Social skills interventions are key in helping students overcome difficulties in making and maintaining friendships. Social skills enable us to know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in diverse situations. The extent to which children and adolescents possess good social skills can influence their academic performance, behavior, social and family relationships, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Social skills are also linked to the quality of the school environment and school safety.
Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior & Academic Success
While most children pick up positive skills through their everyday interactions with adults and peers, it is important that educators and parents reinforce this casual learning with direct and indirect instruction. We must also recognize when and where children pick up behaviors that might be detrimental to their development or safety. In the past, schools have relied exclusively on families to teach children important interpersonal and conflict resolution skills. However, increased negative societal influences and demands on family life make it imperative that schools partner with parents to facilitate this social learning process. This is particularly true today given the critical role that social skills play in maintaining a positive school environment and reducing school violence.
Consequences of Poor Social Skills
Students with poor social skills have been shown to:
- Experience difficulties in interpersonal relationships with parents, teachers, and peers.
- Evoke highly negative responses from others that lead to high levels of peer rejection. Peer rejection has been linked on several occasions with school violence.
- Show signs of depression, aggression and anxiety.
- Demonstrate poor academic performance as an indirect consequence.
- Show a higher incidence of involvement in the criminal justice system as adults.
Defining Types of Social Skills
While there are hundreds of important social skills for students to learn, we can organize them into skill areas to make it easier to identify and determine appropriate interventions. For example, the "Stop and Think" program organizes skills into four areas:
1. Survival skills (e.g., listening, following directions, ignoring distractions, using nice or brave talk, rewarding yourself)
2. Interpersonal skills (e.g., sharing, asking for permission, joining an activity, waiting your turn)
3. Problem-solving skills (e.g., asking for help, apologizing, accepting consequences, deciding what to do)
4. Conflict resolution skills (e.g., dealing with teasing, losing, accusations, being left out, peer pressure)
Identifying Social Skills Deficits
Prior to determining the best means to help a student develop better social skills, it is important to understand specifically what a student can and can't do. It is crucial to assess and classify the nature of a child's social skill deficits in order to devise and implement the most appropriate intervention.
Children may experience difficulty performing a skill:
- Due to lack of knowledge (acquisition deficits), e.g., the child does not know the skills or does not discriminate when a skill is appropriate. For example, a child grabs a pencil from a peer in class when she needs one because she does not know how to appropriately ask to borrow it.
- Consistently despite knowledge (performance deficits), e.g., the child knows how to perform the skills but fails to do so consistently or at an acceptable level of competence. For example, although the child understand that he should raise his hand to speak in class, and does so much of the time, he will sometimes blurt out a comment without raising his hand.
- To a sufficient degree or level of strength (fluency deficits), e.g., the child knows how to perform skill and is motivated to perform, but demonstrates inadequate performance due to lack of practice or adequate feedback. For example, a student has learned what to say and do when confronted with bullying behavior, but her responses are not yet strong enough to be successful.
- Due to competing skill deficits or behaviors, e.g., internal or external factors interfere with the child demonstrating a learned skill appropriately. For example, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, or negative motivation can interfere with demonstration of appropriate conflict resolution skills, even though the skills have been taught and learned.
Social Skills Interventions
Effective social skills programs are comprised of two essential elements: a teaching process that uses a behavioral/social learning approach and a universal language or set of steps that facilitates the learning of new behavior. Interventions can be implemented at a school-wide, specific setting, classroom, or individual level, but at all levels the emphasis is on teaching the desired skill, not punishing negative behaviors. Social skills training should:
- Focus on facilitating the desirable behavior as well as eliminating the undesirable behavior.
- Emphasize the learning, performance, generalization, and maintenance of appropriate behaviors through modeling, coaching, and role-playing. It is also crucial to provide students with immediate performance feedback.
- Employ primarily positive strategies and add punitive strategies only if the positive approach is unsuccessful and the behavior is of a serious and/or dangerous nature.
- Provide training and practice opportunities in a wide range of settings with different groups and individuals in order to encourage students to generalize new skills to multiple, real life situations.
- Draw on assessment strategies, including functional assessments of behavior, to identify those children in need of more intensive interventions as well as target skills for instruction.
- Look to enhance social skills by increasing the frequency of an appropriate behavior in a particular situation. This should take place in "normal" environments to address the naturally occurring causes and consequences.
Examples of Evidence-Based Social Skills Programs
Often school administrators or mental health professionals opt to introduce one of the many empirically supported, commercially published programs into their schools. Effective existing social skills training programs include:
- "Stop and Think" Social Skills Program (Knoff): Part of Project ACHIEVE (Knoff and Batsche). Has demonstrated success in reducing student discipline referrals to the principal's office, school suspensions, and expulsions; fostering positive school climates and prosocial interactions; increasing students' on-task behavior; and improving academic performance.
- Primary Mental Health Project (Cowen et al.) Targets children K-3 and addresses social and emotional problems that interfere with effective learning. It has been shown to improve learning and social skills, reduce acting, shyness and anxious behaviors, and increase frustration tolerances.
- The EQUIP Program (Gibbs, Potter, & Goldstein) Offers a three-part intervention method for working with antisocial or behavior disordered adolescents. The approach includes training in moral judgment, anger management/correction of thinking errors, and prosocial skills.
- The PREPARE Curriculum (Goldstein) Presents a series of 10 course-length interventions grouped into three areas: reducing aggression, reducing stress, and reducing prejudice. It is designed for use with middle school and high school students but can be adapted for use with younger students.
- The ACCEPTS Program (Walker et al) Offers a complete curriculum for teaching effective social skills to students at middle and high school levels. The program teaches peer-to-peer skills, skills for relating to adults, and self-management skills.