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V.3 #3 Social-Emotional Development - Increasing Socialization in School Settings with Group Therapy

Although many of us experience temporary states of anxiety and loneliness, the close friendships that we have act as a support system during times of distress. For children with Learning Disabilities (LD) feelings of anxiety and loneliness can be a persistent way of life predominantly because of difficulty in establishing and maintaining friendships. Being part of a friendship requires a repertoire of social skills that many children with LD do not understand or possess. The constellation of deficits characteristic of LD often involve information processing and executive functioning skills such as self-monitoring, organization, attention, planning and memory. Difficulties with these skills make close friendships problematic because executive functions are the building blocks for the social strategies of relationship initiation, providing support, self-disclosure and conflict resolution. Therefore, a meaningful goal for children who have LD and social skills difficulties is to improve social competence, which in turn will promote friendships.

Social skills should be taught to children in order to promote acceptance by peers, teachers and other adults. Developing social skills is a function of learning new behaviors and then practicing these new behaviors in a safe environment. As a result, social skills are often taught and practiced in a group setting. In schools these groups are led by social workers, counselors and psychologists who have been trained in teaching social skills and in group therapy.

Behavioral Approach

Social skills training is typically viewed in behavioral terms because the work involves breaking down complex social behaviors into smaller skills. These behaviors are arranged in a performance hierarchy known as task analysis. Each small task is taught to the child in a process that builds to the more complex behavior.

For example, a child who is uncomfortable going to parties might be helped to increase their comfort level by breaking down the complex behavior of “interacting with others at a party” into the smaller skills. These skills might include:

  • Introducing yourself to others, “Hi! I’m Mike.”

  • Making conversation by divulging something about yourself, "I know Danny. He's in my class at school."

  • Speaking with more than one person at the party, “Hey do you know that kid over there? Let’s go see if he wants to sit with us.”

  • Thanking your host or hostess, “Thanks for inviting me to your party Danny. I had fun!”

The child works on learning and practicing each skill separately before putting them all together in the more complex behavior. Techniques such as modeling, role playing, performance feedback and the reinforcement of positive interactions are used to teach and learn these skills.

Humanistic Approach

Although a behavioral approach has been proven to be an effective model for teaching social skills (Kazdin & Weisz, 2003) and this approach has been frequently used in school settings, many providers of group therapy prefer a Humanistic approach. One such approach is the expressive-supportive group. The aims of expressive-supportive therapy are to improve the individual’s immediate adaptation to the situation, build ego strength, and to teach necessary problem-solving skills. Within each session, the group focuses on the following skills:

  • The expression of feelings, “I was really angry at Sarah this morning for making fun of my sweater!”

  • Providing support to other group members, “I would have been angry too if Sarah made fun of me in front of other people.”

  • Sharing personal information, “I was really embarrassed because I like this sweater, it’s my favorite and I thought I looked good in it.”

  • Establishing positive relationships within the group, “Thanks. Do you want to sit together at lunch?”

There is not a lot of research available on the expressive-supportive group approach; however several investigations have found that it is an effective treatment modality for children with LD (Shectman & Katz, 2007; Shectman & Pastor, 2005). Results from these investigations conclude that cohesion within the group setting increases over time and that the formation of a strong therapeutic alliance (the relationship with the adult group leader) is a strong predictor of positive outcomes. Therapeutic alliance has been one of the best predictors for positive outcomes in individual therapy sessions, and this study extends that finding to children’s groups that take an expressive-supportive approach. In a strong therapeutic alliance there is:

  • bonding facilitated by warmth and affirmation between the therapist and group/individual

  • agreement on the overall goals of treatment

  • agreement on the tasks covered in each session

Group Therapy for Social Skills

Research results point to group therapy as an effective means to provide social skills training in schools. Although previous studies have pointed to the superiority of behavioral techniques, new research suggests that an expressive-supportive approach can also be effective for children with LD. The establishment of a therapeutic alliance and the development of group cohesion are two important aspects that contribute to group therapy outcomes; both of which can and do occur in both behavioral as well as in expressive-supportive orientations. The goal is for the student to learn social skills to increase social competence in and out of the group setting.

If you have concerns about a child in your classroom or under your care who is displaying social-emotional difficulties, seek out the individuals in your school who are uniquely qualified to provide support and assistance.


Kazdin, A.E., & Weisz, J.R. (2003). Evidence based psychotherapies for children and adolescents (pp.439-451). New York: The Guilford Press.

Shechtman, Z., & Katz, E. (2007). Therapeutic bonding in group as an explanatory variable of progress in the social competence of students with Learning Disabilities. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 11, 117-128.

Shectman, Z., & Pastor, R. (2005). Cognitive-behavioral and humanistic group treatment for children with learning disabilities: A comparison of outcomes and process. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 322-336.

Social Skills Training. The encyclopedia of mental disorders. Retrieved from: on 12/04/2009

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, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).

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