Early Childhood Education

Social Competence


Early social competence has been linked to later successes, not just in social and psychological domains but also in academic, behavioral, and other aspects of well-being and adjustment. Although a long history of research has focused on the socioemotional, physiological, and cognitive correlates of early social competence, a unitary working definition of ‘social competence’ remains elusive. Because of the complexity of the construct, researchers have used a wide range of criteria, referring to specific social skills (e.g., social information processing), the impact of behaviors on others (e.g., sociometric ratings, popularity), and children’s success in achieving goals in social settings (e.g., resource control).

Despite the lack of a common definition, most agree that socially competent children show positive behaviors toward others, are able to develop healthy social relationships, are seen favorably by others, and have “accurate social information processing” skills (Creasey et al., 1998). Researchers also suggest that “competence” is a subjective evaluation of the child’s overall effectiveness in navigating social worlds, and includes adaptive behaviors (i.e., skills, physical development, language skills, academic skills), social skills (i.e., interpersonal behavior, selfrelated behaviors, task-related behaviors), and the results of actions, particularly peer acceptance (Gresham and Reschly, 1987).

The complexity of the construct and the lack of an accepted definition of social competence are paralleled by a divergence of instrumentation and methodology used to study it (McConnell and Odom, 1999). Methods to study social competence have included direct observation, peer nominations, self-report, and surveys. Measures also vary in focus—with some targeting performance and skills (e.g., ability to cooperate) and others examining outcomes, for example, how much children are liked (Hubbard and Coie, 1994).

While varying significantly in focus and scope, measures overlap significantly. Children who achieve high scores on certain measures (e.g., emotional regulation) tend to receive high scores on others (e.g., academic success, sociometric ratings). And while researchers and practitioners understandably rely on particular measures of competence depending on their specific interest, attempts to comprehensively measure social competence should include a combination of instruments.


The Development of Social Competence-Infancy to Childhood

Social competence is tied to cognitive and socioemotional skills, and social competence is related to the child’s developmental stage. In infancy, social competence includes awareness of the environment and the ability to engage in meaningful interactions with others, particularly caregivers. Infants can be quite active and responsive to the environment. They smile to caregivers, open and close their mouths, blink their eyes, wave their hands, and even imitate adults’ behaviors. Such interactions help infants communicate needs to caregivers and can influence caregiver responses. Such meaningful interactions ideally help to establish a secure attachment to a caregiver, considered by many to be one of the most significant experiences in a person’s lifetime—possibly forecasting the quality of later relationships (Oden, 1999).

With age, sociocognitive and emotional skills become more sophisticated, and social worlds become more complex. Children begin to interact with different companions and gain access to more contexts (e.g., school, playground, and neighborhood). They become increasingly able to choose what contexts to participate in and with whom to interact. In other words, children begin to take a more active role in determining and navigating their own social worlds.

Peer relationships come to the forefront as the child encounters peers at school and tin he neighborhood. Peer interactions are integral to the development of social competence—influencing school performance and adjustment, and providing emotional support and a sense of belonging (Ladd, 1999). In the context of peer relationships, a child learns to negotiate and manage conflicts, to argue and experience success and frustration, to understand others’ opinions, and to take others’ perspectives. In other words, during childhood, even while the family continues to be a significant arena in which aspects of social competence are developed, peer interactions increasingly become an important venue through which skills and social competencies emerge.


Influences on Social Competence

Multiple factors contribute to young children’s social competence. Parents in particular contribute to children’s social competence both through their genetic legacy and the nature of their social interactions. Effective parental interactions, including involvement in play, and direct teaching and encouragement, promote children’s social competence with peers. For instance, preschoolers who are rated as popular by teachers often have parents who are more involved in their social play. Likely, through observing and imitating the roles of important adult figures, children learn accepted social norms associated with socially competent behavior (Creasey et al., 1998). Parents can also arrange, provide opportunities for, and facilitate children’s play with peers. For instance, mothers can enhance the quality of toddlers’ play with unfamiliar peers by giving positive feedback. It is not hard to imagine how parents are able to help children seek out experiences and enhance their interactions with others. Conversely, stressful home environments can have adverse effects on social competence. High levels of marital conflict have been linked to higher rates of children’s problematic behaviors. This might be partly due to a disruption of parental practices, as well as the weakening of the child- caregiver attachment bonds.

Although parents are the primary source of social and emotional support for young children, peers also play an ever-increasing role in promoting children’s competence. The implications of peer interactions for social competence have already been discussed. But in addition, peers can also serve as a protective factor against many stressors that might impede the development of social competence, including parental discord (Oden, 1999).

Negative peer experiences can have adverse effects on social competence. Rejection or victimization can become a source of significant stress, contributing to feelings of loneliness and low self esteem. In addition, peer rejection can escalate in a negative developmental spiral. When less socially competent children are rejected by peers, they have limited positive social interactions, which adversely impacts social competence. As a result, they are less willing to interact with peers (Ladd, 1999).

Another important component related to social competence is the quality of the early childhood environment (that the child care setting can serve as a protective factor for children who might have insecure attachments with caregivers). Experiencing high-quality child care has also been shown to facilitate secure attachments between children and their teachers—in turn promoting social competence and other positive outcomes (Howes and James, 2002).

Children are also active agents in their own socialization. They are not passive recipients of socialization influences, but instead show ever-increasing agency in architecting their own experiences. Thus, the child is a significant influence on the development of his own social competence.

Finally, one cannot try to understand social competence without taking into consideration the cultural background of the child. Cultural groups vary in innumerable ways, particularly in the experiences of children as well as what is considered as “competent” in specific settings (Tietjen, 1994). For instance, Schneider (1993) found important differences in the levels of aggression and play behaviors of African American and Hopi Indian children—with the latter being more interested in group success than the former. In recent years, research on parental ethnotheories has also revealed interesting cross-cultural variation in expectations and ideals for their children. Unfortunately, the consideration of culture in studies of competence has been infrequent.

In summary, early social competence is a significant facet of children’s development that has important implications for both current functioning in the social setting, as well as in forecasting later successes. There is no commonly agreed- upon definition of social competence, and this is reflected in the diversity of measures and instruments used to assess social competencee. Moreover, because social competence is intertwined with cognitive, socioemotional, and physical skills, what is considered as “social competence” also changes with age—from simple interactions with caregivers, to more complex relationships and experiences with a broader range of people. And while there are some limitations in the current literature on social competence, scholars recognize the importance of the topic and are working in many ways to better understand this aspect of children’s development. See also Classroom Environments; Parents and Parent Involvement; Peers and Friends.

Further Readings: Creasey, G. L., P. A. Jarvis, and L. E. Berk (1998). Play and social competence. In O. N. Saracho and B. Spodek, eds., Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education. Albany, NY: SUNY, pp. 116-143; Edwards, C. P., M. R. T. de Guzman, J. Brown, and A. Kumru (2006). Children’s social behaviors and peer interactions in diverse cultures. In X. Chen, D. French, and B. Schneider, eds., Peer relations in cultural context. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-51; Gresham, F. M., and D. J. Reschly (1987). Dimensions of social competence: Method factors in the assessment of adaptive behavior, social skills, and peer acceptance. Journal of School Psychology 25, 367-381; Howes, C., and J. James (2002). Children’s social development within the socialization context of child care and early childhood education. In P. K. Smith and C. H. Hart, eds., Blackwell handbook of childhood social development. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 137-155; Hubbard, J. A., and J. D. Coie (1994). Emotional determinants of social competence in children’s peer relationships. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 40, 1-20; Katz, L. G., and D. E. McClellan (1997). Fostering children’s social competence: The teacher’s role. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Ladd, G. W. (1999). Peer relationships and social competence during early and middle childhood. Annual Review of Psychology 50, 333-359; McConnell, S. R., and S. L. Odom (1999). A multimeasure performance-based assessment of social competence in young children with disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 19, 67-74; Oden, S. (1999). The development of social competence in children. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED. 281610); Ogilvy, C. M. (1994). Social skill straining with children and adolescents: A review of the evidence of effectiveness. Educational Psychology 14, 73-83; Schneider, B. H. (1993). Children’s social competence in context: The contributions of family, school and culture. Oxford: Pergamon; Tietjen A. M. (1994). Supportive interactions in cultural context. In F. Nestmann and K. Hurrelmann, eds., Social networks and social support in childhood and adolescence. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., pp. 395-408.

Maria Rosario T. de Guzman, Cixin Wang, and Toni L. Hill-Menson