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  • Writer's pictureChristine Hertz Hausman

Building a community, one lesson at a time: How to teach social skills with strategies and steps

how to teach social skills

This fall, Kristi Mraz ( and I are taking on a blog series about holding strong to your beliefs through these first hectic months. (You can see the first two posts here and here.) Last week, Kristi posted on The Educator Collaborative Blog about rethinking how we build community. We were just blown away by the response that that post received. We also heard loud and clear that you’d like more information on not necessarily the why, but on the how to teach social skills.

Belief: Social skills can be taught and a learning community should be built, not just managed.

Reality Strikes: YIKES! Where do I begin? The clip chart is down. What’s next? Will chaos reign?

At the end of Kristi’s post, she listed five things we could do tomorrow:

  1. Get rid of the clip chart, stickers, marble jar. If you have it you will be tempted to use it.

  2. Expect things to be rocky at first, this doesn’t mean it’s not working, it is just a big change. STAY THE COURSE.

  3. Tackle one thing at a time. List the behaviors you see your community needs to build: listening, sharing, problem solving. Choose the one that has the most bang and make a plan to teach into it

  4. Think about building a toolkit for that skill: what are the steps? What are the options?

  5. Practice and role play with your class, make a supportive visual

We write at length all about each of these things in our forthcoming book, Kids First From Day One: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom. But we also know that many of you share our fierce sense of urgency about making a change and doing what is best for your students. So, we’re going to try our best to address some of your questions and share what we’ve learned as we’ve grappled with this challenge. In this post, we’re going focus on the fourth item:

Building toolkits for social skills.

So let’s imagine that you’ve taken down the clip chart and you’ve jotted down a list of some skills your students might need to develop (sharing, solving problems, stopping when asked, listening, self-regulation). What’s next?

Now we do what we do best- we teach!

We lean on all we know about growth mindset and practice reframing social skills as something that children develop over time with our thoughtful guidance and carefully planned instruction. Just like in reading, math or writing, we can teach our students steps to help them use a strategy to build a social skill.

First and foremost, when we decide on a skill to teach toward (social, academic, anything!) we want to make sure it passes the longevity and relevance test. Is it worth teaching this skill? To do this we ask:

  • Do people of the world use this skill?

  • Do I use it regularly?

  • Is it something my students will need long after they’ve left the school setting?

  • What do we (my students and I) understand about this skill?

  • What is hard about this skill?

  • What is reasonable for children of this age when it comes to this skill?

Once you mull these questions over a bit, you’re ready to start.

For many of us, breaking down our teaching and ours students’ learning like this is much more familiar in more “academic” realms, so let’s look at an example from reading before we delve into the social.

Skill: Decoding unknown words (Is it worth it? Yep. I still have to decode and make sense of names and new-to-me words. Hello subitizing, I’m looking at you.)

Strategy: Skip the word and think about what makes sense.


  1. When you run into an unknown word, skip it and read the rest of the sentence or part.

  2. Think about what might make sense.

  3. Reread the sentence with a word that makes sense.

  4. See if the word matches the letters.

  5. If it matches- keep going! If it doesn’t, try a different word.

(Interested in learning MUCH more about reading and writing strategies? Our friend Jennifer Serravallo has laid out hundreds of reading and writing of strategies in this way in her books.)

So far so good! And If you teach primary grades, you’re probably well versed in the idea that there are many different strategies for solving unknown words. This is where our students’ toolkits comes in– as reading teachers, we want to arm our readers with many different tools or strategies to decode words.

What does this have to do with teaching social skills? It is the exact same idea. Identify the skill, break it into real actionable steps and teach how to use it. And as community teachers, we want to arm our students with many different tools or strategies to solve problems, negotiate, compromise, share, self-regulate, etc.

So let’s imagine you’ve noticed that your students could work on the skill of sharing. Perhaps there are heated arguments over the stapler at writing or five children clamber to get a coveted book in the class library or you hear story after story about the soccer ball at recess. Children do not arrive on our doorsteps with innate abilities to share things– especially things that are very important to them. Time and time again I would say, “Just share it.” or “Just take turns,” (or on less than glamorous days: “I am putting this away until you learn to share this!!!!!”) without teaching children to do either. We develop sharing as a skill, just as we develop decoding.

Step one:

Is sharing a skill that’s worth teaching? Yes– today I shared a book with a colleague, a googledoc template, a highlighter, an apple, my chocolate bar (ooph, that one was hard).

Step two:

What does this skill look like? What are some of the strategies people use to share?

  • Splitting the object (chocolate bar)

  • Turn taking (book with a colleague- she’ll get it back to me next week)

  • Using something together (googledoc template)

  • Finding another (apple)

  • Give something up & let it go (highlighter)

  • Others?

Step three:

What would be the steps to the strategy of taking turns?

  1. See if there is another thing that’s the same.

  2. If not, figure out who will go first and who goes next (rock, paper, scissors).

  3. Make a plan: How much time? How much of it?

As with any scaffold, our hopes as teachers is that reliance on these steps fade away and that children are left with a toolkit of different strategies to pull out when they are trying to share, self-regulate, compromise, give feedback, etc.

So now, give it a try:

  • Name a social skill you think your students (or a group of your students) might need

  • Ask, “Is this skill worth teaching?”

  • Think about what this skill looks like.

  • Name the steps that you use for a specific strategy.

I wish I could tell you that you will be able to introduce these steps, make a lovely visual, snap your fingers, and then miraculously have a class that can solve problems and self-regulate without any hiccups. As we mention in our book Mindset for Learning, it can take as many as 264 days to build a habit! As with all learning, these skills take practice. Whole-class conversations, storytelling, read alouds and discussions, role-playing and visualization all give our students ample opportunities to try out strategies, build independence, and develop lifelong skills.

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