20 Things We Can Do In The First 3 Years That Will Affect A Child's Social Skills

It seems like yesterday, to be a bit cliché (but honest), that she was born. Life has changed, work has changed, and somehow now, she’s a preschooler greeted excitedly by her bestie at drop-off in the morning, and overjoyed about learning how to read. Just… what? How?

It all goes so fast. It’s true. And she has a little sister around now, as well.

And through all of it, from having a pregnant mommy to welcoming a newborn into the family to having a mom working from home, my little one has adapted and rolled with it, learned and grown, along with her lovin’ momma, daddy, and li’l sis.

The pediatrician has been a great resource to talk to at yearly checkups, not only for questions about basic health but also all areas of development. Staying connected with moms who are raising kids born right around the same time has been really interesting, too. It’s interesting to see how they seem to follow such similar patterns, simply because they’re all right around the same age.

Add in plenty of research with all these experiences and observations, and the result is this list: things we can do in the first three years that will affect a child's social skills.

20 Share Smiles


A study included at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (at Ncbi.Nlm.Hig.gov) took a look at how babies responded to “infant-directed” talking and singing, or basically face-to-face interaction, with their own mothers.

In looking at their behavioral responses, it was concluded that infant-directed “talking provides infants with specific cues that allow them not only to react to mother stimulation but also to act toward them, displaying a rudimentary version of turn-taking behavior. Brain activity partially supported that interpretation.”

I don’t need a scientific study to tell me this: Clearly, from a very early age, babies and toddlers are excited by close face-to-face interaction, and learn how to interact socially, talk, and more by partaking in it.

19 Nursing Niceties

Michelle Lunn Photography

Just think: Breastfeeding is one of the main early ways you respond to a cue your baby has given. It’s the beginning of reassuring them that you are there for them for comfort and nutrition and closeness in general.

And, “studies are pointing toward breastfed babies having higher IQ scores later in life, even when taking socioeconomic factors into consideration,” says Parents.com. “[Some components] in breast milk are thought to be the brain boosters.”

And beyond the level of “intelligence”, a little one will have as she navigates the world, Parents also notes that the skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding, specifically (as opposed to bottle feeding) is reassuring.

Plus, it’s a special shared process between mother and baby, during which “looks, noises, and cuddles” are exchanged and important communication occurs.

18 The School Situation


“Don’t you want to put her in some sort of preschool or daycare for socialization?” a friend who didn’t yet have kids asked us. That’s when we dished out the realities of how expensive daycares and preschools are, and it became very clear why we were waiting until the year before kindergarten to enroll our first little one in any sort of group-care program.

Truly, though, having this other place to call their own, getting to know the same group of children, and learning to trust other adults as helpers and caregivers can, of course, lay that important foundation for school and friend-making and beyond on the road ahead.

“Instruction built on social and emotional skills, rich play, toys, games, art, music, and movement complements explicit instruction focused on things like learning to count and matching letters to sounds and words,” says NPR.org. “Both benefit kids' readiness for school.”

17 Planning Playdates


“Boost your child's social skills and the fun in her day — plan playdates,” says WebMD.com. “These get-togethers help toddlers build bonds with people outside of the family.”

That site notes that even if young children don’t appear to be interacting that much, they often really enjoy being together and having this opportunity.

It’s recommended to try to nudge things to go well by considering some key factors. As far as the timing, pediatrician Jennifer Shu says around an hour and a half should be good and long enough to give kiddos the chance to warm up but not dragging on into Crankyville.

Choose an appropriate and fun place: Even someone else’s home can present a whole new exciting set of toys, for example, for a toddler to explore, or a park or zoo might be just the place.

Even groups of three or more can be great, as long as parents are on hand to step in as needed.

16 Take A Look… It’s In A Book

The Early Hour

In the little experiment that I like to call my life, I’ve noticed that almost everyone we encounter is astounded at how verbal my little ones are, especially my youngest toddler, and I’m certain this has to do with how much time we spend reading together.

Through reading (and talking), they learn about social interaction, vocabulary, phrasing, grammar, inflection… pretty key stuff, right?

“Read books with social-emotional plots,” even, says PsychologyToday.com. “Reading books can provide opportunities to learn and discuss social-emotional topics, such as turn-taking and cooperation. Asking children to label and explain the emotions of the characters in the story helps them learn a variety of emotions,” they say, citing a 2013 study.

15 Sing, Sing A Song


Singing to infants strengthens the bond between parent and child, and helps regulate the baby's [engagement] level—its sense of awareness and attention,” says the blog at ISeeMe.com.

“By altering the baby's mood, singing may help with feeding and sleeping, which in turn positively affect the infant's growth and development.”

At first, I did it every day because it was THE thing to calm my baby down and get her to go to sleep. Now, it’s, of course, a cherished regular part of our day, both before naps and bedtime and throughout the day, just because it’s fun and it makes us feel good!

14 Have A Set Sleep Sched


Have a set everything schedule, actually. Getting enough rest at predictable times is, I’ve noticed, one of the most important ways to help kids (humans?) to be happy and ready to dive in and flourish.

This will probably start with establishing good sleep habits during infancy.

And in all areas of toddler life, it’s all about routine.

Toddlers are sticklers for predictability because a reliable schedule helps them feel safe … while teaching them about their boundaries,” says Parents.com.

"It increases their sense of security because they know what's coming next," says Jean M. Thomas, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, D.C., according to the same site. "The more secure toddlers feel, the more they can focus on things like learning, exploring, and playing."

13 Use Inside Voices


“If yelling is your main form of discipline, it can diminish your child's sense of security and self-esteem,” summarizes Parents.com of the findings of author and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer.

“Yelling is [alarming], so it activates a child's emotional ‘fight or flight’ response while shutting down his logical thinking.”

And, well, isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you want?

They note that of course how we behave is how we are teaching our children to behave. Yelling leads to more yelling (so does staying calm lead to more calmness).

Although many (89 percent of parents report doing it, said a study in The Journal of Marriage and Family) have yelled to discipline at some point, Parents notes that afterward adults often feel guilty about handling the situation in this way.

12 Dance Partay


I’ve always liked dancing and music, but once I became a mom (during labor, actually…), I really became profoundly aware of how powerful and important music, rhythm, and movement can be in life, especially for the youngest set. Besides the way music has a way of really, well, moving us, it “provides cognitive benefits that support children’s early development,” notes PlayGroupNSW.org.au.

Music and dancing increase sensory development, “can improve literacy and numeracy,” is a “mood lifter,” “helps toddlers build coordination,” and can help little ones develop their vocabularies, too.

I also really love the closeness of holding my baby or toddler while moving and grooving, as do they. It’s pure happiness and fun, and yet another way we interact with that special back-and-forth that builds a foundation for future social interaction.

11 OK To Play


I keep thinking lately of how my toddler and preschooler’s eyes just light up with joy and they want to join right in the fun when I take even a few minutes to let go of my adult seriousness and just PLAY for a bit!

Never in my pre-parent life would I have thought this would require any effort, but once two little ones are in your charge, the responsibilities and worries of life, the challenges of being a parent, and more can make you just less likely to dive in and actually enjoy, in my experience.

I try to remember to join in on their play, and to show them that life, even when you’re older, is also about having fun!

I sing my heart out, dance around the living room, laugh and joke with them as I push the jogging stroller on runs, and sometimes even share some soothing yoga.

10 Work It Out


“Kids this age are naturally active, so be sure to provide lots of opportunities for your child to practice basic skills, such as running, [using their legs], and throwing,” notes KidsHealth.org.

And as you might have guessed or experienced in your own life, being fit can have benefits that bleed over into all areas of, well, being alive.

Besides enjoying the health benefits of regular exercise, kids who are physically fit are better able to handle physical and emotional challenges,” says the same site as above.

Having the space and time to use those muscles and practice different forms of movement can be as simple as a regular trip to the park (with close parental supervision, of course).

9 Use Our Manners


Well, it’s monkey see, monkey do, and so it follows that when parents are polite, their kids are more likely to do the same.

In our house, it’s as simple as modeling using those old classic nice words, please and thank you. And it’s not just in our house, of course; it’s in our interactions with all of the other people we talk to, be they friends and family or the clerk at the grocery store.

It’s allowing others to take a turn with a toy. And boy, am I proud when most of the other kids are shoving their way to the front to get a stamper at the end of library story time and mine are waiting patiently.

WhatToExpect.com and other sources emphasize modeling the appropriate (nice) words to use in any given situation and say that then your toddler will start to get the hang of it, whether it’s requesting a toy back from a grabby tot or learning that hands are not for for laying on others.

8 Being Mindful At Table Time


I’m glad I remembered to include this one, actually. If you think about it, when do people end up spending a lot of time sitting with each other and interacting socially? At the table, of course.

Enjoying meals together, notes my fam’s pediatrician and everything I’ve ever read on the subject, can be socially important in so many ways.

You can allow your little ones to form positive associations with meal time, for one. They can also have this tradition of coming to the family table to share about their day and listen politely as others speak.

They can say (and receive) pleases and thank yous.

When parents eat well and have good table manners, they’re setting examples that can last a lifetime.

7 Speak Positively About Partners


I think one thing that’s pretty awesome about families is that we have this early opportunity to model what a healthy and happy relationship can look like.

I’m glad my little ones get the opportunity to witness me and their daddy being proud of each other, having fun with each other, adoring each other, and more.

Ideas about love and relationships may be gathered from many sources as they get older, I figure, but it’s an important foundation that we can build at home.

Speaking positively about others can help kids learn to do the same, too.

“If you talk in a positive way, your child will learn to speak positively to others,” says RaisingChildren.net.

6 Listen Up


Think of how impactful it might be for even a very young child if you really listen when they speak. (And don’t feel bad if it’s sometimes a bit hard to understand everything a toddler says, by the way!)

And beyond listening to and speaking nicely with your child, you can help them by being an “emotion coach,” as is included at PsychologyToday.com.

Accept and talk about children’s emotions. It is also useful to teach children how to label emotions, cope with and problem-solve emotions, and appropriately express emotions,” the site summarizes, referencing both a 1996 and a 2013 study.

Such coaching “is associated with greater emotion regulation and adaptive behaviors as well as lower levels of disruptive behaviors.”

5 Share Our Own Stuff


It’s not all about them. When we explain (at their level of understanding) our own feelings, we show the variety of emotions that exist: that everything is not always happy and perfect.

I started explaining my feelings to my little ones from a very young age, and no joke, my youngest, just barely 2, will sometimes ask us, “Are you frustrated?” I’m SO happy she’s learning to interpret, understand, and even label common emotions.

“Be a good emotional role model,” says PsychologyToday.com. “Children model their behavior from people they admire, such as their parents and teachers. When caregivers model a variety of emotions and coping strategies to manage their emotions, children learn appropriate ways to react in similar circumstances.”

4 Taking Turns

Raising Children Network

We all have to learn to work together somehow, and when parents provide practice in this area at home, it can lead to better success in the area for their kids once they’re in other social situations.

Give choices. Providing children with choices and the independence to make them are linked to higher levels of social-emotional learning,” says PsychologyToday.com.

When a parent and child work together to solve problems, little ones learn how to negotiate and, well, solve problems, the same site says, summarizing a 2015 study.

That leads to “improved social skills and higher acceptance in relationships with peers” later on.

3 Hooray For Hugs!


Although it may be instinct to show your loved ones how much you love them, Christopher Bergland, a father writing for PsychologyToday.com, notes that it can still be helpful to be reminded by scientific studies that prove just how important providing affection is.

A new study from UCLA suggests that a loving parental figure may alter neural circuits in children that could influence health throughout a lifespan,” he wrote. And lack of affection or disregardful behavior can last as long as well, and even lead to a shortened lifespan.

And physical contact, specifically, is important throughout life, too, notes TodaysParent.com. It raises spirits, lowers depression, and teaches kids about social and emotional cues.

2 Handwashing Habits, Cough Covering

The Kavanaugh Report

From government sites like CDC.org to new outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, it’s often stressed how important it is to cover your mouth with your arm or a tissue when you cough or sneeze.

And what an appropriate time of year it is to be bringing this up, too!

I witnessed a parent I respect greatly teaching his little girl to cover when she coughed as a baby, and I thought that was just the best idea ever, so I adopted the approach myself when I had kids.

Not only is this a practical necessity of being in society, but there is surely a social aspect, as well: that you are being mindful of protecting others around you from illness and infection.

1 Take A Breath

Ash Owens

It can be so important to allow yourself to calm down when your toddler has misbehaved, before you react in a way that won’t really benefit anyone, such as yelling, for example.

“Give yourself permission to walk away," says Nancy Schulman, an author on the subject of parenting preschoolers who was quoted at Parenting.com.

"Take a deep breath, count to ten, and then you'll be much more effective when disciplining your child.”

She notes that you may even find it helpful to walk into another room, as long as your little one is in a childproofed/safe environment.

And when we model appropriate reactions and behavior, we can help our little ones to be better at it down the line.

Setting rules and expectations for behavior, giving warnings of potential consequences, offering praise and incentives for positive behaviors and ignoring unwanted behavior are associated with higher levels of social-emotional skills,” summarizes PsychologyToday.com, citing a 2016 study.

Sources: NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov, PsychologyToday.com, NPR.org, WebMD.comParents.com/Toddlers-Preschoolers, PlayGroupNSW.org, KidsHealth.org,

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