Step By Step Social Skills Intervention Program

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Step By Step Social Skills Intervention Program

Why are Social Skills Important?

Social Skills are the foundation for getting along with others.  A lack of Social Skills can lead to behavioral difficulties in school, delinquency, inattentiveness, peer rejection, emotional difficulties, bullying, difficulty in making friends, aggressiveness, problems in interpersonal relationships, poor self-concept, academic failures, concentration difficulties, isolation from peers, and depression.  Children with learning disabilities, sensory integration difficulties, Asperger’s Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, neurological disorders, and emotional disabilities often need additional training in Social Skills.  They will likely benefit from direct instruction in Social Skills Groups led by trained professionals and the availability of a safe environment in which to practice newly learned skills.

Does formalized research support the concept that individuals with learning disabilities have deficient or ineffective social skills?

Yes. The research indicates that individuals with learning disabilities:

  • are more likely to choose socially unacceptable behaviors in social situations

  • are less able to solve social problems

  • are less likely to predict consequences for their social behavior

  • are less likely to adjust to the characteristics of their listeners in discussions or conversations

  • are less able to accomplish complex social interactions successfully (i.e.. persuasion, negotiation, resisting peer pressure, giving/accepting criticism, etc.)

  • are more likely to be rejected or isolated by their classmates and peers
  • are more often the objects of negative and non-supportive statements, criticisms, warnings and negative nonverbal reactions from teachers

  • are less adaptable to new social situations

  • are more likely to be judged negatively by adults after informal observation

  • receive less affection from parents and siblings

  • have less tolerance for frustration and failure

  • use oral language that is less mature, meaningful or concise

  • have difficulty interpreting or inferring the language of others

If a child has a learning problem, such as a language or auditory processing disorder, he may have difficulty understanding what another person says or means. He might also have trouble expressing his ideas in speech. Either of these problems can interfere with interpersonal communication.

A child who has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) may be inattentive, impulsive, hyperactive – or any combination of these. If he’s inattentive, he may have a hard time paying close attention to other people’s speech and behavior; his mind may wander, or his attention will be drawn to something else going on nearby. If he’s impulsive and/or hyperactive, he may interrupt others when they’re speaking and may find it difficult to wait his turn. While such a child doesn’t behave this way on purpose, others will likely be frustrated or offended by his behavior.

Elements of social skills. It’s helpful to think of social interaction as consisting of three basic elements:

  • Social intake — noticing and understanding other people’s speech, vocal inflection, body language, eye contact, and even cultural behaviors.

  • Internal process — interpreting what others communicate to you as well as recognizing and managing your own emotions and reactions.

  • Social output — how a person communicates with and reacts to others, through speech, gestures, and body language.

Reinforcing social skills in the home:

One of the most important roles that parents play in their child's development is that of teaching their child social skills. These social skills include daily interaction skills such as sharing, taking turns, and allowing others to talk without interrupting. The category of social skills can also be expanded to facets of self-control such as appropriate anger management. For many children, social skills are learned by observing how others in their environment handle social situations. These children then imitate desirable responses such as turn taking and little thought is given to how the young child became so adept at playing board games, cards, or other activities that require a child to wait for others.

For some children, however, more direct instruction is needed to help them develop appropriate social skills. One framework that can be effective in teaching parents how to encourage their child's social skills development is referred to in our clinic as the “4 P's” approach (Christophersen & Mortweet, 2003). The four P's stand for Practice, Praise, Point out, and Prompt. The purpose of the four “P's” is to break down the skills into concrete components that the parent can easily teach to their child.

4 Ps: Practice, Praise, Point Out, and Prompt Application to interrupting

The 4 P strategies applied to interrupting are:

Practice an appropriate behavior. Tell your child you are going to try something new for when he wants to talk to you when you are talking to someone else. Show your child how to gently place his hand on your forearm as the signal to gain your attention without interrupting. In response, put your hand over your child's hand so he knows that you have seen his signal. Practice by pretending you are talking to someone and ask your child to use the signal skill, prompting as much as necessary. The moment he places his hand on your forearm, stop your conversation, gently place your free hand over his hand, and immediately ask him what he wants. You can then begin to extend the time between the signal and when you respond but certainly try to respond as quickly as you can so your child learns an alternative to interrupting. An explanation about what you are doing, without any negative references, is appropriate periodically. 

You can also practice skills by setting up conversations at home or in public with dad or other caregivers. Phone conversations can also be contrived (e.g., grandma knows you will be calling and that you are working on the not interrupting skill) or you can simply pretend like you are talking to someone on the phone as another practice opportunity. Continue to practice the new skill (placing her hand on your forearm) a couple of times each day for the week or two that it takes to establish the new skill. Over that time, gradually extend the length of time between when the child places their hand on your arm, and you place your hand on their hand, and when you stop your conversation to ascertain what they want.

Praise or reward the child for practicing. Your child may not particularly enjoy learning this new skill and may resist your efforts to have her practice. Thus, incorporating a reinforcement system for practicing skills (and for eventually using the skill appropriately) is very important for the practice to work. The reinforcement can be as simple as a “high five”, but should also include rewards such as reading an extra bedtime story that day or playing a game with the child for cooperating with the skills during practice sessions.

Point Out the behavior in yourself and in others. Most young children won't notice you waiting to take your turn in a conversation. So, if you are standing in line at the grocery store, point out that you will wait until the lady in front of you has finished her conversation with the clerk before you start to talk to the clerk. You can also point out examples on children's television shows and in their storybooks. Examples abound in the real world of people waiting for their turn to speak.

Prompt your child when the behavior would be appropriate. As your child is learning the new skill of not interrupting, prompt your child to use the new skills when you see opportunities for him to do so.

For example, if daddy is talking on the phone, prompt your child to go over to him, place his hand on daddy's forearm, wait for daddy to place his hand on top as a signal that he will soon be asking the child what he needs. Dad, in turn, would praise or reward the child for practicing the appropriate skill and behavior.


Christophersen ER, Mortweet SL. Parenting that works: Building skills that last a lifetime. Washington, DC: APA Books; 2003.

Parts of this manuscript were presented during an invited Workshop on Managing Child Behavior Problems by ER Christophersen at the 2002 American Academy of Pediatrics' National Conference and Exhibition in Boston, October 2002.

Condensed from Developmental and Behavioral News, Autumn 2003. Published by the AAP Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Teaching Social Skills to Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home and at School

By Jean Newton, M.A.

The field of learning disabilities has experienced a surge in development of ideas and attention to Nonverbal learning disabilities of late. The past decade has brought attention to the area of nonverbal processing and the effects of learning disabilities on nonverbal social communication. There is no other area of learning more critical for children and no other area where parent and school cooperation is more vital. The importance of social competency is a central theme in a person’s self-narrative (Palumbo), it elicits or encourages ongoing interactions, and it influences development in other domains (Piaget). Vaughn and Hogan found social competence analogous to general intelligence in that it is a higher order construct “made up of many components that combine to affect behavior.” Martha Denkla describes social competence as transactional (involves another), dynamic (steps occur interdependently), with separable steps one can perform whether aware of them or not. The separate skills of social interaction can be catalogued but questions as to how to teach these in ways that can be generalized have been raised and remain to be answered. In the meantime, however, teachers and parents both need information: what is social competence, how can I teach skills that are durable, and how can I help my child right now?

Social cognition and social competence, as well as the social skills that contribute to these, must be understood. First of all, social cognition is the sets of thoughts, neural processes, behaviors and skills brought to bear on interactions. It is how a child makes an interpretation of the other’s behavior. Nonverbal processes of perception, memory and comprehension form the child’s intuitive or logical representation of others. The behaviors and skills learned through these processes result in performance in social competency.

Parents have brought practical and urgent concerns about their child’s social competence to teachers for decades. Only recently has evidence of the nature of social skill deficits been clarified for teachers; classroom conduct rules, lessons on sharing, the importance of friendships have always been taught, but there is ample evidence that children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Asperger’s syndrome, and other neurobehavioral disorders fail to profit from this instruction and may fail to develop social competency. We do see evidence that nonverbal social communication is disrupted, such as the knowledge of how long a “turn” to take in a conversation, or the meaning of facial expressions and gestures.

At the same time, the classroom makes up much of the child’s social environment. Clean-up, lining up and turn-taking comprise much social interaction in the classroom. These interactions stem from the child’s social world and take place because the school has brought children together: the child experiences social interaction along with the teaching and learning process. The way in which children take part in the tasks of learning is also a part of the social process among children. As children form positive relationships they are more likely to be able to negotiate problems to an agreeable end. For example, if a child initiating a negotiation uses a strategy that disregards the other’s rights or interest, the negotiation ends without an accepted solution, whereas if the issue is discussed freely and the initiating child acknowledges a common interest, the negotiation usually terminates with agreement (Krappman, 1996).

Other factors influence social interaction: children in early to middle school years show a preference for same-gender play groups, and children in this age group with disabilities are more successful in dyads than in larger groups. With younger children, free play with non-stereotypical toys encouraged the most opportunity for social interaction. With school aged children, interactions where a teacher set the theme, assigned roles and set rules provided the most interaction opportunity for all participants in a free play setting (Odom, 1996).

Classroom environments have the potential for high social interaction, and direct instruction in social skills led by the teacher is necessary to help children with learning disabilities and other neurobehavioral difficulties. Classroom teachers must find a way to integrate learning in a way that transfers to real-life social situations. Direct instruction in the physical location where skills were to be used (In situ social skills instruction), and with role-playing new skills, has proved beneficial to students with disabilities (Clemont-Heist, 1992). Here, lessons in social skills were given in a context of an imminent social interaction. Discussion of a specific skill, in the actual setting where it was going to be used, and a “targeted practice” session, where the student rehearsed possible situations and people with whom the skill could be useful, was undertaken. These methods provide a natural setting to observe social interaction and improvement in behavior. The focus of social skill instruction is on the generalization of social skills to improve social competence.

Social Skill Instruction at School

While much investigation of intervention methods that promote generalization remains to be done, it is still necessary to provide the opportunity for children who are isolated to have positive social experiences within the school and home setting. The need for carefully validated intervention methods continues, but children require help which applies to their immediate situation and which is put to use in social settings immediately. Children need to know the variables that will affect their success in attempts to join others at play, for example, such as eye contact and making a remark that fits the play underway.

Careful attention to how social skills are taught also requires awareness that social behavior is situationally specific. Each step depends on its antecedent and consequence. The goal of the “other” and the relationship between them determine the social context (Haring, 1996). For example, in classrooms, offers of help between two children are more likely to be accepted when there is a perception of difference in skill level (Krappman).

Social skill instruction that assists children can be built in to classroom instruction if the teacher “remodels” classroom social interactions to provide an opportunity for children with nonverbal social communication difficulty to rehearse and insert new behavior into existing social context. Requests to share materials or space are examples of these. Modeling how to request to share materials could become part of verbal instructions on completing seatwork. Modeling requests to share space on bleacher seats, given before assembling in the gym, provide a “script” and a prompt to look for ample space and determine if a request is needed. These help the child who may not be able to select a response to an apparent lack of a spot to sit or a shortage of materials.  Children with difficulty reading social experiences may respond according to prior, negative experiences, and may need ongoing support and reminders of how to negotiate such situations. Joining a group already engaged in an activity or play could be incorporated into weekly instruction, rehearsed before recess, monitored for success and adjusted as needed for each child’s difficulty. Distinguishing between levels of humor, adjusting play or activity when two or more parties disagree, asking for and giving feedback, and discontinuing an activity are more advanced skills which could be introduced to small groups, put into practice, and monitored for success.

Social Skill Instruction at Home

Parents can do much to assist at home in the process of generalization newly learned skills. Their role in encouraging social competency and acceptance of their child as increasingly more socially competent is vital in development. They need the same knowledge of tools teachers have: the use of advance organizers and previewing to assist children in learning from social contexts is one example. Integrating structure into the environment to assist a child’s perception can assist social interaction at home. Parents can provide this structural support. Limiting the duration of playdates, reducing non-interactive games or activities, planning how play time will be spent, choosing one or two compatible play partners and rewarding interaction are all structures which will promote a positive, interactive playdate that relationships can grow out of. Knowing that only 50% of initial attempts to join play already underway are successful for all children helps parents to form their own child’s expectations. Finally, understanding how their child experiences nonverbal social communication is a valuable tool in their own relatedness to their child.

There is much to be done on investigation and design of methods to help children who experience disruption in the process of nonverbal social communication. Increased opportunity to learn and practice social skills will not happen however, if clear attempts aren't made to undertake improvements in individual’s social interaction. Teachers can start with the actual situations a child experiences. Goals such as substituting an alternative response for a maladaptive social response are reasonable. Teaching social skills which are immediately applied and generalized is a healthy start with the long-lasting consequence of increasing growth in friendships.

Jean Newton is a Learning Disability Specialist in Private Practice in Northfield. She is interested in helping children, schools, and parents with concerns stemming from nonverbal learning disabilities and related areas. She teaches small social skill groups and consults with parents and schools.


Clement-Heist, Kim, (1992). Simulated and in situ vocational social skills training for youth with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 38, 336-345.

Frankel, Fred. (1992). Good Friends are Hard to Find. Available from Perspective Publishing, Inc, Glendale, CA.

Haring, Thomas G. (1992). The context of social competence. Relations, relationships and generalization. In Samuel L. Odom,, Eds. Social competence of your children with disabilities: Issues and strategies for intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Krappman, Lothar. (1996) .On the social embedding of learning processes in the classroom. In Effective and responsible teaching: The new synthesis. Fritz K. Oser, et. al. eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Odom, Samuel L., et. al. (1992). Social competence of young children with disabilities: Issues and strategies for intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Palumbo, Joseph, M.A. (1996). The diagnosis and treatment of children with nonverbal learning disabilities. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 311-332.

Children progress through stages in their development.

These are:

  1. Developing a sense of self and of belonging to a family (infants and toddlers).

    • Use mirrors for your child to see him/her self.

    • Encourage your young child to talk about his/her family.

    • Ask your child his/her preferences and likes and dislikes.

    • Use your child's name often when speaking to him/her.

    • Be supportive of your child and give him/her lots of affection.

    • Do things together as a family.

  2. Developing trust.

    • Create a warm, welcoming, nurturing environment.

    • Follow through on promises.

    • Be consistent (have a schedule, have family rules and enforce them the same way every time and the same way with each child).

    • Talk about yourself and listen as your child talks about him/her self.

    • Be your child's best cheer leader.

  3. Learning to separate from their parents

    • If your child screams and cries when you leave, stay a few minutes and get him/her involved in an activity with their caregiver, then ease out the door.

    • This is hard for some parents and easy for others. If it is hard for you, try not to make your child worried or afraid by your behavior - be cheerful, say good-bye at the preschool or child care center, and go out looking happy even if you are sad inside.

  4. Watching other children play from a distance.

  5. Playing near other children but not with them.

  6. Playing with other children.

    • Invite another child to your home to play with your child.

    • Take them to a mother's morning out if you are a stay at home mom.

    • Your child will play with other children when he/she is ready.

  7. Sharing and taking turns.
    • Talk with your child about sharing and turn taking.

    • You take turns with your child at home.

    • Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings when others will not share or are rough.

    • Play games that require turn-taking like games with a spinner.

  8. Stating opinions and desires.

    • Encourage your child to verbalize his/her needs.

    • Ask your child's opinions often.

    • After reading a story to your child, ask his/her opinion of events or characters in the story.

    • Discuss real life situations - ask your child's opinion about what should be done in those situations.

    • ONLINE ACTIVITY: Use the story starters from our Young Writers Workshop to stimulate thinking and expression of opinions.

  9. Using words to solve conflicts and develop control of emotions.

    • Encourage talking about feelings when another child pushes, is rough, or messes up a project your child is working on.

    • Use situation pictures and ask your child how he/she would solve the situation (ex. Your family is going to the store and you can spend the dollar you have or save it for the zoo next week. What will you do?)

    • Help your child remember to use their words when situations arise.

    • Play games using a loud and then a quiet voice.

    • Try to be close by when there is a problem situation - do not intervene unless it becomes necessary.

    • Have a quiet area where a child can go to be alone and regain control of their emotions (by choice).
    • Have a family meeting to set up the rules of the house and all of the consequences for breaking the rules (ex. if you lean back on 2 legs of your chair, it will tip over and you may get hurt; if 2 children want the same toy and fight over it, the toy may have to go to Time Out).

    • Provide some materials like play dough or paper to tear that your child can use to take their frustrations out on when they are really upset.

    • ONLINE ACTIVITY: Story starters from our Young Writers Workshop can also be used to learn problem solving.

  10. Learning that it is okay to make a mistake.

    • When your child makes a mistake always encourage him/her to try again or to do better next time - do not belittle them.

    • When you make a mistake let your child know about it.

    • Give hugs and encouragement and notice when your child is trying hard to succeed.

    • Offer plenty of activities at which your child can succeed.

    • Be willing to listen and console if needed.

  11. Developing confidence and self-respect.

    • Succeeding and learning that you can make a mistake and try again build your child's self-confidence.

    • Accept your child for who he/she is and where he/she is in their development.

    • Have some tasks which are slightly difficult for your child and challenge him/her to extend their capabilities.

    • Offer new and interesting experiences which make them curious to learn more (ex. read Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom and then set out a tree form and paper mache to make a coconut tree).

    • Ask questions about your child's projects and show interest - this will build their pride in their own accomplishments.

    • Show your support and affection for your child.

    • Believe in your child and let him/her know it.

  12. Developing respect for others and feelings of empathy.

    • Talk to your child about respecting the feelings of other family members and of other people they know.
    • Show respect for the property of other people and let your child know that you expect him/her to respect other people's property, too. Children learn best through the example you set.

Copyright 1998, 2005, Susan Jindrich. All rights reserved. Revised 4/4/07

Learning And Teaching Social Skills: A Relationship-Based Approach

by Adam Cox

For those of us committed to helping children overcome learning challenges, the quest to teach social skills is particularly important. Social learning impairments are associated with a wide variety of learning disabilities, although they are especially problematic for people with nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD), noted to have underdeveloped right-hemisphere abilities, including deficits in:

  • reading facial expressions

  • perceiving emotions

  • using nonverbal communication (body language)

The constellation of social skills deficits often encountered in school age children are perhaps best described as pragmatic communication deficits, which encompass challenges understanding social conventions and applying social cognitive skills. On the next page you will find some common examples of pragmatic communication skills. This information is taken from my book, Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect, 2006.

Pragmatic (Practical) Communication Skills **All these skills should be considered in an age-appropriate context. Many of these skills are developed in adolescence. Compare your child's abilities relative to his peers.


Maintaining appropriate conversational distance Example: Other children may complain that "he's bothering me," or say "tell him to stop touching me" while playing together. Sometimes inserts himself physically into a group of children by pushing or nudging others out of the way in order to join the conversation.

Eye contact Example: Doesn't look others in the eye; hides behind hair/hat/sunglasses; stares to the point of discomfort.

Linking gestures with ideas and emotions

Example: Body language doesn't match speech (thanks you for giving him a desired gift but slumps and stares off into space); waves too strongly or too unenthusiastically for the circumstances; forgets to reinforce emotion with body language.

Using facial expression effectively

Example: Facial expressions don?t convey interest in other people; expression is not congruent with topic or situation; doesn't nod to show he gets the point, looks furious at small disappointment; forgets to smile. VERBAL

Attending to time and place

Example: Talks too fast; doesn't know when to interject a comment or let others speak, doesn?t know how much information to share (goes on and on about a subject to someone's obvious irritation).


Example: Consistently interrupts; doesn't perceive when it's someone else's turn to talk.

Voice modulation

Example: Has trouble with prosody (pitch, tone, volume, inflection); speaks too softly or loudly without regard for physical proximity (you?re across the room but he doesn?t raise his voice to answer you).

Giving compliments

Example: Doesn't know how to give a compliment relevant to a person and circumstances; sometimes unintentionally insults people (you're a lot less fat than you were).

Greetings and Good-byes

Example: Doesn't know how to introduce himself to individuals or groups; can't initiate social contact (avoids parties and gatherings); doesn't know how to close a conversation (just walks off when he's done talking); doesn't shake hands/share hugs with close friends or family members; forgets to say hello.


Detecting emotions in other people

Example: Doesn't consider other people's emotional state before speaking (you're in the middle of an argument with someone and he asks you to make him a snack); doesn't realize when it's time to back off; doesn't read signs about how you feel (thinks you're mad when you're not)

Perceiving and expressing humor

Example: Takes jokes,! sarcasm or irony literally; laughs at inappropriate times; do! esn?t en gage in word play or friendly teasing with peers.

Knowing how to make conversational transitions

Example: Forgets to take his turn in conversations (calls you up on phone and then says nothing); discussions filled with uncomfortable "dead space"; doesn't pick up on "leads" to continue conversation (So, you like baseball? Who?s your favorite team?)

Anticipating other people's reactions

Example: Neglects to consider the impact of his words before speaking; can?t easily imagine how his words or actions will be perceived by others (says he likes one present more than another at his birthday party without anticipating that someone?s feelings will be hurt).

Why Are Social Skills So Hard To Learn?

Most people use social skills quickly and automatically, and as a result, don?t have the benefit of time to analyze which skills will be used in particular situations, or how best to apply them. When our social! reflexes are well-attuned and effective, we don't need time to think - we just do and say what comes naturally.

Important to emphasize is that social skills are built on a foundation of interpersonal awareness. Without an appreciation of other people's nonverbal behavior, including sensitivity to nuances of language rhythm and intonation (prosody), it is difficult to formulate appropriate and constructive verbal and behavioral responses. In addition to having a basic awareness of other people, having an empathetic orientation toward others is very helpful in bolstering one?s intuition about how to relate effectively. As some readers may be aware, a disproportionate number of children and adolescents with learning disabilities are observed to have low empathy.

To be in an empathic relationship with another person or group is the opposite of self-absorption. Empathy implies a departure from a state of self-centeredness, and immersion into the subjective exper! ience of others. By definition, empathy is prosocial, because ! it empha sizes the value of comprehending and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people.

We all function in various types of groups: families, schools, teams, neighborhoods, and communities, among others. Social skills make our participation in these groups easier and more satisfying. Although lack of empathy has been associated with the presence of NLD, I would argue that what is missing for many learning disabled children are overt expressions of empathy, as are often conveyed through pragmatic communication. This is very different from the absence of empathy found among antisocial children and adolescents.

Many children with nonverbal learning disabilities are better understood as being asocial, meaning that they can appear indifferent to social interaction.

We Can Help Teach Children to Solve Their Own Social Problems Not long ago, I was leading a social skills group for 3rd and 4th grade boys, about half of whom had been identified! as having a learning disability. We were huddled in my office with kids bunched on sofas, sitting on the floor, and twirling in my desk chair. One seven year-old boy, Grant, resisted joining in our group activity, which was to design and build a big ?cyborg?. He stood near the door on the periphery of the group with a scowl on his face and body language that conveyed his fear and distrust of the group. Grant wasn't responding to cajoling and encouragement to join us. I tried all kinds of approaches, changing the tone of my voice and my facial expression, in search of the combination that would help him join in. Still, he would not budge.

Several years earlier, my frustration probably would have resulted in me taking Grant outside and pleading with him to sit down and join the group. That's because I used to have the faulty impression that leading a group, meant "controlling" the group. Since then, I have come to appreciate the extraordinary strong will of boys to! do things in ways that reflect their own logic about how prob! lems sho uld be solved.

As the situation unfolded, it became apparent that Grant?s resistance provided the boys with a good problem-solving opportunity, and so I posed a question to the group. Did anyone have any ideas about how we could get Grant to join us? Most of the kids responded with suggestions of various kinds of rewards: games, candy, or premium seating (twirling chair). One typically shy boy, Tyler, suggested we could "buddy-up" so that everyone could have a partner, including Grant. Tyler also suggested that buddies sit next to each other so they could share tools. Most of the boys agreed this was a good idea and so we began a discussion of how buddies would be chosen. Again, Tyler spoke up, suggesting that Grant could pick his buddy.

Throughout this process, I was watching Grant closely, and was struck by his awareness of the group?s concern about him. His facial expression changed from one of distrust to a cautious grin. He?d obviously had some significa! nt doubt about whether the boys would accept him, and how he would fit in ? figuratively and literally. Tyler?s leadership in breaking through his fears paved the way for his integration in the group. As you might imagine, I felt very proud of Tyler for his sensitivity to Grant, and his ability to apply that sensitivity through active problem-solving. Although he never verbalized Grant's feelings, Tyler's suggestions were, emotionally speaking, quite sophisticated, and reflected an understanding of what Grant was feeling.

Socializing is not a "Logical" Process

When we think about teaching social skills to children, it is a natural step for us to begin thinking about skills as component parts of a larger system. While this may be a logical and practical way to go about the teaching of a ?system,? it is not necessarily the best, or only, aspect of a therapeutic process designed to facilitate the development of social skills.

In addition, for individuals such as psychologists or counselors who may teach social skills, there is a tendency to systematize the teaching of such skills in limited periods of time, such as teaching one skill per session for 12 ? 15 weeks. When social skills are taught to groups this approach may be inevitable, but when working with children individually, there is typically more latitude, including allowing the child to play an important role in how the learning evolves. Experience has taught me not to exclude the importance of the relationship between teacher and student, or therapist and client, in helping children integrate new skills. In this sense, professionals allow the process of learning to be as organic as would be the process of healing syndromes like depression or anxiety.

An excellent working alliance is a critical foundation for learning most things, including how to relate to others.

This is because gaining social competence is more than conceptually grasping skills, it also involves relaxing enough to take risks trying new things with uncertain outcomes.

From Skills to Awareness

Perhaps we need to remember that for the brain and mind to integrate new ideas, a fertile ground of receptivity must first be prepared. That receptivity often springs from an effective, trusting, working alliance. For many children, this means engaging in therapeutic and relational activities that are not purely didactic, because such structured activities are often associated with domains where they lack success. In other words, you can make it fun; play is the work of children.

While I would never want to give up my use of behavioral charts and records, or surrender my collection of therapeutic games designed to teach things like communication pragmatics and listening skills, I have come to believe that those exercises are somewhat empty without a solid alliance between my clients and myself.

The alliance gives children and teens the capacity to be receptive. Sometimes, people may not ! even be aware of their own resistance to learning new skills. ! For chil dren with learning disabilities, these walls often come down slowly, but they do come down with tools like patience, commitment, and belief in the desire of children to connect with others.

Anything that might help a child connect the development of social awareness with a positive outcome should be considered a potential tool. Still, we should remember that what we are building with these tools is a mind, and a mind is not a machine ? it is the very essence of being a person. We simply can't program a mind according to standards of efficiency without regard for the individual within whom that mind lives.

This article originally appeared in the 2004 monograph of the Learning Disabilities Association of Pennsylvania. Portions of this article were adapted from Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect, Guilford Press, 2006. Article source:

About the author

Adam J. Cox, PhD, ABPP, Board Certified Clinical Psychologist, American Board Professional Psychology

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.

Teaching Social Skills

Social skills or "pragmatics" are a vital part of living and functioning in our world today. Many children with developmental disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down's Syndrome, hearing impairment, and others have problems learning the complex understanding of social interaction.

Parents, educators, and therapists are challenged to teach these children the "unspoken" rules of social behavior. Usually children pick up these skills through experience and learn from interactions. Children with disabilities sometimes lack the understanding to learn from their life experiences and have more difficulty with social skills. In order for these special children to learn critical life skills, essential to living, they have to be taught.

So how do we teach social skills?

Many parents, educators and therapists have difficulty instructing children on social skills. It is different than teaching the ABCs or naming colors. There are so many components that make the task overwhelming! Language skills are broken into several parts, including syntax (the rules of language - verbs, nouns, etc.), semantics (the meaning behind language - vocabulary), and pragmatics (the social use of language). Without each part functioning, you cannot be a successful and complete communicator.

The role of social stories

The concept of the social story makes great sense when teaching social skills to children. The speech pathologists at Social Skill Builder have found that social stories provide simple, concrete examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior within a social context. Children are able to target certain emotions, relations, and behaviors in a controlled teaching environment. The only problem is that social stories don't always motivate the child. Pictures in books cannot relate all the components of social relationships or situations, such as body language, facial expressions and movement throughout an interaction. Something more dynamic is needed.

The role of social story in video

Through concrete trials, the speech pathologists at Social Skill Builder have found that videos of social interactions seem to provide a more dynamic alternative to stories in books. Children are motivated to watch television and attend to the real-life interaction seen on the screen. Educators can point out key elements found in appropriate interactions and provide an accurate model for functioning. The only problem is that the child can sometimes become distracted, because there is nothing required of him/her but to watch. Something more interactive is needed.

The role of social story videos embedded in an interactive computer program

Finally the speech pathologists at Social Skill Builder have developed the concept of combining social stories and live video into a computer program. Social Skill Builder programs use real-life video and require the child to watch and interact in order to obtain understanding in the discovery of social skills. The child is drawn to the video sequence (and of course the computer!) and then asked to respond in a game-like atmosphere to appropriate social behaviors. The child then gets a positive or negative response to motivate and teach the skills targeted. The child is excited by not only watching the interaction, but then responding and engaging in the situation himself/herself.

Carrying over skills learned in the program

It is vital that skills taught in the computer programs are carried over into real-life situations. After playing “My School Day” on the computer, for example, teachers can get a group together and practice waiting in line or interacting on the playground. The therapist, educator, or parent must use the computer program as a stepping stone to carry over skills into the natural environment. The program provides a dynamic interactive tool, but then the skills must be practiced and used in real situations.

Reading Expressions -Make it Fresh and Fun

Somehow we just expect kids to learn to read facial expressions automatically. Some do; others are slow to understand these emotional clues. But it’s a readily taught skill. And it’s fun, if you use Pick a Pic!

Pick a Pic

Part of becoming a socially aware person is learning to recognize emotions in others. We work with our kids on how to do this, and teach them that facial expressions are an important key.

This skill is important at home, in school and on the playground. Many misunderstandings arise from kids misinterpreting the emotions of others. Sometimes kids can be confused by what a particular look means. They may easily mistake a look of disappointment and think someone is angry instead or misunderstand a nervous expression as amusement, for example.

To give kids practice at paying attention to facial expressions and the emotions they signify, try this activity.

For younger kids (up to 3rd grade)

• Have someone take a picture of you demonstrating some facial expressions, or set the camera to take your picture automatically. Examples: angry, proud, embarrassed, disappointed, frustrated, excited.

• Print the pictures and write the emotion of the back of each.

• Sit down with your kid and look over the pictures, having them guess the emotion in each picture, and then flipping it over to see if they guessed correctly.

• Once you go through the stack, talk about different scenarios and ask the kid to choose the picture of the facial expression they think you’d show at that time.


- “We are walking through the store and you ask for a pack of gum. I say “No,” and you begin to beg in a loud voice for the gum.”

- “You bring home a note from your teacher that says you have been having a great week in math class.”

- “I go into your room and it’s a mess after I have asked you three times to clean up.”

• Now when you are in real-life scenarios and something happens, you can remind your kid (respectfully – not in anger) to take a look at your face so they can understand what you are feeling.

For older kids (4th grade and up)

• Have kids take pictures of themselves as well. Go through the activity and participate. Talk to them about how you will also use these pictures to understand how they feel.

• You can also use the pictures for times when you don’t really know what’s wrong and your kid is having a hard time opening up and expressing feelings. This technique can open the door to a deeper conversation.


- “I noticed that you came home and slammed your door today after soccer practice. Let me see the ‘pic’ of how you are feeling.”

- “I don’t know whether to cheer you up or leave you alone when you are in this mood. What’s the pic that shows me?”

These cards make it much easier to focus on the positive and reinforce your kids’ good behavior. At WINGS we are mindful of the research showing that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for changing behavior. Try incorporating this strategy with your family for a month or two – the results may surprise you.

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