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February 14, 2018

5 Tips to set your child up for success in social situations

by Allison Drake and Faye Harper, Behaviour Therapists, Hamilton-Niagara Regional Autism Program

For many children, social situations can be a lot fun. For others they may seem stressful. Whether it’s attending an after school activity, a family gathering or even a trip to the mall, outings can be a great opportunity for children to learn social skills that they can use in their day to day life. Here are five tips to help get your child started with being successful in social situations.

1. Provide a schedule in advance

Some children prefer to know what to expect. If you’re able to provide them with some information about activities or outings that they will be taking part in, this can help them prepare for what’s to come. For some children this could be done verbally, such as letting them know on a Monday or Tuesday, “on Saturday, we’re going to go visit grandma.” For others, consider a visual reminder, such as a calendar or agenda.

2. Prepare them for the day

When it comes to the day of the event or outing, it might be appropriate to give your child an outline of the activities for the day. Even something as simple as letting them know the events routinely involved in the social situation. For example, “today for the birthday party, there’s going to be a magician, then you will have cake and your friend will open presents. Afterwards, you might play for a bit and then Mom and Dad will pick you up at 3 o’clock.”

3. Use “first/then” language

If your child seems like they don’t want to attend an activity, event or outing, try to think about what could motivate them to go. This could be something like reminding them about who will be at the event, or using positive reinforcement in order encourage them to participate. Let’s pretend that your child really enjoys watching a movie with you. Since we are typically willing to do less preferred activities, if we know that a more preferred activity is coming after, think about how you could incorporate a movie this into your schedule as reinforcement when returning home from the outing. Try using “first/then” language in order to remind them of this. For example, “first we’re going to the park to play with your cousins, then you and Mommy can watch a movie together when we get home.”

4. Review expected behaviour

Think about what behaviours you would like your child to do during the outing or event. Review these beforehand, in order to help set your child up for success. For example, if you are bringing your child to the grocery store, let them know your expectations: “hold Daddy’s hand when walking through the parking lot and if there’s something that you want Daddy to buy, you need to ask before you put it in the cart. Sometimes Daddy will say yes, but sometimes he will say no.” Remember to then praise your child when they’re doing things you have asked them to do and things that you want to see more of.

5. Practice with your child

Sometimes explaining the expectations will be sufficient, but sometimes it may be necessary to practice with your child beforehand. For example, if attending a new group or club, practice how to introduce yourself, how to enter a conversation and good conversation topics for when first meeting someone.


Although social events and outings can be scary for your child or overwhelming for you, supporting your child through social situations can help your child be more confident and comfortable when it comes to socializing. This can also provide them with more opportunities to practice their social skills and make new friends.