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V.2 #3 Social Development - Social Skills Interventions in Inclusive Settings

Educational settings are under pressure to become inclusive communities. Inclusion in schools is most often thought about in regard to academic inclusion, where students of differing needs and levels of academic abilities learn together in the same class setting. However, inclusion practices can also be about social inclusion. Although social inclusion has been defined in many ways, the definitions include the notion that participation in the multiple social aspects that are part of everyday life is a right of all individuals. In school settings deficits in social skills can sometimes deny or restrict the full participation. As a result, social skills interventions can help develop behaviors in individuals who struggle in this area leading to fuller participation in school activities. Therefore, increasing the social behaviors of students with ongoing social skills activities in the classroom will help to alleviate the social difficulties that some students experience.

Social Skill Difficulties

Researchers, Gresham, Sugai and Horner (2001), performed an analysis of the social skills literature and found that individuals who have difficulty with social skills may exhibit deficits in one or more of the following four areas.

  • Acquisition Deficit. This is a problem of knowledge; the individual does not know how to perform the social skill required in a given situation.

  • Performance Deficit. This is a problem of execution; the individual may know how to behave in a given situation but does not do it.

  • Fluency Deficit. This is a problem of consistency; the individual may know what to do and may actually perform the task occasionally, but does not exhibit the behavior regularly, possibly due to a lack of practice and reinforcement.

  • Acquisition Deficit with Interfering Behaviors. This is a problem of interference; the individual does not learn the requisite skill because another behavior such as anxiety is getting in the way.

These four deficits could be distinct problem areas for individuals who demonstrate social skills difficulties, however classroom based social skills trainings are not usually able to target these specific deficits. Instead, classroom based social skills typically target all individuals in that setting and concentrate on providing encouragement and reinforcement for behaviors that are already performed. Just as instructional differentiation has become part of the educational vernacular, social skills training needs to become differentiated to the needs of individual students. This is especially true for those students with both learning and social skills difficulties. One way to facilitate this is to find ways to increase core social behaviors.

Social Behaviors

In order to avoid negative social responses from other people, individuals need to be able to automatically display appropriate responses in a variety of circumstances. These general social responses have been described as five skills by researchers Elliot and Busse (1991). These skills are as follows.

  • Cooperation. This skill is the ability to work and play with others utilizing behaviors of sharing, helping and rule adherence.

  • Assertion. This skill allows an individual to ask for what they want and need as well as allows them to respond to the wants and needs of others.

  • Responsibility. With this skill, individuals are able to demonstrate care of themselves, others and property. Additionally, communication with adults and others in authority is established.

  • Empathy. This skill is the ability to express care and concern about other people.

  • Self-Control. Individuals with this skill are able to think before they respond either verbally or with their actions so that their response is appropriate and acceptable.

Although these five skills are part of everyday interactions, some individuals may have not learned them through common experiences such as by watching others in the environment, or through reinforcement when these behaviors were displayed. Interestingly, teachers typically assume that students come to class with the ability to perform these skills to varying degrees. Therefore teaching practices such as cooperative learning and peer tutoring are used to encourage these skills rather than direct instruction.

Social Skills Training

Rather than relying on teaching practices to reinforce social behaviors, teachers may need to call upon other school professionals to teach those behaviors. In the school setting, school psychologists, counselors or social workers may be the professionals called upon to direct social skills groups. A social skills training that is run outside the class setting has several advantages over in-class training. First the main advantage to this set-up is that the number of participants is smaller. This allows the facilitator to administer a social skills questionnaire such as the ‘Social Skills Rating System’ (Gresham & Elliot, 1990). This particular assessment device is aligned with the five social skills described above and can be used to determine what particular skills any individual is lacking. Then, the specific skill deficits can be addressed through direct instruction. Second the small group size allows for repeated practice of the skill in different situations in order to facilitate generalization to other settings. Along with more practice is the opportunity to receive frequent reinforcement for the display of appropriate behavior. Finally, the facilitator of the group can review with the teacher and the parent the skills taught in the group so that practice and reinforcement can also be provided in the classroom and home settings.

In an investigation of social skills training groups facilitated by educational psychologists, findings pointed to the effectiveness of both a skills training intervention and to a peer mentoring intervention (Denham, Hatfield, Smethurst, Tan & Tribe, 2006). In this particular study, students were assigned to one of the two groups for a 12 week training that gave psychologists access to the students for 30 minutes a week. Results indicated that both types of social skills training were an effective component of the social inclusion of students with learning and behavioral difficulties. The professional consensus was that the particular type of social skills training was not important as there was no significant difference between the results of the two groups. What was important was that the students received some sort of social skills training that helped them to control their behavior as well as to problem solve.

If you have concerns that a child you work with or care about may have social skills deficits look into a social skills training program as an intervention. Many students with a learning disability struggle with social skills and can benefit from this type of service. For further information, consult your school psychologist.


Denham, A., Hatfield, S., Smethurst, N., Tan, E., & Tribe, C. (2006). The effect of social skills interventions in the primary school. Educational Psychology in Practice, 22, 33-51.

Elliot, S. N., & Busse, R. T. (1991). Social skills assessment and intervention with children and adolescents: Guidelines for assessment and training procedures. School Psychology International, 12, 63-83.

Gresham, F. M., & Elliot, S. N. (1990). Social skills rating system. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

Gresham, F. M., Sugai, G., & Horner, R.H. (2001). Interpreting outcomes of social skills training for students with high-incidence disabilities. Exceptional Children, 67, 331-344.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies, presents at professional conferences, has published articles and a book on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. In addition, she is the director of the Weinberg Learning Center at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS).

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