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Imagine this:

You bring your child with you to a dinner with friends. Your friend helps himself to a serving of ice cream. Then your child says, “You’d better not eat a lot of that. You will get even bigger.”

You just melt with embarrassment. 

This is one situation where we can see what we perceive as rudeness. However, it could be that your child’s social communication skills need improvement.

Pragmatics: The art of social communication

Social communication (or pragmatics) refers to the way children, and adults, use language within social situations. It discusses the skills involved when using language to communicate and engage in conversations. 

Defined as the social language skills that people use in day-to-day interactions, pragmatics is basically the way we say something, how we say it, the body language we use, and whether it is appropriate in the given situation. It is a vital communication skill where we express our thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Pragmatic language is used in a variety of contexts. It focuses on how we use language to communicate with different people in different situations rather than how language is structured. More specifically, pragmatics is the ability to read the communication cues of other people while following conversational rules.

The three main skills of social communication

There are three main skills in communicating socially.

The first is our ability to use language. This refers to the skill to use language for different purposes such as greeting, informing, demanding, promising or requesting. 

The second skill is the ability to adapt language. This skill allows the person to change the way they speak according to the listener or the situation. 

The ability to follow the ‘unspoken’ rules of conversation and storytelling is the third important aspect of social communication. This includes letting others know when you start talking, taking turns when having a conversation, and staying on topic. This ability also allows the speaker to find other ways of saying what they mean when the other person doesn’t understand what was said. This skill employs the use of facial expressions or body language, eye contact, and knowing the appropriate distance to be from someone when talking to them. 

It is important to teach your child to also know how to understand the person with whom they are communicating. Your child must be able to decipher the conversational rules when talking to people from other cultures or backgrounds as it differs from culture to culture, within cultures, and even within different families. 

Tips on how to improve your child’s social communication skills

Learning how to properly communicate will greatly help your child in building social relationships. In addition, pragmatic language skills are also helpful in academic situations as most curriculum-based activities involve teamwork and communication between peers.

Your child may not know and follow all the rules of conversation and social interaction, but as they grow, they are expected to be able to display adeptness in social communication. 

There are times when children exhibit difficulty in staying on topic, tell stories in a disorganised way, or dominate conversations and tend not to listen to others. While it is not unusual for children to behave this way in certain situations, there may be reason for concern when they do so often or when it is inappropriate for their age. 

To help your child build solid social communication skills, you can practise the following:

  • Engage in pretend games with your child. You can also involve other family members or schedule a play date with other children where you can simulate social situations like having a tea party, visiting grandparents, or attending a concert in the park.
  • Create stories together. You can then guide your child to organise their thoughts properly. Use this activity to develop stories that depict how to behave in social situations. For example, you can create a story about going to the theatre. You can then teach your child the proper etiquette when watching a play and how to behave properly while the show is on.
  • Miming and puppets. Make use of puppets to tell a story. Playing charades is also a good way to use facial expressions, gestures, and mime to describe something.
  • Turn-taking games. Board games can teach your child to take turns. It is also a good way to learn that it is okay to lose (what we call sportsmanship) and that it is more important to play fairly and have fun.
  • Practise greeting. Teach your child the correct way to greet people e.g. grandparents, teachers, your building receptionist, the street sweeper, and others. Encourage your youngster to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in social interactions.
  • Exercise courtesy and politeness. Instil in your child how to communicate in a polite manner by utilising language in direct or indirect ways (e.g. Instead of saying, ‘Turn off the music!’ they can say, ‘The volume is a bit loud. Perhaps we can lower it please.’) 

Pragmatic language skills help your child in understanding other people in a variety of situations and will lead them to behave accordingly. By discussing with your child how people can react differently depending on the way in which they were spoken to, they will be able to value the importance of knowing how to adapt their language to reach a desired result.

Social communication skills are valuable for your children as they continue to navigate the world. As they grow, they will be more exposed to interactions that will require them to behave in a certain way. Your responsibility is to equip them with the correct manners so they will be able to create lasting relationships with other people.