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Role Playing Helps Develop Social Skills

Role playing is a way of practicing basic social skills. It is particularly helpful for people with learning disabilities who have difficulty getting along with authority figures. 

I learned these techniques from my father who used to role play with me and my sisters, as well as from my experience as a leader in the self-help movement for LD adults.

If there is someone in authority (teacher or boss) with whom your child has trouble getting along or with whom he has difficulty asserting himself, have him pretend to be this person and you take his part. From his portrayal you will get an idea of what this authority figure is like and perhaps from where the conflicts in personality arise. Then reverse roles and observe carefully the strategies your child uses to deal with this person.

  • Show him different, more effective and appropriate strategies for behaving with this authority figure.
  • Keep reversing roles: take turns practicing these new strategies.
  • Stop and discuss what you are doing and learning. Always state your ideas positively. “You could improve by…” “It would help if…” “Let’s try this…”
  • Keep practicing sessions brief. Teens tire quickly and so do parents.
  • Teach him catch phrases to have ready when confronting someone in a difficult situation. Practice these over and over again until they become natural responses.
  • Teach your child non-verbal social behaviors. Have him practice simple tasks such as:
    • looking you in the eye and nodding to show that he’s paid attention.
    • looking up and smiling
    • standing in a strong assertive posture (back straight, head high)
  • Teach him how tone of voice affects one’s message. For example, practice a soft, calm voice for apologizing, a firm voice with a questioning inflection at the end, for requests.
  • Teach him to take a few minutes to compose himself before entering a room where he’s to face a stressful situation (a job interview, a test, etc.)
  • Teach your child never to accept any attacks on his character. If he is accused of “not trying,” “being stupid,” “being lazy,” teach him to respond with:
    • “I am trying, sir.”
    • “I spent several hours on my homework last night. I’m sorry I didn’t finish it. But I did spend several hours at it.”
  • Teach him to apologize when he is in the wrong, but to apologize for his behavior, not his character. For example, “I’m sorry I was late this morning” and not “I’m sorry I’m always late.” His apology should be sincere, but also pertinent to the incident at hand.
  • Teach him to discuss his personal problems with his teacher or boss privately and not in front of his peers.

Some tips for effective roleplaying

  • Be sure your child’s in a good mood before starting a role playing session. If he is feeling tense, with emotions bottled up inside, give him a chance to vent his feelings. Listen carefully while he expresses himself. When he’s upset, give him time to calm down.
  • If your child has perceptual deficits, exaggerate your voice and gestures when demonstrating a behavioral strategy.
  • Stress the process and not the end result. There will be times when your child will handle a situation beautifully yet things will not work out the way you hoped. It’s important that you and your child are still proud of his good behavior.

Brown, Dale. “Role Playing Helps Develop Social Skills.” Perceptions September 1981: 6. Reprinted with Permission from Dale S. Brown.

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