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Social competence

Written by Tara Fagan, CORE Education, February 2011

Social interactions


In our lives we need to interact with others. These interactions include people with connections to us such as family, friends, teachers, peers and also people without such a direct connection to us who we come across in everyday life. The ability to interact with others and to be competent in doing so has been ranked as one of the most important skills that we can have[1].

It is through our interactions with others that our experiences become richer and more significant, and that we learn, engage and reflect. What is social competence?

Social competence is about being able to manage and contribute to the social interactions we have. 

Rubin and Rose-Krasnor define social competence as:

"the ability to achieve personal goals in social interaction while simultaneously maintaining positive relationships with others over time and across situations".[2]

Being socially competent involves many elements, including:

  • the ability to regulate emotions
  • knowledge and experience of social interactions
  • understanding social situations and customs[3].

Popularity, or the number of friends one has, does not define or measure social competence, rather social competence is the nature of being able to interact and engage with others.

Social competence in early childhood

While children are born with their own dispositions and wairua that impacts on social competence, on the whole, being socially competent is a learnt skill. From birth, infants are gaining an awareness of social interaction and competence from the people that surround them. This awareness and observation of others adds to a collection of knowledge about what it means to interact. This knowledge is built upon throughout our lives.

Reflective questions

  • Have you had an experience where you have felt socially inept?  What caused these feelings?
  • Think about your experience of working with young children.  What social interactions and social competency skills have you observed?
  • Why do you think dispositions and wairua impacts on the development of social competence skills?



  • [1] Hartup, W. (1991).  Having friends, making friends, and keeping friends: Relationships as educational contexts. In Early report.  Minnesapolis, MN:  Centre for Early Education and Decevelopment.
  • [2] Rubin, K.H. & Rose-Krasnor, L. (1992). Interpersonal problem solving. In V.B. Van Hasselt & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of social development (pp. 283-323). New York: Plenum.
  • [3] Katz, L.G. & McClellan, D.E. (1997).  Fostering children's social competence.  Washington, D.C., U.S.A: National Association for the Education of Young Children.