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If you ask someone how they learned to read nonverbal cues in everyday conversations, they may reply that they learned these things through observing the interactions of family and friends; many people may reply that they aren’t quite sure how they know that a certain expression means a friend is bored or annoyed — they just know. This is because for most people, the skills needed for social interaction come ‘naturally’ during the process of growth and development. However, for many individuals this process may not be so effortless and direct social skills instruction may be necessary (Canney and Byrne, 2006; DeGeorge, 1998).

Students who may benefit from social instruction

While many students — both those with and without disabilities — may struggle with reading nonverbal cues and engaging in social interactions, certain individuals are more likely than their peers to have difficulty with these interactions (Canney and Byrne, 2006; DeGeorge, 1998; Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000; Fussell, Macias and Saylor, 2005; Parsons, Leonard and Mitchell, 2006):

  • Students at risk for school failure;
  • Students with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD);
  • Students with learning disabilities (LD), particularly those with nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD or NVLD); and
  • Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The ability to navigate everyday social interactions can frequently present significant challenges for these students. While there are differences in the way these difficulties present themselves, most students who struggle with social interactions will exhibit difficulties in similar situations. For example, students with learning disabilities may interact frequently with peers on an informal level, but may have less experience and competence when it comes to engaging in more formal interactions (Schumaker and Deshler, 1995).

Social situations that present difficulties for students with disabilities can range from the fairly simple (engaging in a conversation with a peer) to the extremely complex (determining whether someone who seems friendly is actually harming you) (De Bildt et al., 2005). Because of this, social skills are often broken down into categories, or types of skill according to the level of complexity and interaction. An example of one way of categorizing social skills can be found in the table below: 

Skill SetUsed forExamples
Foundation SkillsBasic social interactionAbility to maintain eye contact, maintain appropriate personal space, understand gestures and facial expressions
Interaction SkillsSkills needed to interact with othersResolving conflicts, taking turns, learning how to begin and end conversations, determining appropriate topics for conversation, interacting with authority figures
Affective SkillsSkills needed for understanding oneself and othersIdentifying one’s feelings, recognizing the feelings of others, demonstrating empathy, decoding body language and facial expressions, determining whether someone is trustworthy
Cognitive SkillsSkills needed to maintain more complex social interactionsSocial perception, making choices, self—monitoring, understanding community norms, determining appropriate behavior for different social situations.
(Canney and Byrne, 2006; Waltz, 1999)

Social interactions are incredibly complex and the list presented above is not exhaustive in terms of the skills that students may need to successfully navigate social situations. Additionally, each student’s ‘social skill profile’ is different. Some students with disabilities may have strong foundation skills but lack appropriate interaction skills; others may require assistance in developing more basic skills such as making eye contact.

Because so many students in the classroom — both general and special education — may need some type of social skills instruction, it can be helpful to understand both the importance of social skill development and the most effective ways of remediating social skill deficits. For the purposes of this article, we focus on the social needs of students who may function fairly well academically, but who struggle with daily social interactions; a group which includes students with learning disabilities. Many of these students may have adequate or well—developed foundation skills, but need extra help developing higher order social skills.

Social skills are important for inclusion

Educators strive to reach each and every student in the environment that is the least restrictive and the most conducive to their learning. This means that many children with disabilities spend part or all of their day in the general education classroom. While these students are physically present and included in the classroom with their peers, students who are unable to interact appropriately with their peers cannot be said to be fully included (Waltz, 1999).

Because of these inappropriate interactions, students with LD may find themselves socially isolated or ostracized by their peers. For example, students with learning disabilities may have difficulties controlling physical or verbal impulses; they may shout out answers without being called on or inadvertently say something thoughtless or rude to a classmate (Hayes, 1994; Lavoie, 2005). Students with learning disabilities may also have trouble recognizing personal space and appropriate levels of physical contact (Hayes, 1994). These types of difficulties or other social skills deficits can serve to isolate students with learning disabilities, resulting in missed social opportunities.

When students miss out on the numerous social opportunities present in a typical classroom they are missing out on opportunities for academic enrichment (collaborating on projects, working in pairs, participating in class discussions) as well as personal and social enrichment (making new friends, playing games). There are a number of benefits, both academic and interpersonal to developing social competence:

  • Acceptance by peers;
  • Positive self—concept;
  • Academic achievement; and
  • Successful employment (DeGeorge, 1998; Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000; Fussell, Macias and Saylor, 2005).

Social skills instruction

The good news is that social skills can be fairly easily integrated into a special or general education curriculum using a variety of methods. Research has shown that social skills can be taught to students with disabilities — particularly those with nonverbal deficits — as long as educators teach skills directly and use a structured approach to instruction (DeGeorge, 1998; Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000; Peterson et al., 2006). A structured approach would involve “identifying critical social skills and then teaching them through modeling, role—playing and performance feedback” (Peterson et al., p. 2, 2006).

Generalizing social skills to new situations

One difficulty with social skills instruction is that many students with disabilities may struggle with generalizing new skills to different situations (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000). You can help students generalize social skills in several ways:

  • Teach students new skills in the setting where they are most likely to be used (i.e. on a bus, in a restaurant, in the classroom, etc.) (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000; NCLD, 2005); if this is not possible, role playing can be an effective substitute (Hayes, 1994);
  • Teach social skills that are valued by the student’s community (parents, peers, teachers, family members, etc.); these skills are more likely to be reinforced (Elksnin and Elksnin); and
  • Teach social skills with a variety of mediums (video, books, games, software, etc.) across a variety of settings and situations (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000).

Strategies for teaching social skills

Because students use social skills in nearly every aspect of their day, every moment has the potential to be a ‘teachable moment’. To take advantage of this, you should try to teach social skills throughout the school day in a variety of ways. Some methods for introducing social skills include:

  • Incidental teaching — using a natural interaction between a student and adult to practice a skill (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000);
  • Reading and discussing children’s literature and videos — many children’s stories are on social skills topics such as making new friends, dealing with bullies, or encountering new situations (DeGeorge, 1998);
  • Social skill autopsies — after a social interaction discuss what the child did, what happened, whether the outcome was positive or negative and what the child will do in the same situation in the future (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2000; Lavoie, 2005); and
  • Use of social stories — social stories are a successful way of teaching social skills to students with PDD/ASD (Waltz, 1999) because they can provide students with a narrative or script about a variety of situations and appropriate behavior.

Multimedia and social skills instruction

While research into the use of multimedia tools to teach social skills is fairly recent, there are a number of reasons to consider using multimedia technologies to augment your social skills instruction. Many types of multimedia technologies can be an excellent match for the specific learning styles and preferences of students with disabilities (virtual environments, simulations, videos, etc.) and new technologies are emerging rapidly.

For students with learning disabilities who are visual learners, videos, simulations, virtual environments, pictures and other multimedia can be effective teaching tools (Parsons, 2006; Parsons, Leonard and Mitchell, 2006). Additionally, many of the teaching and generalization strategies mentioned in the previous section mesh nicely with a variety of multimedia tools. Students seem to learn social skills best when they are taught in authentic situations using a variety of mediums. Activities listed above such as role playing, listening to social stories, observing peer behavior, and conducting social skills autopsies can all be augmented with the use of multimedia tools.

While there are commercially available software programs to teach social skills to students with disabilities, with some basic technology tools, it is also possible to create your own social skills tools; these tools can then be tailored to the specific needs of your students. For example, you could video tape your students in class or around the school and then use the video to conduct a discussion or “autopsy” of the social interactions. Still images from the video could be captured and used to create a slide show with text or loaded onto a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) to be used as reminders when the student is in mainstream environments. It may make sense to use a combination of tools — both purchased and ‘homemade’ — for a variety of situations and skills. Consider the following resources and see more in the CITEd article, Multimedia Instruction of Social Skills.

A “Tech Works” brief from the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd)

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