It has been long thought that social skills were something a child was innately born with and not a skill that needed to be taught. However, there is an increasing amount of research showing that the environment that a child is exposed to as an infant and toddler may majorly affect a child’s ability to interact with others later in life. A key factor within this interaction may be the type of language the child is exposed to even prior to their first birthday.
An experiment was conducted with 40 mothers and their babies at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months of age at the University of York by psychologists, who recorded the types of language mothers used during play. The experimenters focused on “mind-related comments,” including inferences regarding what individuals are thinking as behaviours or actions are occurring.
“Elizabeth Kirk, a lecturer at the university who is the lead author of the study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology on Monday, gave this as an example: If an infant has difficulty opening a door on a toy, the parent might comment that the child appears “frustrated.”
The children when then reassessed at 5 or 6 years of age for their socio-cognitive ability. This involved reading a story asking the child to answer comprehension questions to indicate if the child understood the social concept of persuasion, joke, misunderstanding and lies present in the stories. The results indicated that children of parents that made mind-related comments to them during infancy or as toddlers had higher test scores in the follow up assessment at age 5-6 years.
“These findings show how a mother’s ability to tune-in to her baby’s thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathise with the mental lives of other people”
Kirk said in a statement.
“This has important consequences for the child’s social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.”
Another study published in Developmental Neuropsychology, regarding 10 month old children, indicated how infants’ social skills at that age are linked to their ability to learn a second language. This research specifically observed early social behaviour such as eye gaze shifting which looks at the child’s ability to visually track people and objects. They results indicated that infants who showed more gaze shifting with a foreign language tutor present in the study had an increase in brain response.
“Our study provides evidence that infants’ social skills play a role in cracking the code of the new language”
Patrician Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a co-author, said. Previous studies by researchers at the institute have shown that infant gaze shifting is a building block for social skills in preschool children.”