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Social Presence In Children

Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 09 Aug 2022
Published 18 May 2022

What is Social Presence in Childhood?

Social presence in childhood is the willingness and ability to be around other people in a social situation. 

Kids with a strong social presence are comfortable around other children, rather than simply preferring to play alone. This social skill is very basic and foundational because people have to be around each other to learn to socialize.

Presence includes watching how other people move their eyes and faces, listening to them when they speak, and desiring to engage and respond. Children who ignore the people in the room in favor of looking at toys or objects are having trouble with social presence. 

In early childhood, social presence includes establishing joint attention. This is the skill of sharing attention by pointing to something interesting or following the gaze of another person who is pointing in a certain direction. For example, if you said, “hey look at that” your child would look right at the object and then acknowledge the observation with a glance back at you, a nod, or a smile. 

When children learn to share attention, they are building the skills needed for social connections and making friends. Being close to people, sharing enjoyment with eye contact, gestures, and words, and establishing joint attention are all indicators of appropriate early social development. 

Symptoms of Concerns With Social Presence in Children

  • Focuses on objects: your child focuses on objects more than people 
  • Not imitating: your child doesn’t imitate you. When they were little they didn’t pretend to sweep or mow the lawn, or shave, or put on makeup next to you
  • Not seeing or hearing you: your child is more interested in objects or toys than your comments, questions, or attempts to engage them socially 
  • Struggles to connect socially: your child struggles to connect with other people; often preferring their toy or game to you or someone else
  • Hides in the classroom: your child who just entered school for the first time keeps hiding, under the desk, behind a chair, or in the coat closet. Your child may run away or disappear into the hallway. This is a sign they might be having trouble enjoying time with others
  • Prefers to play alone: your child may be enjoying a book, board game, TV show, joke, or ice cream sundae but they don’t really care if others are enjoying this with them. It may be fine for others to join, but more often than not, they may prefer time on their own
  • Parallel play: your child plays beside other children but not with other children. Your child may shy away from pretend play and make-believe. You may notice that your child prefers to play more functionally and alongside others. For example, your child may prefer to race a car down a track rather than pretending to be an action figure in an interaction with a friend. Around age 3, we should see children move from playing beside others to playing more cooperatively
  • Does not pay attention when you say ‘look at that!’: your child tends to get lost in their own play and does not much care when you try to direct their attention to an object of your interest

Causes of Social Presence Challenges in Childhood 

Social presence challenges in childhood can have several causes.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often lack social reciprocity. Social Presence, Joint Attention, and Shared Enjoyment are evaluated through observation as well as through tasks on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) and through questions in interviews or on rating scales. One way to consider these concepts is to think, ‘Is my child more interested in social interaction with others or in just the toy itself?’ ‘Are they directed inward or outward?’

Children with Autism tend to be more interested in toys, and parents must work very hard to gain the attention of their child. In these cases, children are often engaged in physical play, spinning, bouncing games, peek-a-boo, and wrestling. 

Children might make eye contact during physical play but not during quiet play with toys.

Movement and physical activity may be organizing to the brain and thus more engaging to your child. Other children may find such physical play overwhelming, and they are very sensitive to sensory elements. 

Autism is characterized by social communication deficits and restricted and repetitive behaviors. What we know is that the brain is wired differently, often with many areas of strength. The connections made of white matter in the brain are too dense or too sparse, impacting the way information is processed and stored in the brain [1].

Often, children with Autism enjoy repetitive motion that is related to objects. Some children roll toy cars back and forth, watching the wheels. Others line toys in a pattern and become frustrated if one is out of position. 

It may feel during these times that it does not matter to your child whether or not you are in the room.  Again, a question to ask yourself is whether your child is more interested in you or the toy.

Trauma

Children who have gone through traumatic experiences may not trust others and have a hard time forming healthy connections with other adults or children. This may result in discomfort around being with others socially or otherwise.

Social anxiety

Children can be naturally anxious around other kids. They may prefer to watch peers play, rather than join in an activity. Sometimes this approach can be a good strategy, to ‘hang out on the sidelines’ for a bit before initiating play with someone. This tendency can be very mild and may get better after a minute to settle into the environment. In that case, we say the child is ‘slow to warm.’ When kids are slow to warm, there is generally no cause for concern. The time to be concerned is when the child goes to extreme lengths to avoid being around other kids which may include meltdowns, freezing up, sweating profusely, or panic attacks. This type of anxiety will require treatment from a psychotherapist.

What to Do About Social Presence in Childhood

  • Teach these skills to your child: with your child, draw pictures, act out scenarios, and demonstrate what healthy reciprocal social interaction looks like
  • Plan social interactions around your child’s interest: have your child join a lego or robotics club, pursue the swim team, or join a horseback riding class. Find ways for your child to engage socially that are likely to be successful
  • Have your child join a social skills group: for your child, research and find a quality social skills group where your child will be given a chance to learn and practice social skills
  • Avoid large group activities: for your child, look for small group activities with an individual component. When activities are structured and turn-taking, back-and-forth interaction can be modeled, your child can improve their social skills. For example, you may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Instead, you might try a cooking class, a book club, or a lego club that has fewer people and allows for some solo time
  • Support emerging friendships: If your child loves Minecraft and finds another avid fan, work to get your children together often and guide them to maintain a friendship beyond just chatting at school.
  • Look at social skills resources: Resources are available online from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the Koegels developed Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT), are a good place to start as far as accessing tools as a parent to help your child gain and improve skills [2,3]. 
  • Read Jed Baker’s books: There are excellent social skills guide books such as those by Jed Baker [9, 10] that teach children the importance of polite greetings, responding to those who greet us, eye contact, and active listening. 
  • Read Carol Gray’s work: Carol Gray’s social stories book is an excellent resource for teaching basic social norms and provides a CD so that the stories can be customized for the child [12].

When to Seek Help for Social Presence in Childhood 

If you are concerned about your child’s ability to be present with you, it may be time to seek help from a psychologist or therapist. 

The good news here is that social skills can be taught. When your child is young, their brain can grow and change with the right experiences and therapy. Studies show that children who have good language, good cognitive skills, and good adaptive skills are the most resilient [1].

It will be important to assess these areas and to begin treatment quickly. Modeling and supporting social interactions can be done by an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist. ABA is often covered by insurance if your child is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. In addition, seek Speech and Language Therapy if your child has language weaknesses and Occupational Therapy if fine motor skills are weak or your child has a number of sensory sensitivities.

Professional Resources for Social Presence in Childhood 

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider an evaluation for diagnostic clarification. If you are told you will have to wait one to two years, ask for referrals to other providers who specialize in Autism. Early intervention services are crucial
  • Developmental pediatrician: to guide diagnosis and treatment. This pediatrician specializes in children with developmental delays and can help guide behavioral and medical treatment
  • Geneticist/Metabolic Specialist/Neurologist: to provide a thorough evaluation. Depending on the needs of your child, a genetic panel, sleep study, or metabolic intervention might be recommended by the psychologist or developmental pediatrician
  • ABA therapist: to teach functional behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums
  • Speech and language pathologist: to teach the language skills needed to communicate effectively. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services

Similar Conditions to Social Presence in Childhood

If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.

  • Social communication: children with poor social presence tend to struggle significantly with other social skills
  • Auditory processing: children with difficulty understanding the sounds within words may struggle socially as well
  • Joint attention: children with poor social presence may also have difficulties paying attention to other children socially and following directions
  • Expressive language: children with poor social presence have difficulty expressing their thoughts and ideas
  • Receptive language: children who have difficulty comprehending language may also have a poor social presence because they are not understanding conversations or social interactions
  • Restricted patterns of behavior: children with poor social presence may also have restricted or repetitive behaviors

References for Social Presence in Childhood 

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Koegel Autism Center, University of California at Santa Barbara. education.ucsb.edu/autism  

[3] UCSB PEERS Clinic. https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

[7] Association for Science in Autism Treatment, to learn more about effective and research-based interventions for Autism. www.Asatonline.org

[9] Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism.

[10] Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.

[12] Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

Resources for social presence in childhood 

Ozonoff, Sally, Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support. 

Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.

Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD

Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

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