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Whilst we know a key focus of primary school is developing academic skills such as numeracy and literacy, promoting social-emotional skills across these years remains integral in the development of the next generation of socially competent and successful young people.

By Emily Thorne and Amanda J. Pooley

Digital Devices

Schools are well placed to promote connectedness for young people, given the many hours children spend at school during important periods of transition, such as developmental changes, identity formation, and family changes. As too are their parents, who create the foundations for healthy relationship skills and support emotional exploration1. To establish meaningful and long-lasting friendships, children need a variety of skills including emotional literacy, emotional regulation, perspective taking, and problem solving. This involves skills required to form friendships, like the ability to initiate conversation with peers and extends to those needed to maintain and strengthen peer relationships, such as social problem-solving skills and perspective taking. Towards the end of primary school, children’s social competence tends to increase significantly as schools are highly interpersonal environments and their increasing neurodevelopmental potential for complex thinking makes perspective taking and empathy increasingly possible. Some children benefit from a more explicit approach to learning of social-emotional skills. By giving children the opportunity to practice and develop their ability to solve and recover from typical peer conflict, be assertive when required, and show genuine care for their friends, we are giving them skills which they will need throughout life, and which will protect them against future mental ill-health2.


Social resilience refers to a person’s capacity to cope successfully with everyday challenges

Social resilience

Social resilience refers to a person’s capacity to cope successfully with everyday challenges, for example, conflict within friendship groups and tackling new or difficult tasks. One of the ways to build this is through family support which nurtures the skills that are needed for social resilience3. Research shows us that working with our children on social resilience not only improves social-emotional skills, but also reduces problematic behaviour, lowers emotional distress, and can improve school outcomes4. There are several skills which underpin social resilience. These are outlined below, along with strategies for these skills.

Ability to regulate emotions.

When a child has a good understanding of emotions and has had repeated experience of warm, understanding adults help them with complex and challenging feelings, over time and with lots of opportunity to practice, children learn to do this independently. It is natural and normal for children to have significant emotional responses to the environment around them and things that may happen to them in those environments, such as a friend choosing to play with someone else. How a child responds to this perceived rejection determines how that relationship continues. For example, the healthy expression of feeling disappointed, angry, or frustrated is needed for the friendship to continue despite small bumps in the road5.

  • Modelling and reinforcing the skills you want your child to develop is very important, including social skills, problem solving, motivation and effective communication6. By identifying and explaining your emotions in an age-appropriate way, you can show your child that it is acceptable and necessary to talk about how we are feeling. For example, by saying “I’m a bit annoyed because the car pulled out in front of us which was dangerous. I wonder if they are in a rush or not thinking about what is happening around them?” versus an obvious alternative, you can identify how you are feeling and model compassion for other people too.
  • In conversations with your child, emphasise the importance of persistence. While it is important to debrief events from the day, encourage them to look forward towards what is next. Asking questions like “What are you going to try next?” or “What is coming up that I can help you with?” are important, rather than playing the blame game with the past.

Being assertive when required.

Assertiveness requires children to effectively communicate their wants and needs to others, whilst keeping the emotions of others in mind. In other words, standing up for themselves in a kind way. Research has demonstrated links between assertiveness and increased autonomy, healthy boundaries in primary school children, and increased self-confidence to cope with life’s challenges, including peer conflicts7.

  • Model and practice these skills with your child. To begin with, you may need to provide very clear structure and prompting (e.g., “Stop. I don’t like it.”). With time, incorporating some other skills mentioned here, and lots of practice8, it might eventually sound like; “Please stop doing that. I don’t like having a ball thrown at my face. Can we roll it together instead?”. Encouraging siblings to have a go at solving the conflict together before seeking an adult mediator will help build these assertive communication skills too.

Taking on someone else’s perspective.

Prior to the age of seven, most children are impacted by egocentrism in their ability to take the perspective of others9. With time and practice, they become better at considering how other people may have different thoughts and feelings. Empathy takes it one step further: considering how their friends feel and how to support them with this in mind10.

  • Although life is busy and often stressful, lean into the small, daily opportunities to show your child how you are thinking and feeling. For example, sing along to favourite songs together in the car, re-visit books together that were once read regularly, or enjoy a special food together. Use conversation to highlight what you noticed about the activity, for example, “I loved reading the book because it reminded me about when you were very little, and I watched you learn things so quickly”. Incorporating rituals of connection into habitual family routines can help to strengthen the parent-child relationship and a child’s understanding of the emotions of other people11.
  • Whilst watching videos or movies with your child, incorporate small but meaningful conversations about what you are watching. For example, asking about how a character felt after something happened and being detectives to find clues about how you know this (e.g., facial expression, what they said, imagining how they might feel based on what has happened) will help not only their comprehension, but also their ability to understand the perspectives of other people.

At an early age, language plays an important role in a child’s ability to play and interact with their peers

Initiating conversations.

At an early age, language plays an important role in a child’s ability to play and interact with their peers. As children’s relationships become more complex towards the end of primary school, there is a need for conversations to be shaped by a student’s understanding of the other person, and a comfort with sharing ‘control’ of the conversation to maintain the flow, for example, taking turns. As such, children need practice in beginning conversations, keeping them going, and balancing the need to talk and listen.

  • Using a warm and encouraging tone, explore with your child what happened throughout the day. Rather than just asking “What did you do at school?”, build on this by asking things like, “Tell me about what you did at recess time, did you try anything new?” or “When your friend wanted to play handball instead of chasey, how did that make you feel?”. Listen actively and reflect what they are saying back to them. After validating their emotion, incorporate ideas of scenario problem-solving or role play to develop ideas of what to do next time. For example, saying things like, “It sounded like you weren’t sure what to talk about while waiting in the line for handball. Let’s make a list of things you could say and then we will have a practice and play so you can hear yourself saying it” may help them to initiate conversation next time with less worry.

Understanding what’s expected.

When asked about what skills they consider to be most important during transitions in primary school, teachers in a 2019 study12 reported a child knowing and following the rules in a classroom, followed closely by skills such as respecting others. An awareness of the ‘rules’ in different environments is important if children are expected to follow them. For example, the need to be quiet in a library or be kind to a peer who is upset. It also enables a child to flexibly solve social conflict as they know the expectations for all students (e.g., if you need help you can ask a teacher, no tackling during football).

  • Often, games13 are designed with a learning goal in mind and the opportunity to practice new skills in a non-threatening context. Games may require children to follow social rules14 to advance the game (e.g., asking politely, using an appropriate tone of voice, standing an appropriate distance apart, waiting your turn), see situations from multiple perspectives, and actively work with others to solve problems. You could also create a scavenger hunt game which requires talking with other family members (via facetime if required) to find people who match certain prompts (e.g., someone who speaks another language, someone who is born in December). As with any activity, reflective discussions are essential for maximum benefit so that children can apply the learnings from the game to their real-life social interactions.
  • When possible, support your child in fun recreational or after-school activities15. Remember, it isn’t important how many goals they shoot, what belt they get in karate, or always winning; it is more about their desire to try new things and persist despite challenges.

What about at school?

There is a strong need for complementary strategies and messaging at school and home to reinforce important skills and messages. Research16 has highlighted the importance of adults ‘walking the talk’ of social-emotional teaching. That is, by adults behaving in a way which is consistent with the desired outcome for the children, the students are more likely to learn and generalise the skills. The strategies suggested above, as well as teachers identifying children who require more explicit support with friendships, incorporating planned aspects into play environments (e.g., some quieter environments, some structured activities such as large chess or Lego Club), and building genuine connections with pupils through curiosity and conversation are important building blocks of social resilience17.


Psychological research has, over many years, emphasised the importance of relationships. Emotional connection and relationships are part of the glue which keeps communities and individuals healthy. As adults, supporting the development of children by putting ample and explicit focus on social education will help them to develop the awareness, knowledge, and skills necessary to create and maintain meaningful relationships with others. Through small, everyday interactions, children learn the importance of the perspective of others, solving conflicts efficiently, and sustaining relationships through conversation and play.


1 Hoffman, K., Cooper, G., Powell, B., & Benton, C. (2017). Raising a secure child. Guildford Publications.

2 Van Harmelen, A., Gibson, J., St Clair, M., Owens, M., Brodbeck, J., Dunn, V., et al., (2016). Friendships and family support reduce subsequent depressive symptoms in at-risk adolescents. PLoS One, 11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0153715

3 Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 335-244.

4 Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82. 405-432.

5 Eickers, G., & Prinz, J. (2020). Emotional recognition as a social skill. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Skill and Expertise: Fridland, Ellen & Pavese, Carlotta.

6 Rizkalla, L., Wertheim, E., & Hodgson, L. (2008). The role of emotion management and perspective taking in individuals’ conflict management styles and disposition to forgive. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 1594-1601. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.07.014

7 Bogolyubskaya, L., & Khukhlaeva, O. (2019). Research on the relationship between formation of psychological boundaries and assertiveness in primary school children. Psychological Science and Education, 24, 42-49.

8 Hoyte, F., Torr, J., & Degotardi, S. (2013). The language of friendship: Genre in the conversations of preschool children. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 0, 1-15.

9 Lally, M., & Valentine-French, S. (2019). Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective. California: Creative Commons.

10 McDonald, N., & Messinger, D. (2011). The development of empathy: How, when and why. Free will, emotions and Moral Actions: Philosophy and Neuroscience in Dialogue.

11 Stewart, D., & Sun, J. (2004). How can we build resilience in primary school aged children? The importance of social support from adults and peers in family, school and community settings. Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health, 16.

12 Besi, M., & Sakellariou. (2019). Transition to Primary School: the importance of social skills. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 6.

13 Zheng, L., Oberle, C., Hawkes-Robinson, W., & Daniau, S. (2021). Serious games as a complementary tool for social skill development in young people: A systematic review of the literature. Stimulation & Gaming, 1. doi: 10.1177/10468781211031283

14 DeRosier, M., & Thomas, J. (2019). Hall of Heroes: A digital game for social skills training with young adolescents. International Journey of Computer Games Technology. doi: 10.1155/2019/6981698

15 Gray, J., Galton, M., McLaughlin, C., Clarke B., & Symonds, J. (2011). The supportive school: Wellbeing and the young adolescent. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.

16 Hirschstein, M., Van Schoiack Edstrom, L., Grey, K., Snell, J., MacKenzie, E. (2007). Walking the talk in bullying prevention: Teacher implementation variables related to initial impact of the Steps to Respect program. School Psychology Review, 36, 3-21.

17 Wolf, S., Reyes, R., Weiss, E., & McDermott, P. (2021). Trajectories of social-emotional development across pre-primary and early primary school. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 75.