Improving Social Skillfulness

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

AT A GLANCE

Social skillfulness is a strong predictor of quality of life at school and beyond • Schools don’t do enough to develop this important skill set in a way that benefits children with learning disabilities, many of whom struggle in this area


A child with academic challenges but strong social skills will function more effectively and be more comfortable at school than a child lacking social skillfulness, who probably doesn’t have friends, might be teased, and feels he doesn’t fit in. This is a primary concern for parents of kids with NLD, ADHD, and other learning differences who often find themselves outside the social mainstream.

Unlike academic challenges, which come to light in the classroom under the watchful eye of a teacher, social challenges often take place in hallways, the cafeteria, at recess, and in the locker room—all places with less direct supervision. In these settings, kids are left to their own devices to figure out how to navigate complicated social demands, often coming at them from different directions simultaneously.

When social skills are part of an IEP, they’re often addressed during “pull out” sessions in social-skill groups or in one-on-ones with a counselor. Typically, students are given a hypothetical exercise to work through; improvement is then measured based on feedback during those structured sessions.

Unfortunately, those manufactured situations don’t resemble real life. Taking turns on the playground with a gaggle of kids clamoring for dominance, looks very different from a turn-taking exercise in the counselor’s office.

Real-time peer interaction is fast-paced, requiring children to read a situation, and quickly determine how to best respond.

Keeping It Real

For social goals to be a meaningful part of your child’s IEP, growth must be tracked and measured in real-time interactions, rather than in the structured settings where your child’s behavior is currently evaluated.

The actual goals won’t necessarily change (e.g., “John will improve his ability to interact with peers,” “John will improve his ability to manage conflicts,” etc.), but how his progress is measured will be different.

IEPs follow a prescribed format: Goals are stated, along with specific objectives that will demonstrate progress. The objectives must be measurable and meet the established criteria to be judged successfully achieved.

Following are sample goals and measurable objectives, with the objective to be measured in real-time by teacher observation and charting. Use these as a guide when crafting the goals and objectives specific to your child’s social skills development.

Goal One: John will improve interactions with peers during unstructured time

  1. Outside at recess, John will identify to a teacher individuals or groups of peers who would be appropriate playmates 4 out of 5 times.
  2. John will greet peers and initiate conversation that is reciprocal and that lasts for at least 5 minutes 4 out of 5 times.
  3. During recess, John will join a peer and play together for a minimum of 10 minutes 4 out of 5 times.
  4. During recess, John will join a group of 2 or more peers and play together for a minimum of 10 minutes 4 out of 5 times.
  5. John will follow the rules of games and accept winning or losing without verbal or behavioral outbursts or withdrawal 4 out of 5 times.
  6. During recess, John will invite at least one other peer to join him in play 4 out of 5 times.
  7. Entering the lunchroom, John will identify, to an adult, tables with desirable peers and available seats 4 out of 5 times.
  8. John will join a lunch table with peers and participate in the conversation appropriately for at least 5 minutes 4 out of 5 times.
  9. John will appropriately say goodbye prior to leaving the lunch table 4 out of 5 times.

Goal Two: John will improve his ability to handle conflict with peers in unstructured situations such as recess, the hallway or the lunchroom

  1. With an adult, John will identify at least 3 situations that are triggers to conflicts with peers.
  2. With an adult, John will identify and practice 3 strategies to use when a conflict arises.
  3. In a trigger situation for conflict, John will take action (leaving, using self-calming techniques) 3 out of 5 times.
  4. In a conflict situation, John will use a strategy, such as self-assertion, asking questions or compromise 3 out of 5 times.
  5. When interactive strategies are not helpful or possible, John will leave a conflict situation 3 out of 5 times.
  6. When necessary, John will ask an adult for help rather than engage in conflict 3 out of 5 times.
  7. In a discussion with an adult following a conflict with peers, John will be able to explain his point of view and that of the others 3 out of 5 times.
  8. In a discussion with an adult following a conflict with peers, John will be able to describe his own role in the conflict 3 out of 5 times.

Data Collection

Social/emotional development is a consideration when gauging a student’s readiness to transition throughout his school career. Therefore, collecting data to measure these goals must be a focus of the IEP team.

Because the data must be gathered in non-academic settings (hallways, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds, etc.), it raises issues as to who will gather it, in what settings, and how often—all of which the IEP team must determine. The responses will vary based on staff availability.

Using the Information
The most important aspect of the process is what’s done with the information gathered. All staff working with a student must be aware of his social goals, understand the procedures in place to help him grow socially, and be open to opportunities that support his behaviors (e.g. group projects, team sports, etc.)

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.

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