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V.2 #5 Social Development - Structuring Classrooms to Create Social Supports

Contemporary teachers are charged with many tasks. As school professionals, teachers are required to create classroom environments that facilitate academic success defined by current legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2002). However, because social competence is a powerful predictor of success in school as well as later in life, it is important for teachers to be thoughtful about creating environments that also promote social achievements. There is much research supporting the notion that students with Learning Disabilities (LD) exhibit social difficulties, however there is no consensus on how to address this issue. Including students with LD in the general education classroom promotes opportunities for friendship and is a good start toward social achievements; however it is not sufficient for the development of social success. As defined by researchers Gresham, Sugai, and Horner, “Social skills are behaviors that must be taught, learned and performed whereas social competence represents judgments or evaluations of these behaviors within and across situations” (2001, p.333). This definition highlights the need for teachers to create environments, provide instruction on skills and help students think about social situations to set the stage for a lifetime of success.

A Three-Tiered Model of Social Support

A three-tiered model of social support for the general education classroom has been developed by researchers Meadan and Monda-Amaya (2008). This model empowers teachers to put into practice procedures that prevent social difficulty as well as methods to intervene when social problems occur. The model draws from the widely accepted practices of Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), a three-tiered school wide system to promote desired behaviors in all children, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a philosophy of structuring the physical and learning environment to support achievement (described more completely in a previous column). In this model of social support, general and special education teachers collaborate to create an environment that is socially suitable, that increases the social competence of all the students in the class, and that addresses individual areas of social difficulty. The three tiers are defined as: Level One: Structuring a Classroom Community, Level Two: Specific Strategies and Curriculum for Promoting Social Competence, and Level Three: Targeted Individual Interventions.

Level One: Structuring a Classroom Community

Level One is the base of the three-tiered Social Support structure and provides a solid foundation to build upon. At this level, both the physical environment as well as the affective environment of the classroom is addressed. There are three classroom priorities at this level—1) creating an accepting environment, 2) valuing each student by enabling their role and voice, and 3) providing opportunities for social interaction. Some suggested activities for each priority are:

  1. Create an accepting classroom environment

  • post positive class rules

  • make expectations clearly known

  • discuss differences and acceptance of all

2. Value students by enabling their role and voice

  • post classroom jobs and responsibilities

  • recognize individual talents and interests

3. Provide opportunities for social interaction

  • use cooperative learning and peer tutoring

  • encourage collaboration

  • structure out-of-class activities such as in gym and recess

Level Two: Specific Strategies and Curriculum for Promoting Social Competence

The second tier in the Social Support Model is aimed at incorporating strategies and curriculum that embed social skills instruction into daily classroom activities. At this level, teachers can utilize direct instructional practices aimed at the entire class to promote vocabulary and behavioral expectations for all. A standardized social skills program can be incorporated or various problem solving, conflict resolution, role playing, reinforcement and generalization strategies can be used. Some suggested skills to be taught for this level are:

  • interpret environmental cues

  • identify feelings in self and others

  • set guidelines for conflict resolution during cooperative activities

  • use social stories, scenarios and books for problem solving models

Level Three: Targeted Individual Interventions

The top tier recognizes that because all students do not learn or process information in the same way, nor do they have the same opportunities for reinforcement, not all strategies are effective for all students. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual allows the teacher to target specific social skills instruction to the needs of the student. Gresham and colleagues (2001) indicate that the most effective response is produced when specific social skills strategies are used that match specific social skills deficits. As discussed in a previous column, there are four types of social skills deficits—acquisition, performance, fluency, and competing behaviors (Gresham, et al., 2001) and these deficits call for different interventions. For example:

  1. Acquisition Deficit—direct instruction of missing skills

  2. Performance Deficit—instruction about when and how to use skill

  3. Fluency Deficit—provide for practice and generalization of skill

  4. Competing Behavior—teach and provide motivation for utilizing the socially acceptable skill

In addition to targeting interventions to deficits at this level, teachers need to provide instruction to students about the demystification process (Levine, 2002). By teaching a student about his/her unique set of strengths and weaknesses, the student can learn to monitor, reinforce, value and advocate for him or herself, thus empowering them to be their own advocate.

Assuming that children come into a classroom with all the social skills that they will need to achieve in that setting is a false assumption. Teachers can enhance their classroom environment by acknowledging that all students need instruction and support for both academic and social skills. Through collaboration and by embedding the three levels of the Social Skill Model into the classroom and instruction provided throughout the day, teachers can provide students with a foundation of tools for school and life success.

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


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.

Levine, M. (2002). A Mind at a Time. Simon and Schuster: New York.

Meadan, H. & Monda-Amaya, L. (2008). Collaboration to promote social competence for students with mild disabilities in the general classroom: A structure for providing social support. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43, 158-167.

No Child Left Behind. (2002). Retrieved From

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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