top of page

Social Skills: When and How They Develop

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

When thinking about social skills we often think of saying “please” and “thank you”, but there are actually a number of social rules that we must follow in conversation. To learn more about the importance of social communication skills, see our blog, “Social Communication - The Unspoken Rules of Conversation and Communication”

You may be surprised to learn that social communication skills start to develop at birth and continue to develop throughout childhood.

Birth to 12 Months

· Establishes eye contact and smiles at caregivers

· Laughs in response to play

· Can differentiate tones of voice (happy, frustrated)

· Is interested when others speak and responds with facial expressions or sounds

· Demonstrates joint attention skills (e.g. looks at an exciting toy, looks at their parent, then looks back to the toy to establish shared interest).

· Participates in vocal turn-taking and simple interactive games, such as peek-a-boo

· Uses vocalizations and gestures to get attention and make requests

12-18 Months

· Brings objects to show caregivers

· Requests and comments by pointing or using gestures, sounds or words

· Protests by shaking head “no”

· Begins to use vocal inflection (e.g. the rising intonation of a question)

· Uses “hi”, "bye" and other social gestures and words

18-24 months

· Uses words and short phrases to greet (“hi”), protest (“no”), make a statement (e.g. “big dog”) and give directions (“want milk”)

· Participates in verbal turn-taking for a few turns (e.g. Parent: “Look, a dog!”. Child: “doggie”. Parent: “Big dog”. Child: “Doggie woof-woof”)

· Demonstrates simple topic maintenance

24-36 months

· Engages in short conversations, and verbally introduces and changes the topic

· Uses language to share own experiences (e.g. tells grandma about going to the park earlier in the day)

· Begins to use descriptive details to help the listener understand (e.g. “I want big ball”)

· Asks for clarification when the message is not understood (e.g. “What?”)

· Can take on the role of another person within play (e.g. pretends to be doctor when playing with a medical set)

3-4 years

· Acknowledges their communication partner’s messages by saying things like “yeah” and “ok”.

· Begins to recognize the needs of others and will speak differently to a baby versus an adult.

· Begins to request permission to do things (e.g. “Mom, can I go outside?”).

· Begins using language for jokes and riddles

· Makes conversational repairs when not understood (e.g. Child: “I saw a dog”. Parent:“Oh, you saw a dog yesterday?”. Child: “No, I saw a dog today”)

· Is able to engage in simple story telling and begins to make guesses about what may happen next (inferencing)

4-5 years

· Can more easily use language to express emotions and feelings

· Begins to tell stories that have a clear sequence of events (e.g. “The man is on the horse and he is going to jump over the fence and then he is going to go home”)

School-Age Children

· Can effectively read body language, facial expression, and tone of voice to determine the feelings of others

· Demonstrates improved topic maintenance, repair, and increased number of turns in conversation

· May use language to praise others (“Good job, you did it!”)

How to Help These Skills Develop -

  • Practice turn-taking in play (e.g. you each have your own car and take turns putting it down the ramp; you each get a turn deciding what you will both build with blocks). This mirrors the back-and-forth interaction of conversation and teaches children how to follow someone else’s lead which is required when others initiates the topic of conversation.

  • Use role play or puppets to allow your children to practice introducing themselves, asking for help, or changing the topic of conversation.

  • Discuss why others may have a different opinion than them (e.g. “Bobby may be afraid of dogs because he doesn’t have a dog like us).

  • Ask questions about topics of interest to your children. This will allow them to practice taking several turns in conversation. As children gets older, you can introduce topics that are of less interest and encourage them to remain in the conversation by asking questions and commenting.

  • Practice rephrasing the message when it is not clear. Ask questions like, "Did you mean...?"

  • When looking at books or watching television, talk about how people’s facial expression and tone of voice communicate a message (e.g. “Oh, that boy is frowning. Maybe he is sad that his toy is broken”).

  • Point out in books, tv shows, and comic strips when characters break social rules. Explicitly discussing social rules can help children gain a better understanding of these often unspoken rules.

If you have concerns about your children’s social communication skills or would like more ideas about how to practice social skills at home, please reach out to Empower Communication Services.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Social Communication Benchmarks.

Kids Sense. Social Communication (Pragmatics).

Child Mind Institute. Teaching Social Rules at Home.

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page