4 Steps to Improve Social Skills in the New Year!

Kate Helbig

Is it just me or did 2016 fly by? There was good and bad, but overall, a pretty great year! I just can’t believe that it is already 2017! This is the time of year when everyone gets a fresh start, with New Year’s resolutions being an ultra-hot topic in January. Whether your new year’s resolution is to work out more, eat healthier, drink more water, or stop procrastinating, I can almost guarantee that it will involve some sort of goal setting. That is what a majority of this New Year’s social skills blog edition will focus on, as goal setting can be a very useful tool when working on social skills training and acquisition.

So you may be thinking, ‘oh great’ another thing to add to my list. But the good news is, is that goal setting is not just a one-way street. Goal setting can be applied for both the parents and the children, or for both the teachers and the students.

How do you want to accomplish your social skills training goal?

First we will focus our attention to the adults, whether that is a parent, teacher, or some other adult involved in social skills training. When first sitting down to develop goals for this year, take into consideration everything from the previous year. What skills have you covered? What did the children maintain and generalize? What went really well during lessons? What went maybe not as well during lessons? What was the best thing you felt that you trained this year and how can you recreate and extend that for next year? This is a time to reflect and brainstorm on things you know you excel at as a trainer and things that you can improve upon for the upcoming year. For myself, I know some things that I would like to improve for the new year include programming for generalization and maintenance better during my social skills lessons. To accomplish this, I will set certain goals for myself throughout the year with various deadlines of when to complete these goals. To increase generalization and maintenance of skills, a potential goal that I may set for myself could be to actively brainstorm and include at least one strategy that is solely directed at targeting generalization and/or maintenance and implement that within my lesson. Additionally, I could try a new strategy every month to see which techniques worked better compared to others to overall strengthen the actually training I would be providing.

What type of social skills do you want to accomplish?

Some other goals to consider in regards to social skills training could include setting a certain amount of skills that you hope to train to mastery throughout the year. Additionally, when looking back at the lessons you covered this previous year with your children or students, take into consideration the difficulty of the lessons. More specifically, there are the very basic skills, which include body language and following directions, to the more intermediate skills (answering or responding to questions) to advanced skills (perspective taking). If your students or children have mastered most of the basic skills, think about changing the content of the skill to a more intermediate or advanced level and set a goal to do so for the upcoming year.

How do I make my goals translate to your student or child?

Now to transition the focus of the person to the students. Goal setting can be a very influential tool when working with children in various aspects, however we are going to focus on incorporating it into social skills. When helping children develop their goals for the year, it is okay to start with an overarching or ‘long-term goal’ and breaking this down into more immediate or ‘short-term goals’. A way to do this would be to look your data and see what skills they have mastered and loosely base goals off of that. We will walk through an example of what this entire process looks like. For instance, say the long-term goal for your child or student is to make friends. This can be a pretty big and daunting goal, especially if your child or student doesn’t have any friends. There are numerous ways that this big goal can be broken up into much more discrete steps that your child or student could complete or obtain. This is important so that your child can access success, which can also help with maintain motivation to continue working for these goals. So, some smaller goals that ‘making friends’ can be broken down into could include anything from ‘initiating conversation’, ‘responding to questions’, or ‘asking questions’. As I mentioned before, look back at what your child has already accomplished and base your selection of skills off of that. Some other short-term goals your student or child could work on could include talking to a certain number of people every week, sitting by a one new person at lunch a month, or saying some sort of greeting to someone every day. Just keep in mind the child’s functioning level and repertoire of skills.

How do I make the goals a priority?

Lastly, for anyone utilizing goal setting, make sure that the goals are tied to potent reinforcers! Whether it is an adult or child, there should be some type of positive reinforcement involved to maintain motivation throughout the process. Talk about the reinforcement during the goal development portion, and establish what the child or student’s preferences and then clearly outline that if they accomplish a goal they will receive that reinforcer. Remember, social interactions are likely a non-preferred activity for these children, which is why they are receiving social skills training in the first place. So at a trainer, it is your role to make this a fun and reinforcing process. The more the students and kids buy into the training, the more likely they are to be successful in acquiring the skill and the more likely you are to be in training the skill.

Thanks for taking time to read this and I hope it was helpful! I wish you all luck and success in all of your New Year’s resolutions and I hope that 2017 is your best year yet!

Kate Helbig

Third year doctoral student in the School Psychology Program at The University of Southern Mississippi

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