Skip to main content

Strategies teachers can use to teach parents to teach their children to be prosocial are described. These strategies include teaching incidentally, performing social skills autopsies, coaching emotions, and assigning homework. Issues to be considered when working with parents and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are addressed. We propose that by having parents as partners in the instructional process, students will better generalize prosocial skills across situations, settings, and individuals.

Students with disabilities and students who are at risk for school failure are likely to have difficulties with social skills (Bender & Wall, 1994; N. Elksnin & Elksnin, 1998; Frederick & Olmi, 1994; Margalit, 1993; Swanson & Malone, 1992). Kavale and Forness (1996) reported that 75% of students with learning disabilities (LD) exhibit social skills deficits. A follow-up study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (1996) indicated that 29% of adolescents with disabilities required social skills instruction beyond high school.

The importance of social competence cannot be overestimated as it is associated with peer acceptance, academic achievement, and employment success (L. K Elksnin & Elksnin, 1995). Lack of prosocial behavior during early childhood is the single best predictor of mental health problems during adulthood. Even more alarming is that problems with social skills become more debilitating over time (Strain & Odom, 1986), underscoring the critical need for early social skills intervention.

Results of research conducted during the past two decades proves we can successfully teach students social skills (L. K. Elksnin & Elksnin, 1995; N. Elksnin & Elksnin, 1998). Our challenge lies in ensuring that students use these skills where and when they count. Research also indicates that we have been relatively unsuccessful in promoting generalization of newly acquired social skills to natural settings (Carey & Stoner, 1994; DuPaul & Eckert, 1994; Gresham, 1998; Mathur & Rutherford, 1996; Moore, 1994; Schumaker & Ellis, 1982). Based on their meta-analysis of 18 interventions commonly used with students with disabilities, Lloyd, Forness, and Kavale (1998) concluded that social skills instruction as it is currently implemented is not very effective. The need to adopt intervention strategies that promote social skills generalization is clear (Mathur & Rutherford, 1996; Rutherford, 1997).

In their now classic article, Stokes and Baer (1977) described strategies proven to promote generalization of skills across settings, situations, and individuals:

  1. Teach students social skills in settings where the skills will be used. If teaching social skills in the natural setting is not possible, we can use role playing to reflect a variety of settings or teach children to self-monitor their use of skills across settings. We can also recruit teachers and parents to prompt, teach, and reinforce use of appropriate social skills.
  2. Teach social skills that are valued in the natural setting. Selecting skills valued by peers, teachers, and parents increases the odds skill use will be reinforced. “Real life” reinforcement is essential if our training efforts are to endure over time (Goldstein & McGinnis, 1997).
  3. Teach social skills “loosely.” Effective teachers often tightly control the instructional presentation to help students acquire new skills. These teachers adopt standardized presentation procedures, present information in a prescribed order, and require mastery before moving on to the next skill. Although these methods promote skill acquisition, they may work against skill generalization. We can encourage students to generalize by teaching several social skills several times a day, employing a variety of models and role-playing actors, using natural language, and reinforcing skills across settings and situations.
  4. Use reinforcement sparingly. After skills are acquired, we can adopt schedules of reinforcement similar to those in natural settings. Typically, reinforcement occurs less frequently in natural settings than in instructional settings, requiring that instructors gradually reduce the frequency and amount of reinforcement. In some cases, students may need to be taught to recruit reinforcement and to self-reinforce so that they will continue to use skills in environments lacking in external reinforcement.
  5. Teach students to generalize. Methods that enable students to generalize include the use of cognitive mediators such as self-talk, self-monitoring, self-recording, and self-reinforcement. Teaching children problem-solving strategies, which are discussed elsewhere in this article, also enables them to select and use skills in actual social situations.

Use of generalization strategies is essential if we are to ensure that students use appropriate social skills in natural settings (Elksnin, 1994). Involving parents in the teaching process can help us implement these strategies. Parental involvement is also consistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that parents be active participants in assessment and instructional planning.

Often, parents are highly motivated to improve their child’s social skills because social skills problems leading to peer rejection are even more devastating to children and their parents than poor academic skills. We also know that children with poor social skills exert a disruptive influence on the family (Gresham, 1981; Wahler, 1976), providing an impetus for parents to teach their children to become prosocial.

As educators, we know that intervention outcomes are much more powerful and enduring if educators and parents collaborate (Haynes and Comer, 1996). In the remainder of this article, we discuss ways we can teach parents to teach their children to be prosocial. These strategies include teaching incidentally, performing social skills autopsies, coaching emotions, and assigning homework. Challenges of working with parents and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds also are considered.

Incidental teaching

While visiting 13-year-old Mia’s parents, Mrs. Rasheed exclaimed, “Mia, that’s a great looking haircut. You really look grown up!” When Mia failed to acknowledge Mrs. Rasheed’s comment, her mother said, “Mia, what do you say when someone gives you a compliment?” Mia responded by saying, “Thanks, Mrs. Rasheed.”

For generations, parents and teachers have used tactics similar to the one adopted by Mia’s mother; they remind or prompt children to behave in a socially appropriate manner. These teachers and parents capitalize on “teachable moments,” which promote social skills generalization. Some parents, however, must be taught how to incidentally teach (Brown, McEvoy, & Bishop, 1991; Schulze, Rule, & Innocenti, 1989). Incidental teaching involves teaching social skills during naturally occurring situations and encouraging children to use social skills at appropriate times. The following sections describe a workshop based on the work of Schulze, Rule, and Innocenti (1989) that teachers can use to teach parents to incidentally teach social skills.

Parents are first taught to select which social skills to teach. The teacher provides examples of various social skills and helps parents identify what to teach and reinforce at home. The teacher should encourage parents to select skills they and other family members value. Ideally, teachers and parents will identify skills that are of critical importance at both home and school. Examples of these skills may include sharing, accepting criticism, giving and receiving compliments, understanding others’ feelings, listening, following directions, controlling anger, and taking conversational turns. Once the teacher provides examples, parents usually have little difficulty identifying skills to teach.

After the teacher and parents identify the social skill together, the teacher helps parents identify situations in which to teach it. For example, times to share might be when siblings play together, when a neighborhood child comes to visit, or when the family plays a game together. It is also helpful for parents to identify times during the day when they can incidentally teach.

Next, parents are taught to use a system of prompts using role-playing scenarios. They are instructed to use direct verbal prompts (e.g., “Share your puzzle with Suzie”) and indirect verbal prompts (e.g., “Don’t you think it would be nice to share your toys with Suzie since she came to play with you?”) if the child does not spontaneously use a social skill. Parents are taught to model the desired social behavior if the verbal prompt does not work: “Suzie, come on over here and play with my Furby.” If the child still does not use the skill, parents are instructed to use physical prompts to guide the child. For example, the parent might hold the child’s arm to extend a toy to a friend. The need to reinforce or praise children for using appropriate social skills (or their “successive approximations”) is stressed, and parents practice giving praise through additional role plays. Schulze et al, (1989) stressed the importance of providing parents with sample lesson formats for each skill to be taught incidentally that they targeted (see Figure 1). Teachers can use social skills curricula, such as those listed in the Appendix, for identifying and teaching target skills.

Table 4.1. Popular models and techniques for dealing with discipline referrals
Set Up Opportunity Prompt and Praise
Teach when younger sister says or does something upsetting during playtime

Prompt: (Name), what can you do when you feel angry?

One thing you can do when you’re angry is to stop and count to ten before you do or say something you may feel bad about later.

After you calm down, you can tell (sister’s name) what she said or did to make you upset. Show me what you can do when you’re angry.

Praise: You really dealt with your anger well. You showed self-control - just like grown-ups do. You really did a good job of not letting your anger control you.

Note. From Let’s Be Social Home Program, by M. Innocenti, S. Rule, and J. Stowitschek, 1987, Logan: Utah State University. Copyright 1987 by Outreach and Development Division, Developmental Center for Handicapped Persons, Utah State University. Adapted with permission.

After the workshop, teachers monitor parents’ incidental teaching through home notes, telephone calls, and face-to-face meetings. The procedure can be taught to parents in a short period, and it requires very little time for parents to implement at home. For example, Schulze et al. (1989) reported that single parents and dually-employed couples were easily able to fit incidental teaching into their busy schedules.

Social skill autopsies

Geoff Glenn stood at the living room window and watched his son, Andrew. A group of boys was shooting baskets in a neighbor’s driveway. At the first opportunity, Andrew grabbed the ball; then the father heard one of the boys say, “We’re not playing with you!” Throwing the ball into the street, Andrew stomped off toward his house screaming, “I don’t want to play with you creeps!” As he entered the living room, he tearfully said to his dad, “Those creeps never want to play with me. ” After giving Andrew some time to cool off, Geoff went over to him and said, “Let’s see if we can figure out what happened. “

Geoff Glenn didn’t know it, but he was about to conduct a social skill autopsy, which involves discussing outcomes after a child used (or failed to use) a social skill (Lavoie, 1994). Conducting a social skill autopsy involves discussing

  • what the child did,
  • what happened when the child did it,
  • the direction of the outcome (i.e., was it positive, negative, or neutral?), and
  • what the child will do the next time.

Social skill autopsies can be performed any time and any place. They are an effective means of helping children improve their ability to assess a social situation, select the appropriate skill, and evaluate the skill’s effectiveness. Because so many important individuals (i.e., teachers, parents, peers) in a child’s life can perform autopsies in so many important settings (i.e., home, school, community), social skills autopsies effectively promote generalization of problem-solving and social skills.

Emotional coaching

When Mrs. Salas arrived home from work, she asked her daughter; Delores, “How was school today?” “I’m never going back to school; my teacher yelled at me in front of the entire class!” cried Delores. “That must have embarrassed you in front of your friends”, said her mother. “Why don’t you tell me about it. ”

Recently, there has been considerable interest in the construct of emotional intelligence (EI; Elias, Tobias, & Friedlander, 1999). Goleman (1995, 1998), who suggested that EI may be more important than IQ when it comes to positive life outcomes, describes emotional intelligence as consisting of five domains: knowing one’s emotions, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships using social skills.

Gottman (1997) recommended that parents become emotional coaches and use emotional moments as opportunities to help children become more emotionally aware. Emotionally aware individuals know when they feel an emotion, understand their feelings, and understand the feelings of others. We can teach parents to use a 5-step emotional coaching process described below.

Step 1: Being aware of the child’s emotion

Mrs. Salas is emotionally coaching her daughter, Delores. Parents first must become aware of a child’s emotions. Gottman (1997) stressed the importance of parents moving beyond their agenda. For example, Mrs. Salas’s agenda is for Delores to get along with her teacher. She may feel worried or upset that Delores and her teacher may not have a good relationship. Delores’s feelings about the incident are somewhat different: She was mortified when she was reprimanded by the teacher in front of the entire class.

Parents (and other adults) often trivialize children’s emotions. A useful strategy is to place the situation within an adult context. For example, we may dismiss a child’s feelings of embarrassment when he is teased about his clothing by a peer. But how would we feel if “friend” made a derogatory comment about our weight gain? Parents (and teachers) must train themselves not to disregard, ignore, or trivialize children’s negative emotions.

Step 2: Recognizing an emotion as a teaching opportunity

Step two in the emotional coaching sequence involves recognizing uncomfortable emotions as opportunities for teaching and intimacy, rather than as reasons to criticize, reprimand, or punish the child for experiencing these feelings. Delores and her mother can discuss feelings of embarrassment and autopsy the situation leading to Delores’s embarrassment.

Step 3: Validating the emotion by listening empathetically

Validation of an emotion does not signify approval. It important to just listen rather than advise the child or to impose logic on the situation at this point. Again, an adult example illustrates the importance of listening:

A wife comes home from work extremely upset because her boss criticized her job performance during a staff meeting. Her husband asks what she did that led to her supervisor’s negative assessment. The wife yells, “You just don’t understand!” then leaves the room. The husband hears the bedroom door slam.

Most of us have had similar experiences; we wanted affirmation, not evaluation. The worst thing Mrs. Salas could have done was to ask Delores, “What did you do?” Instead, she understood the situation from her daughter’s perspective.

Step 4: Helping the child to label the emotion

Parents need to verbally label emotions to provide children with the language of emotions. Often adults fail to realize that children confuse emotions. In addition helping children use the appropriate language, placing a label on a feeling makes that feeling less scary and underscores the fact that other people experience similar feelings. In our example, Mrs. Salas labeled Delores’s feeling as embarrassment.

Children, especially those with disabilities, may need direct instruction in recognizing and labeling the emotions of themselves and others (L. K Elksnin & Elksnin 1995). Mehrabian (1987) reported that only 7% of emotional meaning is conveyed with words. Feelings are transmitted primarily via facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. Duke, Nowicki, and Martin (1996) developed a program parents can use to teach children the language of social success. Children learn to recognize and use paralanguage (i.e. information that communicates emotion with or without words): facial expressions, posture, gestures, interpersonal space, speech patterns, and attitudes.

Step 5: Setting limits and helping the child problem solve

Gottman (1997) recommended that parents think about “zones” of behavior when setting limits. The green zone includes officially sanctioned and desired behavior. Although yellow zone behaviors are not sanctioned, parents tolerate them to give children learning opportunities or to indulge children during particularly difficult or stressful times (i.e., during times of family crisis). Red zone behavior is not tolerated as it is either dangerous to the child or others, or it is immoral, unethical, illegal, or socially unacceptable.

After setting limits, parents can teach their children to more effectively solve social problems. We have found a problem-solving sequence described by D’Zurilla and Goldfried (1971) useful:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Identify potential solutions.
  3. Consider the outcomes of each solution.
  4. Implement a solution.
  5. Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.

Initially, children may require assistance when using problem-solving strategies. Parents can help children use problem-solving steps through thinking out loud:

[Juanita arrives on the playground after recess has begun.]“I’d really like to play with the girls jumping rope. I could just go over and ask to play. Or I could go over and stand by them and wait to see if they ask. Or I could wait until it’s time for someone else to turn the rope and ask if I can turn it. If I ask them, they may say no, but if I just stand there, they may never ask. I think I’ll ask to turn the rope when someone’s turn comes up.” [Juanita offers to turn rope and the girls let her.] “I asked to turn rope, and they let me. I guess my plan worked.”

Camp and Bash (1985a, 1985b, 1985c) developed a curriculum to teach children how to solve cognitive and social problems. The Think Aloud curriculum can be used by teachers or parents. However, Gottman (1997) cautioned that children under the age of 10 may have difficulty considering multiple solutions; parents may have to present one solution at a time and have the child evaluate each option in turn. Parents must not attempt to use emotional coaching when they do not have time, are not alone with the child, are tired or upset, or a red zone behavior occurs (Gotterman, 1997).


Ms. Lawson sends a note home to Mr. Staunton telling him that Gerald’s fourth-grade class is working on being able to accept criticism. Mr. Staunton is asked to use the home note to report Gerald’s use of this skill.

Homework has been shown to have a positive effect on a student’s academic performance (Baumgartner, Bryan, Donahue, & Nelson, 1993; Cooper, 1989; Miller & Kelley, 1991; Olympia, Sheridan, & Jenson, 1994; Polloway, Foley, & Epstein, 1992; Walberg, Paschal, & Weinstein, 1985). Social skills homework is essential if generalization and maintenance are to occur (Armstrong & McPherson, 1991). Homework allows children the opportunity to use social skills as situations arise in natural, rather than in artificial, settings.

Homework is also an excellent way to involve parents in social skills instruction and to foster home-school collaboration (Baumgartner et al., 1993; Olympia, Sheridan, & Jenson, 1994). Social skills homework is appropriate when it is a planned extension of classwork and is evaluated by teachers, students, and parents (Heller, Spooner, Anderson, & Mims, 1988).

Parents can be involved in social skills homework through monitoring and reinforcing skill performance and notifying the teacher through the use of home notes (Armstrong & McPherson, 1991; Cartledge & Kleefeld, 1989). Many commercial social skills curricula include a homework component, including the Skillstreaming programs (Goldstein & McGinnis, 1997; McGinnis & Goldstein, 1990, 1997), Social Skills for Daily Living (Schumaker, Hazel, & Pederson, 1988), ACCESS (Walker, Todis, Holmes, & Horton, 1988), and ASSET (Hazel, Schumaker, Shennan, & Sheldon, 1995). However, it is simple to design your own homework assignments using the format illustrated in Figure 2. Working with parents and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds presents unique challenges (Cartledge & Milburn, 1995,1997; L. K. Elksnin & Elksnin, 1995). Rivera and Rogers-Adkinson (1997) emphasized that culture influences social behavior. Children from Hispanic American, Native American, and Asian American backgrounds tend to be passive, whereas African American children tend to be assertive. Teachers must take care not to label the former behavior as overly compliant and the latter as overly aggressive. These four minority cultures tend to value cooperation.

Figure 2. Home note for elementary-age students

Date: _______________________________

Dear Parent: Our class is learning to accept criticism. We learned that when someone accepts criticism that person:

  • listens carefully to the person,
  • tells the person he or she will change, and/or
  • thanks the person for the information.

Please watch your child to see if he or she uses the skill accepting criticism. If your child does use the skill, try to praise him or her.

Mark the appropriate box below and have your child return this form to school.

My child used [ ] the skill ACCEPTING CRITICISM at home.

My child did not use [ ] the skill ACCEPTING CRITICISM at home.

Child’s Name:___________________

Parent’s Signature:___________________

This list may be photocopied for noncommercial use only. Copyright @ 2000 by PRO-ED, Inc.

Cultural issues

Nonverbal communication differences among the cultures is evident as well. For example, Anglo American individuals value more physical space between speakers than do people from Hispanic American, Native American, and African American cultural backgrounds. Eye contact, although valued by the Anglo American culture, may be a sign of disrespect in many minority cultures. Rivera and Rogers-Adkinson (1997) recommended the following when working with parents from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds:

  • Recognize and respect cultural differences;
  • Capitalize on family strengths;
  • Understand that a discrepancy may exist between social behaviors valued by the teacher and the parents.

Cultural differences are addressed by Dygdon (1993) in her curriculum, The Culture and Lifestyle-Appropriate Social Skills Intervention Curriculum (CLASSIC). Social skills are defined as those behaviors that are reinforced by the cultural group. Students are taught a “cue generation” procedure to help them identify social behaviors that result in acceptance or rejection. Behaviors related to social acceptance, as identified by the students, taught using modeling, role-playing, feedback, and reinforcement. CLASSIC can be adapted for use with parents from diverse cultural backgrounds when teaching them to teach their children social skills.

Cartledge, Lee, and Feng (1997) described the balancing act a teacher must perform when teaching social skills: The social skills trainer is challenged to interpret the behaviors of learners from culturally diverse backgrounds accurately, to distinguish social skill differences from deficits, and to employ instructional strategies effective to help these learners maximize their schooling experiences and acquire the most productive interpersonal skills. While focusing on the unique patterns that are instructive for these purposes, it is imperative to remain cognizant of the universality of children’s behavior. (p. 328)


Although we have been successful in teaching students prosocial skills, we have been far less successful in making sure these skills are used when and where they count. If generalization of social skills is to occur, we must adopt strategies that actively promote use of social skills across settings, situations, and individuals. Involving parents in the social skills instructional process can help us promote social skills generalization. There are several ways in which teachers can teach parents to teach their children to become prosocial. Incidental teaching enables teachers and parents to capitalize on teachable moments, by having parents teach, prompt, and reinforce the use of skills at home. Parents also can be taught to conduct social skills autopsies, which involve discussing the outcomes of using (or failing to use) a social skill. As emotional coaches, parents can assist children in understanding and dealing with their emotions and help children become better social problem solvers.

About the authors:

Linda K. Elksnin, PhD, is a professor at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. She has a long-standing interest in social skills assessment and instruction. Other research interests include assessment, collaboration among parents and professionals, and career and vocational education for adolescents with disabilities. Nicky Elksnin, PhD, has more than 20 years experience as a school psychologist, special education consultant, and special education administrator. He is particularly interested in occupational social skills and the social development of infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children.

Top of page

Linda K. Elksnin and Nick Elksnin Intervention in School and Clinic, Volume 36, No.1 © 2000 by PRO-ED
Back to Top