9. Teaching Social Skills

Series on Highly Effective Practices—Social Skills
9. Teaching Social Skills
Students with learning and behavior problems often have social skills deficits as well
(Anderson, Nelson, Fox, & Gruber, 1988; Melloy, Davis, Wehby, Murry, & Lieber, 1998; Sugai
& Lewis, 1996; Sabornie & Beard, 1990). The long-term outcomes for students whose social
skills problems go unremediated include: cycles of failure, peer rejection, poor school outcomes,
and adjustment problems as adults (Anderson et al., 1988; Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001; Gresham,
2002; Kamps & Kay, 2002; Kauffman, Mostert, Trent, & Hallahan, 1998; Melloy, et al., 1998;
Rutherford, Quinn, & Mathur, 1996; Warger & Rutherford, 1996). Instructing students in social
skills can have important preventative effects. There is compelling evidence that addressing
social skills in the classroom can lead to increased academic performance (Sugai & Lewis, 1996;
Warger & Rutherford, 1996), lessen the occurrence of behavior problems (Anderson, et al.,
1988; Kamps & Kay, 2002; Sugai & Lewis, 1996) and improve the student’s interpersonal
relationships with peers and adults (Kamps & Kay, 2002; Rutherford, Quinn, & Mathur, 1996;
Sabornie & Beard, 1990; Sugai & Lewis, 1996; Warger & Rutherford, 1996).
There are various reasons why tudents may not perform appropriate social skills; they do
not know a skill or because they do not know how or when to use it (Gresham, 2002; Quinn et
al., 2000; Sabornie & Beard, 1990). Thus, two ultimate goals of teaching social skills are to
increase performance of appropriate social skills and to decrease problem behaviors; in essence,
the new behaviors should replace the inappropriate behaviors (Anderson et al., 1988; Gresham,
2002; Kamps & Kay, 2002; Sugai & Lewis, 1996; Warger & Rutherford, 1996). Social skills
that teachers may want to work on with their students include: self-control, listening, problem
solving, negotiating, working together, taking turns, conflict management, encouraging others,
and giving positive feedback (Quinn, Osher, Warger, Hanley, Bader, & Hoffman, 2000; Sugai &
Series on Highly Effective Practices—Social Skills
Lewis, 1996; Walker & Walker, 1991). The selection of specific skills should be based on
strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Clearly, these are skills that can affect students’
success in school settings, relationships, and as they transition into adulthood and the work
There are a number of ways that teachers can work social skills instruction into the
classroom and the school day. Social skills can be taught as a separate subject using direct
instruction or through cooperative learning, or the skills can be integrated into the academic
curriculum (Anderson et al., 1988; Carter & Sugai, 1988; Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001; Kamps &
Kay, 2002; Melloy et al., 1998; Prater, Bruhl, & Serna, 1998; Sugai & Lewis, 1996; Warger &
Rutherford, 1996). Students can be taught skills individually, in small groups, or as part of
whole-class or whole-school instruction (Gresham, 2002; Kamps & Kay, 2002; Kauffman et al.,
1998; Quinn, Osher, Hoffman, & Hanley 1998; Walker & Walker, 1991). There is mounting
empirical evidence to support the effects of an integration of social skills and academics. In
addition to the many available packaged social skills curricula, teachers can develop their own
social skills instruction programs, based upon content/procedures found in effective programs of
instruction. These characteristics include: (a) strategies that properly identify and describe the
skills to be taught, (b) approaches that meet the needs of the students to be taught, (c)
opportunities for teacher to model of the skill, (d) opportunities for student rehearsal with teacher
feedback, strategies that include generalization training, and finally (e) ongoing evaluation of the
skills in practice (Melloy et al., 1998; Rutherford, Quinn, & Mathur, 1996; Sabornie & Beard,
1990; Schumaker & Hazel, 1984). Regardless of what program is selected for use, modification,
or development, it is important for teachers and schools to put time and effort into planning for
and implementing its use (Sugai & Lewis, 1996).
Series on Highly Effective Practices—Social Skills
Research shows that effective social skills instruction programs reflect the following
methods of instruction to teach skills that students then have an opportunity to practice, use in
daily situations and, in turn, maintain as part of their overall behavior. To begin teaching social
skills, teachers first identify students’ social skill deficits (Gresham, 2002; Kamps & Kay, 2002;
Kauffman et al., 1998; Quinn et al., 2000; Sugai & Lewis, 1996). The social skills to be taught
should be selected on the basis of the likelihood they will be elicited and reinforced in the natural
environment. Each lesson should be aimed at teaching a specific social skill, which, if it is
complex, may include several component skills (Kamps & Kay, 2002). There are a number of
steps for teaching an identified social skill. They include:
clearly introducing and defining the skill;
modeling the skill and the sequence of steps students must use to perform it;
having students rehearse or roll play the behavior for the whole group and in pairs
to practice using the skill;
reviewing the skill during social activities that naturally occur during the school
day or in situations that have been created to allow students to practice the skill so
that it will transfer to new settings and situations;
providing individualized feedback or reflection to students when they attempt the
new skill;
prompting students to use the skill at an appropriate time or to remind of the steps
to perform the skill; and
reinforcing the students when they use it appropriately to help motivate students
to maintain the skill (Anderson, et al., 1988; Carter & Sugai, 1988; Cartledge &
Kiarie, 2001; Gresham, 2002; Kamps & Kay, 2002; Kauffman, et al., 1998;
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Melloy, et al., 1998; Prater, Bruhl, & Serna, 1998; Quinn, et al., 2000; Rutherford,
Quinn, & Mathur, 1996; Sabornie & Beard, 1990; Sugai & Lewis, 1996; Warger
& Rutherford, 1996)
directly teaching students “self-talk” strategies to prompt, encourage, and
reinforce themselves for engaging in positive social behavior.
Utilizing methods that incorporate these steps increases the likelihood that students will continue
to use the newly acquired skills in appropriate situations that occur in their natural environments,
thus generalizing them into their set of skills they know how to use consistently (Carter & Sugai,
1988; Sabornie & Beard, 1990; Sugai & Lewis, 1996). Programs of instruction are even more
effective when it is possible to involve the families in setting and enforcing expectations for
appropriate behaviors and reinforcing their use at home (Kamps & Kay, 2002). Teachers should
consistently evaluate the effectiveness of their social skills instruction and make any adjustments
to the curricula based on the results of such evaluations (Kamps & Kay, 2002). Finally, social
skills should be incorporated into school-wide programs of positive behavior support.
Catherine Hoffman Kaser, M.A.
Series on Highly Effective Practices—Social Skills
References and Additional Sources of Information
Anderson, M., Nelson, L. R., Fox, R. G., & Gruber, S. E. (1988). Integrating cooperative
learning and structured learning: Effective approaches to teaching social skills. Focus on
Exceptional Children, 20(9), 1-8.
Carter, J., & Sugai, G. (1988). Teaching social skills. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 20(3),
Cartledge, G., & Kiarie, M. W. (2001). Learning social skills through literature for children and
adolescents. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 34(2), 40-47.
Gresham, F. M. (2002). Teaching social skills to high-risk children and youth: preventive and
remedial strategies. In M. R. Shinn, H. M. Walker, & G. Stoner (Eds.), Interventions for
academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches (pp. 403-432).
Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Kamps, D. M., & Kay, P. (2002). Preventing problems through social skills instruction. In B.
Algozzine, & P. Kay (Eds.), Preventing problem behaviors: A handbook of successful
prevention strategies (pp. 57-84). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
Kauffman, J. M., Mostert, M. P., Trent, S. C., & Hallahan, D. P. (1998). Managing classroom
behavior: A reflective case-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Melloy, K. J., David, C. A., Wehby, J. H., Murry, F. R., & Leiber, J. (1998). Developing social
competence in children and youth with challenging behaviors. Reston, VA: Council for
Children with Behavioral Disorders.
Prater, M. A., Bruhl, S., & Serna, L. A. (1998). Acquiring social skills through cooperative
learning and teacher-directed instruction. Remedial and Special Education 19(3), 160172.
Series on Highly Effective Practices—Social Skills
Quinn, M. M., Osher, D., Hoffman, C. C., & Hanley, T. V. (1998). Safe, drug-free, and effective
schools for ALL students: What works! Washington, DC: Center for Effective
Collaboration and Practice, American Institutes for Research.
Quinn, M. M., Osher, D., Warger, C. L., Hanley, T. V., Bader, B. D., & Hoffman, C. C. (2000).
Teaching and working with children who have emotional and behavioral challenges.
Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
Rutherford, R. B., Quinn, M. M., & Mathur, S. R. (1996). Effective strategies for teaching
appropriate behaviors to children with emotional/behavioral disorders. Reston, VA:
Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.
Sabornie, E. J., & Beard, G. H. (1990). Teaching social skills to students with mild handicaps.
TEACHING Exceptional Children, 23(1), 35-38.
Schumaker, J. B., & Hazel, J. B. (1984). Social skills assessment and training for the learning
disabled: Who’s on first and what’s on second? Part II. Journal of Learning
Disabilities, 17, 492-499.
Sugai, G., & Lewis, T. J. (1996). Preferred and promising practices for social skills instruction.
Focus on Exceptional Children, 29(4), 1-16.
Walker, H. M., & Walker, J. E. (1991). Coping with noncompliance in the classroom: A
positive approach for teachers. Austin, TX: Pro-ed.
Warger, C. L., & Rutherford, R. (1996). Social skills instruction: A collaborative approach.
Ann Arbor, MI: Foundation for Exceptional Innovations.