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V.5 #1 Social-Emotional Development - Social Competence and Children

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

From the moment we are born, we exist in a world governed by the interactions of relationships and social rules. Research consistently finds that emotional knowledge leads to developmentally appropriate social behaviors (Izard, Stark, Trentacosta, & Schultz, 2008; Trentacosta & Fine, 2010). The idea of breaking down social behaviors into small, teachable skills is usually not the first priority of teachers, but in order for children to learn these skills they must be taught. Most children with a typical learning profile and who have attentive, nurturing parents are conscientious to environmental cues that alert them to subtleties of behavior such as when to lower their voice and how to say hello to a stranger. However, not all children encountered in our classrooms come with the social skills necessary to allow them to function well enough socially so that they can focus on academics in the classroom. Frequently, children with Learning Disabilities (LD) are part of this latter group. The learning profile of many children with LD necessitates explicit instruction and repeated practice; these strategies apply to social competencies as much as to reading or math. As children with LD are not attentive to the social cues in the environment, the subtleties of behavior are often missed. Repeated difficulties with social interactions can leave children with LD confused and emotionally vulnerable. The good news is that as educators, we are in a position to prevent this downward spiral by learning how we can infuse social competence skills in our classroom settings.

What are Social Competence Skills?

A simple way to think about social competence is that it includes all the knowledge and skills children need in order to be effective in their interactions. More specifically, Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, and Whiren (2012, pg. 4) break this simplistic understanding into seven components that integrate knowledge, values and skills as they relate to self and others.

1. Social Values. (e.g., caring, helpfulness, flexibility, responsibility, honesty)

2. Positive Self-identity. (e.g., self-awareness, sense of competence, sense of worth)

3. Interpersonal Skills. (e.g., communicates ideas and needs, adjusts behavior to fit

social circumstances, acknowledges other people’s rights)

4. Self-Regulation. (e.g., controls impulses, delays gratification, resists peer


5. Planning & Decision making., (e.g. makes choices, solves problems, plans ahead)

6. Cultural Competence. (e.g., recognizes and questions unfair treatment,

demonstrates knowledge, comfort and respect for individuals of varying


7. Emotional Intelligence. (e.g., recognizes emotions in self and others, demonstrates

empathy, gives and receives emotional support)

Although emphasis of what is considered the most important aspects of social competence vary by culture, communities and families, the main elements of social competence are universally shared; most children will obtain standards of social competence as defined by the community they live in.

Benefits of Social Competence

Research on social competence has amassed evidence of the numerous benefits this attribute has on children. Children who demonstrate evidence of social competence experience higher levels of emotional satisfaction such as happiness, feelings of self-worth and successful interactions (Kostelnick, et al., 2012). However, the benefits of social competence are not limited to global feelings of personal and life satisfaction. Social competence has been associated with a variety of academic and classroom based competencies as well. Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, and Walberg (2004, as cited in Kostelnick, et al., 2012, pg. 7) collected evidence linking social competence in children to the following classroom accomplishments:

  • greater academic motivation

  • more positive attitudes toward school

  • fewer absences

  • more classroom participation

  • higher math achievement

  • higher language arts achievement

  • higher social studies achievement

  • higher grades

  • fewer suspensions

  • less tendency to drop out of high school

Enhancing Social Competence in the Classroom

As educators, we recognize that learning is occurring at many levels in our schools - during direct instruction, in cooperative learning groups, in the lunch room and on the playground. Observing and understanding the various skills that go into successful mastery of any situation is the first step toward supporting that skill. For example, as children sit at their desk, listening to the classroom teacher instruct a lesson, there are a variety of skills that need to have been mastered. Going back to the list of seven skills listed at the beginning, we can recognize that the child is making a choice (Planning and Decision Making) to control their impulse and delay gratification (Self-Regulation) by adjusting their behavior to fit the situation (Interpersonal Skills). In other words, the child is sitting and actively listening to the lesson being taught instead of doing what they might prefer to do, such as chatting with their friends, reading to themselves, or running around and playing. Although we as teachers assume they come to our classes with the skills in hand to accomplish learning, not all students do - we must teach them about our expectations for classroom interactions and behavior.

Understanding this is particularly salient at the start of the school year. One of the first tasks that a teacher faces each September is to sit with his/her new class of students and develop a list of class rules with associated consequences, both positive and negative. In doing so, we educators take many things into consideration such as the developmental level and ages of the students, prior knowledge and understanding of social situations and the school culture, as well as our own goals for the school year. I ask that you consider enhancing the social competence of your students to your class goals, taking the students as they come to you and utilizing direct teaching, modeling and reinforcement to move them toward becoming increasingly socially competent individuals.

Final Thoughts

Children with LD frequently have difficulties with social relationships which impacts their academic abilities and self-esteem. As educators we know that classroom conditions can either create or destroy students, academically as well as emotionally. By observing the social-emotional conditions of the classroom environment, educators can begin to implement strategies that reinforce social competence in children; leading to social as well as academic success. If you have children in your class who appear to be struggling, contact the school-based resources available to you for support and guidance.


Kostelnik, M.J., Gregory, K.M., Soderman, A.K., Whiren, A.P. (2012). Guiding Children’s Social Development and Learning, 7th Edition. Belmont, CA:Wadsworth.

Izard, C., Stark, K., Trentacosta, C., & Schultz, D. (2008). Beyond emotion regulation. Emotion utilization and adaptive functioning. Child Development Perspectives, 2(3), 156–163. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00058.X

Trentacosta, C.J., & Fine, S. E. (2010). Emotion knowledge, social competence, and behavior problems in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review. Social Development, 19(1), 1-29. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00543.x

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). She can be reached at

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