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V.1 #4 Social Development - A Model for Teaching Social Skills in Classrooms

Although the federal government’s definition of learning disabilities (LD) fails to mention social and emotional difficulties, both parents and school personnel recognize that some students with LD have such difficulties. Fortunately, the research community has documented these concerns and has developed interventions to address them.

For students and teachers, the classroom is a natural place to work on social skills. In addition to providing many opportunities for children to spontaneously interact with one another, the classroom offers teachers many opportunities to teach and reinforce social skills.

The Five-Step Plan

Researchers Gwendolyn Cartledge and Joanne Fellows Milburn (1995) have devised a five-step model for infusing social skills into the classroom. Using this model, teachers start by recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses of their students. They then tailor the skills taught to the needs of the class. The five-step model asks teachers to follow these steps.

1. Provide Instructions. Although many students with LD acquire social skills in their home and community, many don’t. As a result, teachers may assume that students know how to behave in social situations, but choose not to. A better assumption is that the students never learned the social skill and therefore don’t realize they’re behaving inappropriately. Like academic skills, social skills must be learned through direct instruction. Thus by teaching the skills to the student, the teacher gives him information needed to act in a more acceptable way.

2. Model Desired Behavior. Direct instruction alone will not increase social skills; students need to see examples. By infusing models of desired behaviors into classrooms, teachers can reinforce instruction. The models can be other students, other adults, and of course, teachers themselves. In addition, teachers can use books and videos to illustrate the social skills. Students’ opportunities to recognize modeled social skills are limited only by teachers’ willingness to focus attention on the modeled skills.

3. Rehearse Target Skills. This step uses role playing to help students acquire social skills. Students can be asked to visualize themselves performing a targeted skill in school, at home, and in community settings. This helps them understand that they should use the skill outside the classroom. Once students have thought about and imagined themselves performing the skill, teachers can have them role play. To do this, teachers should first model a role playing scenario; then they should have the students role play in small and large group settings.

4. Give Positive Feedback. Feedback on the students’ role-playing should be positive and immediate. In this way, teachers can use the first role-play exercise to help students improve the second. If a student correctly performs one aspect of the skill, the behavior should be praised in task-specific terms (“Alexis, the little smile you made when saying ‘Thank you’ was perfect”); then, explicit direction should be given on how to improve the second role play (“Alexis, when saying ‘Thank you,’ stand at least 2-feet away from the person”). Again, teachers should provide positive feedback that focuses on specific behaviors. They should also make clear that observing students are not allowed to make negative comments.

5. Practice for Generalization. Although every teacher likes to see students act in socially appropriate ways in the classroom, the goal is for the students to display these behaviors in all settings. As Mark Wolery and his colleagues have argued:

Generalization … lies at the heart of education's goal: to improve students' lives in situations other than training. Thus, when students fail to apply their required skills in situations other than training, the educational program has not met its primary goal. (p. 20)

Thus, teachers should acknowledge and reinforce students for performing the targeted skills, inside and outside the classroom. Teachers should also arrange for outside-the-classroom situations in which students practice the targeted skills.

How does this look in practice?

Although this five-step model may seem cumbersome, it’s not. With a little planning, teachers can easily work the steps into daily activities.

As a fictional example, Ms. Jones, a first grade teacher, wants to teach her students how to enter a group of students engaged in an activity. Ms. Jones starts on Monday by telling her students what to say when asking to join an activity. She also tells them what to say when someone else asks to join the group.

Next, she puts together a group of children and, using herself as a model, asks to join the group. If the children forget how to respond, she’s ready to prompt a correct response.

Next, to give her students practice, she embeds the skill instruction into the day’s activities. For example, when breaking her students into instructional groups, she asks a few students to join ongoing groups; this gives the children involved an opportunity to practice the new skill. As they do this, she gives positive feedback to each child who correctly uses the targeted skills.

Throughout the week, Ms. Jones reviews the process while the students practice it. They practice in different ways and in different school settings, such as on the playground and in the lunch room. By including books and videos that illustrate the concept, Ms. Jones enriches the students’ learning. As they perform the skill independently, she acknowledges and praises their behavior.


Cartledge, G., & Milburn, J.F. (1995). Teaching social skills to children: Innovative approaches (2nd Ed.). New York: Pergamon.

Wolery, M., Ault, M. J., & Doyle, P. M. (1992). Teaching students with moderate to severe disabilities. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. Currently she is finishing a co-authored book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk.

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