By the age of six, children are able to relate to other people in many ways.

  • They show empathy for others
  • They participate in cooperative activities
  • They resolve disagreements in non-aggressive ways with minimal adult assistance.

Children develop an interest in playing interactively with other children at about three years of age. Over the next two years their pattern of relating to their peers becomes well established. Children who develop positive patterns of peer relations at this time are more likely to get along well with their classmates when they start school. Since these patterns tend not to change through adolescence, children who develop negative behaviour patterns – either overly aggressive or overly withdrawn – will continue on this path, unless there is some form of intervention, and have fewer opportunities to experience satisfying social relationships at school (53).

"Play is a child’s richest learning medium. It contributes to physical, cognitive, language and social-emotional development." (64)

Naturally enough, children’s social competence emerges from positive social experiences – with their parents, with other caregivers, and with other children. Adult guidance and modeling of positive social interaction helps children to develop positive strategies to deal with social situations. Play with other children provides opportunities for them to test their social skills and learn from their peers.

Beyond children's direct social experience with adults and peers, research indicates that the social environment around them, in their homes and in their communities, have some influence on their chances of developing positive social skills as well as good emotional health.

Influences on the positive outcome: Age-appropriate social skills

Relationships with parents and caregivers

Experiences with other adults


Experiences with other children

Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down list above. Please use this menu to navigate within this page.

Relationships with parents and caregivers

A child’s early experience of being loved and cared for is the foundation for developing social competence. Children who are loved and cared for themselves are more likely to approach others with positive expectations. They are also more likely to be receptive to guidance and control. In fact, four and five year old children with a history of secure attachment with their mothers as infants and toddlers have been found to be:

  • more empathetic and responsive with their peers
  • more skilled at initiating and responding to contact with peers
  • less frequently aggressive than children whose attachment was less secure. (53,25)

Children’s early social skills are learned in daily interactions with parents as they play with them, teach them specific skills, set expectations for their routine behaviours, model desirable social skills – caring, sharing, cooperating, comforting – in their own behaviour, and control unacceptable behaviour. Studies of how parents relate to their children observe two major dimensions of parenting – how responsive they are to their children and how demanding they are. Children who become more competent in all areas of activity and thus are more self-reliant, self-controlled, self-assertive, socially responsible, confident, exploring and content, have been shown consistently to have parents who are both very responsive and very demanding.

These parents:

  • have a warm, affectionate relationship with their children
  • demonstrate care and empathy without being overprotective
  • are sensitive to the needs and feelings of their children, and have a high level of involvement in their lives
  • develop a sense of reciprocity with their children – they do not demand from the children more than they are prepared to give
  • do not avoid confronting their children’s negative behaviour
  • are firm and consistent, but not coercive or excessively restrictive in the demands made of their children. (7,75)

A recent Canadian cross-sectional study of children and their families found that it was parenting practices, particularly consistency, rather than other factors such as income or family structure, that were most strongly associated with overall social relationships and helping behaviour. (106)

Sensitive parents are attuned to their child’s temperament and adapt their parenting strategies. This is particularly important if children are either excessively shy or aggressive. Not assisting children to overcome extremes of shyness or aggressiveness places them at risk of being ignored or rejected by their peers. (201,284)

Our understanding of how children develop sensitivity to others is still limited. Studies have shown that children whose parents engage them in conversations about feelings and causal talk in a caring context, (either through shared play, by comforting or by joking), are more successful later on relating to emotions and understanding. However, it is not clear whether the early experience causes the increased sensitivity or if it is related to some other factor. (55)

Children of parents who use teaching and reasoning in their families, combined with high but reasonable expectations, loving support and democratic processes, tend to be more empathetic and liked by other people. Using these techniques, rather than coercive ones, also promotes greater internalization of behaviours and better compliance over time. (279) Children can learn to understand and take responsibility for their behaviours and continue over time to exhibit positive ones.


  • Develop an understanding of child development, so you will have reasonable expectations of your children.
  • Create an opportunity to discuss how your own behaviour and personality is likely to influence your parenting style.
  • Practice good verbal communication skills.
  • In homes with two parents, you should talk about and agree on consistency in your approach to teaching and guiding your children.
  • Develop an understanding how parent-child interaction and family functioning influences the development of social competence.

Research indicates the following parenting strategies will help your children develop social competence and understand positive social values:

  • Praise your children for good behaviour.
  • Attribute good qualities to your children in relation to good behaviour – "You are a generous girl to share your toys with Suzy."
  • Be available to supervise, coach and problem solve.
  • Be responsive and cooperate with your children as often as possible.
  • Set clear, high expectations.
  • Use minimal coercion and minimal rewards.
  • Reiterate values.
  • Use discipline before getting angry.
  • Use teaching and explanation to discipline, including getting your children to take the other person’s perspective and feel concern for a victim.
  • Include your children in family decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Use logical consequences.
  • Provide age-appropriate opportunities for responsibility. (279)

  • Implement age-appropriate curricula on human development and family life/human relationships and spread it throughout the years of schooling. This would help prepare young people for their responsibilities as parents. (33)


Communities provide a range of resources and services to support parents in their efforts to raise socially competent children.

  • Community groups ensure parents have many places to access information about parenting including the positive social development of pre-school children, for example family resource centres, family service centres, children’s mental health services, libraries, recreation centres, telephone information lines, clinics, and family doctors.

  • Social support groups give opportunities for parents to share ideas and learn informally, for example through family resource centres, drop-in centres for parents and children, community organizations, health centres, and homevisiting programs.

There is no shortage of information on parenting. The challenge is to engage parents in an effective, non-threatening learning process that helps them develop sound parenting skills that will work fortheir family. Some of the lessons learned from groups who offer parenting programs include:

  • building on parents’ strengths and enhancing their capacities
  • providing a balance of didactic input, discussion and time for socialization
  • addressing issues identified by parents as areas of concern
  • providing time to share successes and discuss problems among the group
  • minimizing the logistical barriers to parent participation by considering location, time, cost, and child care. (278,165)


The hours spent at work and the stress experienced in balancing work and family responsibilities have an impact on parents’ relationship with their children. A recent study found that 72 percent of couples are finding it increasingly stressful to balance the demands of work and family. (234)

Studies show that the average Canadian family now has to work 77 weeks a year just to pay the bills; and that families with the lowest incomes need to work 83.6 weeks. (336)

A shortage of subsidized childcare hampers low-income parents' efforts to find work or forces them to place their children with inadequate caregivers. This is a major source of stress for parents and may significantly undermine the quality and quantity of parenting that their children receive.

Workplace policies and programs can help reduce parental stress. Flexible work hours make it easier to accommodate child care arrangements. This involves the same number of hours, but they are rearranged during the day or sometimes compressed from five days into four. Working at home is another option, and men, more often than women, find this option reduces stress (234).

  • Create policies that make some provision for parenting responsibilities to help reduce stress. These can include parental leave to deal with child care emergencies, or the flexibility to take time during regular work hours to contact child care providers.

  • Supportive practices in the workplace also help reduce the level of stress experienced by parents. A supportive and understanding supervisor is most helpful. A supervisor trained to be sensitive to family issues and one that has the authority to make relevant decisions will ease work-family stress. The flexibility to accommodate parenting responsibilities is rare in practice, even though, increasingly, employers are discussing the need for family-friendly workplaces. For most businesses, this would require a major cultural shift. (234)

  • Provide additional support to parents, specifically related to their child care needs. Employers may provide some financial support toward the cost of child care or access to a child care centre at the work site. Or, they may have an employee assistance program that helps caregivers find suitable child care. Some unions have taken steps to meet the needs of its members, many of whom are shift workers, by providing 24 hour child care.

Through their economic and social policies, governments have an indirect influence on the quality of children’s relationship with their parents. Families with incomes that do not allow them to provide for their basic needs experience high levels of stress that may be detrimental to their well-being. (23) Government income support policies affect the income and the quality of life of many families through taxation policies, income support policies, unemployment benefits and minimum wage laws.

  • Develop legislation that influences family stress, such as the availability of paid parental leave, provisions that limit amount of overtime, and regulations related to paying benefits to part-time workers.

Experiences with other adults

Many studies have demonstrated the social and cognitive benefits of quality child care for preschoolers. (89,53,48) Unfortunately the quality of non-parental care received by many children is unknown, since most children are in unregulated care. While the overall quality of non-parental child care is a function of many factors – the program, relationship with parents, physical facility and resources – the relationship between the adult care givers and the children is central to the children’s development of social skills. This is particularly true for children who have not learned these skills at home. The following studies reflect the positive impact experiences with attentive caregivers have on young children:

  • Children who experienced secure attachment with a non-parental caregiver were found to be "more sensitive and empathetic with peers, less aggressive with other children, and to initiate contact more frequently with peers as four-year- olds than children whose attachment was insecure. (53)

  • Children who had positive relationships with adults at the age of four exhibited positive social behaviour at age eight. They were more socially competent, cooperative, empathetic and better able to negotiate conflict. (208)

The importance of non-parental adults in the lives of children is not limited to adults in formal child care or early education centers. A large, longitudinal study of children on the island of Kauai, found that one of the most significant factors in the lives of well-adjusted adolescents who had experienced four or more risk factors in their childhood was the availability of caring adults other than their parents during their early years. Supportive adults included extended family members, neighbors and friends. (284)


  • Take the time to visit the child care setting and observe the program and the staff-child and child-child interactions.
  • Make informed choices about your children’s caregivers. You should know:

    the ratio of adults to children in the care setting

    how the caregivers deal with disruptive behaviour

    how the caregivers promote cooperative, caring behaviour

    how the caregivers would deal with any special concerns related to the social skills of individual children

    how the caregivers communicate with parents about their child’s experiences in the centre.

  • Historically, there has been little connection between schools and preschool child care providers. A closer working relationship could benefit children, by easing their transition to school. For example, the Parents as Teachers program provides a comprehensive range of services to parents. Although its focus is on children up to age three, it works in collaboration with schools, and participating parents have been shown to have more positive perceptions of local schools compared with non-participating parents. (227)

  • A closer relationship would also provide a more coherent system of support for families and children. For example, the School of the 21st Century model, uses the school as a hub for pre-school and before and after-school care. (226)

A range of public and private community-based agencies provide child care and early childhood education services in most provinces. The link between these services and the local government varies. Community groups providing child care services should:

  • have clearly articulated policies on how they manage children’s behaviour
  • have guidelines which articulate how they will relate to parents, and make these available to parents.

A study of the quality of family and child care partnerships examined how principles and practices in child care settings could strengthen the home-child care interaction. In documenting the work of thirteen exemplary child care programs they concluded that quality criteria in family-centered child care should focus on several areas:

  • Families should be respected and their participation encouraged – parents should feel welcomed by friendly providers and feel supported by them and by other parents.

  • Parents and care providers should establish mutual respect and trust. They should communicate regularly to share childrearing views and information about a child’s development.

  • Child care programs should respond to parents’ concerns and needs through on-site services or access to community resources, and develop social and recreational activities to connect families and encourage peer support.

  • Child care programs should offer training to providers to gain knowledge and skills needed to partner with families. Training is critical to making the transition from care that is strictly child-centered to a family-centered model. (111)

An example of a successful model of a high quality early child care program is the Perry Preschool project, another is the Communities Together for Children initiative.

  • Some large employers have established child care services for employees at the workplace.

  • Be sensitive to parents' needs for time to find child care, and to visit their child’s care centre periodically to observe what is happening and discuss their child’s progress with the caregiver.

Through policies that set standards and fund child care, the federal and provincial governments play a major role in the availability and accessibility of quality preschool experiences for all children. Government policies reflect many different agendas. Their is a current agenda of cost-cutting and a lack of consensus among Canadians about the role of governments in supporting early childhood care and education. This has resulted in, at best, limited political will to address serious questions about the current quality of care for preschool children and at worst, cutbacks in government support.

  • The Canadian federal government funds research and demonstration programs that can guide provincial policy and practice.

  • The Canadian federal government, through its transfer agreements with provincial governments, can influence the availability of services.

  • Provincial governments, through their financial support policies, have a direct influence on the quantity and quality of child care services. The salaries of child care providers are determined by the level of government support available and by parents' ability to pay. Many child care providers are currently dealing with government cut backs and the increased economic insecurity of many parents who need their services. Provincial governments also establish and monitor basic standards to ensure minimal elements of quality for child care. These need to go beyond standards that relate to physical facilities and staff-child ratios.

  • Local governments, within the limitations of funding policies of more senior governments, take some responsibility for monitoring the need for various forms of child care in their communities. They also coordinate information about local child care to make existing services more easily accessible to parents and advocate additional child care spaces and increased access to subsidies.

  • Local governments also fund some early childhood education and play groups, often in low-income neighborhoods. These groups are both for parents who are at home with their children and for home child care providers. The programs are intended both to provide social support for care providers and opportunities for socialization among the children. They may be part of a more comprehensive community development initiative or simply stand-alone services. Generally speaking, these programs are not thoroughly evaluated. One exception however, of an early childhood prevention program which is being evaluated extensively is Better Beginnings, Better Futures.

Experiences with other children

Observation of children shows that, although they may enjoy being with other children at earlier ages, it is around the age of three that they develop an interest in playing with, rather than beside, each other. The period from this time until around ages six or seven are thought to be critical for children to develop positive styles of peer social relations. The social skills they develop at this time determines the quality of their later social experience. (53)

Playing with peers is essential to a child’s development of peer social skills. Sensitive adults can explain rules of play, intervene constructively when children go beyond the established limits, ensure children understand which behaviours are or are not acceptable, for example no hitting. They can also teach children acceptable ways to resolve problems, for example taking turns, and generally help children have a positive play experience. However, beyond this adult support, children learn by testing their own social skills, developing their unique way of dealing with social situations and experiencing what is acceptable and unacceptable to their peers.

Between the ages of three and five, children themselves develop an increasingly strong sense of rules. (53) They begin to reinforce group norms and expectations among themselves and eventually will refuse to play with children who do not accept the established norms for peer behaviour.

It is through experiences with other children (and adults), that children develop a growing understanding of what other people are thinking and feeling. Research is beginning to expand our knowledge of specific experiences and processes that contribute to children’s social understanding. Research in this area notes that the evidence gathered to date is correlational, rather than causal. Links are there, but total cause and effect is yet unclear.

The ability to understand another person’s emotions and an understanding of their plans or intentions are both important to social understanding. These two processes have been shown to develop independently in young children.

  • Children begin to demonstrate an understanding of another person through activities such as joint pretend play and actions such as teasing.

  • Children were more likely to share thoughts or ideas during child-child interaction than during mother-child interaction.

  • Success on social cognition tasks in one study was predicted by a child’s previous experience of cooperative play with older siblings.

  • Children’s powers of understanding the mental states of others varies depending on the emotional context of the interaction and they are not used consistently in all situations.

  • Children’s ability to account for the point of view of others in negotiating is correlated over time with their social understanding. (55)

  • Mediate the child-child relationships either directly with siblings in the home, or indirectly through the opportunities they provide for the children to play with other children outside the home.

  • Be available to teach, coach, supervise and guide your children in their relationships with one another.

  • Set high expectations for your children’s behaviour with one another and support them to achieve those expectations.

  • Help your children learn strategies to settle disagreements without aggression and encourage them to solve problems without adult intervention as often as possible.

  • Be prepared to separate your children if they are angry and not in control.

  • In choosing child care or early childhood education programs, parents should be informed about the policies and practices of the caregivers including:

    the ratio of adults to children in the care setting

    how the caregivers deal with disruptive behaviour

    how the caregivers promote cooperative, caring behaviour

    how caregivers would deal with any special concerns related to the social skills of their child

    how the care givers communicate with parents about their child’s experiences in the centre.

  • Community groups such as churches and businesses often provide space – in shopping malls and churches – and financial support for supervised children’s play groups.
  • Neighborhood groups can contribute labour and funds to enhance or build a creative play environment in a local parks.
  • Communities can help parents choose quality child care services that meet their needs. The Communities Together for Children initiative is an example of such an initiative.

  • Local governments can provide safe, accessible play areas such as parks, recreation centers and schools, where children are encouraged to play interactively.

  • Ensure developers accommodate the needs of children when they design new neighborhoods or build high-rise apartments.

  • Provide a range of low-cost or free opportunities for supervised children’s play accessible to families in low-income neighborhoods.

  • Support parent’s self-help efforts to provide play opportunities for their children.

Aware of any innovative programs, legislation or initiatives that are relevant to this positive outcome?
This is your chance to let us know!

We are always on the lookout for specific strategies proven to be successful (or showing promise), that illustrate work done in this area. After reading this section of the site, click on the icon below and share your ideas.

Previous  ·  Top ·  Print  ·  Site Map  ·  GHC Home  ·  Next