song Cards
  • Labeling Cartoon Feelings / Coloring Pages

Three to Five

  • Simple Social Stories
  • Emotion Chart: “Today I Feel”
  • Matching or Concentration Game

Five to Ten

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