Build social skills in shy kids

25 September 2017 | Research
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Developing social communication skills instead of just vocabulary increases popularity of shy preschoolers, says a new study

A new study suggests that teaching your shy child social communication skills rather than simply expanding his or her vocabulary is the key to helping your child make more friends.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Psychology) Cheung Hoi Shan conducted the study with 164 preschoolers aged between four and six while she was a PhD candidate at NUS Psychology, together with NUS Psychology Associate Professor John Elliott. The findings were published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology in June.

While earlier studies have shown that shy children tend to be less well-liked among their peers, Asst Prof Cheung’s research proved that having high-functioning social communication skills that enable them to engage and interact well in social settings mitigate these presumed disadvantages of being shy, even for children with poor English vocabulary skills.

Shy children with poor vocabulary skills were assumed to be less likeable, but high-functioning social communication skills serve as an effective buffer against the presumed language disadvantage.

Examples of social communication skills include being able to recognise non-verbal cues such as when others are upset, making eye contact, and the ability to adapt and communicate based on the situation and audience. Such skills can be instilled in children deliberately to help them develop meaningful relationships despite their shyness, said Asst Prof Cheung.

“Presumably, having a good expressive vocabulary, and by extension a good command of language, makes it easier for children to engage and interact with peers. However, we have found that the presence of a good vocabulary in a shy child offered no additional buffering effect for peer likeability if the child did not possess high-functioning social communication skills.

“Conversely, shy children with poor vocabulary skills were assumed to be less likeable, but high-functioning social communication skills serve as an effective buffer against the presumed language disadvantage. The more shy a child was, the more pronounced the effect of social communication skills,” Asst Prof Cheung shared.

Speaking on the impact of culture on the study, Assoc Prof Elliot pointed out that in Singapore, shyness in children is not perceived as negatively as in places with strong individualistic cultures such as the US. “In Singapore, it may be considered quite appropriate, and need not diminish the child’s popularity among peers, if the child has good social communication skills,” he said.  

Assoc Prof Elliot also highlighted the potential of the research to be taken forward by investigating local parenting practices and its effect on child socialisation while developing locally appropriate methods of parenting.

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