What are social skills?

Hello there! My name is Kate and I am currently a doctoral student in the School Psychology Program at The University of Southern Mississippi.  In this program I have learned how to work with children (with and without disabilities), parents, and school personnel.  I have also learned how to provide various behavioral and academic interventions as well as consult with parents and teachers to provide these interventions.  I am beyond grateful to have been exposed to so many vastly different experiences, ranging from working in both the local school districts to seeing clients within the clinic setting, and conducting not only faculty but some of my own research projects.  One of the opportunities that I have truly enjoyed and found that I have a very strong passion for is social skills training.  I have done social skills training with individuals, groups, and even some class-wide social skills within the schools.  As a majority of my social skills training has come from social skills groups for children with autism, this blog will primarily focus on social skills training for kids with autism.

So now that we have gotten introductions and background info out of the way, we can get into the nitty gritty of social skills!  But first- what exactly are social skills?  As I sat down to write this post I realized that it was a pretty tough question to answer without going into an extensive answer, so I did a quick internet search and found that dictionary.com had a concise and what I felt like was an adequate definition.  Social skills can be defined as ‘the personal skills needed for successful social communication and interaction’.  If you stop to think about it, social skills are such a HUGE part of our daily lives, from stopping to chat with the neighbors in the morning, to effectively communicating in the work place, and maintaining relationships within our families when we get home at the end of the day.  Now stop and think how difficult our lives would be if we had social skills deficits (which are a defining characteristic of children with autism).  Life would be hard without effective communication and interactions!  That is why I have found social skills training to be so rewarding, I can physically observe a child’s interactions improving, and that’s pretty neat!

Now that we have established what and how important social skills are, how do we improve social skills for children with autism?  There are tons and tons of social skills programs and curricula on the market, however in this blog I am not going to focus on any particular curriculum, but rather the approach that I have used when conducting social skills training.  The approach I use is behavioral skills training, or BST for short.  I have included a reference at the end of this post with an article that references behavioral skills training.  Behavioral skills training includes:

  • a didactic portion,
  • modeling,
  • rehearsal, and
  • feedback.

Didactic Training

During the didactic portion of training, I start by explaining what the skill is followed by a rationale of why this skill is important.  I find giving the rationale is very helpful because it highlights to the children why learning this skill matters and how it is going to make their daily life better.  For example, say that we are training a general conversation skill, a rationale for this would be “it is important to engage in conversations with others because it can help you make friends and learn about other people”

Modeling

The next part involves modeling the various steps the skill requires, for example orienting towards a person, making eye contact, responding with a relevant statement etc.  This allows the children to see how the skill should be performed accurately.  Continuing with our conversation skill, for modeling I would act out a conversation with another person, sometimes we use a pre-written script, just so it flows nicely.

Rehearsal

Rehearsal is the next component, which involves the students themselves practicing the skill.  This can be done by the teacher (or person leading the social skills training) providing some kind of prompt or opportunity for the student to perform the desired skill.  In the conversation skill scenario, I would have a conversation with each child, so they could get a chance to practice.

Corrective Feedback

Corrective feedback is the last component of BST, which involves telling the child exactly what they did was incorrect and providing a way that the student could fix it for the next time, or if the student performed the skill correctly, providing tons of praise or tangible reinforcers (depending on what is reinforcing for the child).  In our scenario, this would look something like, ‘Johnny you did such a great job facing me and making eye contact, however you did not answer when I asked you how your day was going.  So next time, remember to answer the question with something like ‘my day was great’.

Task Analyses

Task analyses (or the outlining of steps of a social skill) tell the child exactly what to do for a skill.  This goes hand in hand with BST, as it breaks up each step and allows the child to practice.  A scenario of a task analysis for a skill such as ‘asking a question’ would look something like this

  1. Face the person you are having a conversation with
  2. Make eye contact
  3. Ask a question related to the topic of the conversation
  4. Listen to the person’s response

Finally, the last part of social skills training is to have fun!  Don’t be afraid to occasionally tie in conversation topics the child likes.  The more engaged the person training the social skills is, the more engaged the children will be.  So remember to relax, have fun, and enjoy what you are doing!

Reference:

Miltenberger, R., Gross, A., Knudson, P., Bosch, A., Jostad, C., Brower Breitwieser, C. (2008).  Evaluating behavioral skills training with and without simulated in situ training for teaching safety skills to children.  Education and Treatment of Children, 32, 63-75.

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