Research shows, and professionals agree, that having social interest and developing social skills are necessary for long term social-emotional health.  However, there seems to be a common misconception that schools and ‘peer modeling’ are responsible for a child’s social skill development.  While that would make everyone’s lives easier, it is simply not true. Social skills are first established and developed at home with parents or caregivers within the child’s first 3 years of life. When a child is ready, school can be used as a place to practice these skills that have been previously established at home. “Helping, sharing and cooperative behaviors emerge in the caregiver-child relationship in the second year and build on the reciprocity and turn taking established at the start of the caregiver-child relationship” (Hay, 1979; Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992). (P. 16-17, The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children, A Review, DEPARTMENT OF CHILD AND ADOLESCENT HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION 2004).  Children begin to develop these skills long before they start preschool. As early as the first few weeks of life children begin to model their parents’ facial gestures and begin to show reciprocity, a back-and-forth exchange.  It is crucial that this developmental learning process is encouraged and nurtured at home, and for children with delays in these areas, they need more opportunities to nurture these capacities with their caregivers, not fewer by spending all day in preschool or daycare.  Not all families have the option of being with their child during the day.  However, when possible, by making temporary changes in your lives while your child is young (0-5) to prioritize 1 on 1 time with them, you are investing in their future and giving yourself 100-fold that time back as they get older. 

Developing social-emotional health and skills is a process similar to learning other skills.   Think about the process a child goes through learning to swim.  Simply putting your child around other children in a pool who are already swimming or learning to swim themselves doesn’t typically lead to success.   In reality, putting a child in a pool without providing the proper support can be dangerous or scary for a child exploring this for the first time.  That fear/anxiety can make it harder to learn and can lead to avoidance of the experience in the future.  Alternatively, if a child is nurtured and supported by an involved caregiver who helps them feel safe and in control by starting in a calmer environment while meeting the child at their ability level, then the child can feel safe and successful while they learn.  The child will also be more likely to feel comfortable exploring and adapting their movements in the water later on. If their first experiences include enjoying the learning process, feeling confident/successful in their abilities, and they are with a caregiver they feel safe with and connected to, then they will master the skills and use them adaptively.  

If we replace ‘swimming’ with ‘social skills’, then the same learning process will lead to the greatest success. While swimming and splashing around with friends in a pool can be a fun and great way to practice ‘swimming’, you can’t practice something you don’t know.  The same is true of children with social-emotional delays, learning from other children in school only occurs if the child has certain foundational social-emotional skills before they go into the classroom.  A necessary first step in a successful and comprehensive learning process is establishing these skills and achieving a basic level of mastery over them with caregivers. The conditions to optimally achieve this are;

  • a calm controlled environment,
  • a caring nurturing caregiver,
  • meeting the child at their social-emotional ability level, not their age, and
  • encouraging them to problem sovle and think, not memorize or repeat.

This gives a child the opportunity at home with an adaptive caregiver to first experience and work through emotionally challenging social situations that require self-regulation and flexibility.  Peers tend to be less adaptive and can create or exacerbate difficult social-emotional situations for a child. Peers’ own rigidities and reactions can make learning even more difficult for a sensitive, hyperactive, or socially delayed child. 

Children with social-emotional delays have delayed social skills. The expectation to fix these challenges is often passed on to schools. Unfortunately, most of these children will never be able to master these skills in school because they never developed a foundation to build upon. It would be like learning to run before you can walk, read without knowing the alphabet, or do algebra without knowing arithmetic… highly unlikely.  Additionally, schools use structured and rigid teaching methods to help children develop formulaic and repetitive language patterns and gestures to “develop” these social skills. This type of learning can lead to more rigid children.  The learning principle “We have to walk before we run” applies to many areas of life and establishes the necessity of sequential learning processes by identifying necessary precursors before learning a more advanced skill.   This process exists at every level of learning and growth.  Before the child can walk, they must learn to sit up, roll over, and crawl first. For social skill development, the ideal situation is for the child to establish and develop social skills at home with parents or caregivers. Once they are consistently able to sustain social engagement during long play-based exchanges with a caregiver, then they can practice these skills at school amongst peers.

Holding off on your child starting a full day of school is one proven solution to give them more time to improve their social-emotional health by helping them establish better self-regulation and becoming more flexible/adaptive. “Delays in school starting age imply substantial improvements in mental health (e.g., reducing the overall “difficulties” score by at least0.5SD). The evidence for these effects is robust and, critically, persists in the latest wave of the DNBC when the children were aged 11. However, we also find that these mental-health gains are narrowly confined to one particular construct: the inattention/hyperactivity score (i.e., a measure indicating a lack of self-regulation)”. (Thomas S. Dee Hans Henrik Sievertsen; 2015, Oct.) THE GIFT OF TIME? SCHOOL STARTING AGE AND MENTAL HEALTH; NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH (Working Paper 21610  This ‘narrow construct’ looking at inattention/hyperactivity and self-regulation (executive functioning) mentioned above is an area where most children struggle during the early years of schooling.  These gains seen from delaying a child’s full day school starting age are crucial areas of development for long term success.  Giving a child another year to strengthen these capacities can change a child’s entire school experience, in the short run and in the long run.

Looking at this decision from the other direction also supports delaying their start.  “Starting school too early can have a detrimental effect on children and their mental health”; (A Price et all., Nov 2017), (Examining the psychological and social impact of relative age in primary school children: a cross-sectional survey,  For caregivers, delaying their child’s start should also mean spending more intentional time with the child and setting up 1 on 1 playdates.  Interacting and playing with them advances their social-emotional health, and if a child has a diagnostic delay or is in the bottom 50% of their class in social skills, then they need additional growth opportunities compared to their peers.   This also means that as a society we need to accept that schools exist primarily for academic access.  At best it can serve as a place for children to practice their pre-existing social skills, but not an environment that establishes these social capacities or emotional health.  While many caregivers may not have time built into their busy lives for this level of involvement, think of it as an investment into your child’s future, saving everyone time and energy in the long run.  For families that just can’t give more or extra time, then nannies, babysitters, au pairs, grandparents and siblings can be a great second option for increasing these emotionally rich meaningful 1 on 1 opportunities. 

Learn how to APPLY The Greenspan Floortime Approach®.  Register for the Professional or Caregiver/Parent Course at Parents and Professionals can also receive Greenspan Floortime® Expert Tele-Coaching with additional video analysis and feedback.   For in-person Greenspan Floortime® based OT, SLP, Social Group Programs, and coaching contact The Floortime Center®,  

*Learn about how Dr. Greenspan’s Greenspan Floortime® is different from ICDL’s DIR®Floortime.