Put Social Skills in the IEP

By Ann McCarthy

At a Glance

When problems with social skills impact your child’s success in school, addressing them should become part of the IEP • Write objectives to improve social skills as you would for academic skills • Once objectives exist in the IEP, your child’s team must provide explicit instruction to achieve them

2.9.9-Put-Social-SkillsParents of children with learning disabilities and ADHD often express concern about their child’s social skills. Yet their child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) focuses solely on academic performance.

They are right to be concerned. Challenges with social skills can and do impact learning (following directions, class participation, group work, etc.), as well as life outside the classroom including personal relationships and workplace interactions.

Even if you find the the IEP process intimidating, you need not hold back when it comes to addressing social-skill deficits with your childs team.

You know that social skills are vital for success in life. Teachers know this too. That is the common ground on which to begin the discussion.

The IDEA is a good place to start the conversation because it provides the justification for including social skills in the IEP. This federal law makes clear that the purpose of special education is to prepare students with disabilities for “further education, employment, and independent living,” all of which require social competency.

Including Social Skills in the IEP

Learning disabilities often include social skill deficits. And ADHD is essentially an executive function disorder. And executive function deficits can have a negative impact on social development. Writing IEP objectives to address executive functions and social skills can be tricky.

To create measurable IEP objectives, Dr. Timothy Heitzman, Pediatric Neuropsychologist at the Southfield Center for Development, suggests shining a light on the results from a behavioral rating scale such as The Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF), a tool often used to assess executive function and social skill deficits in children.

BRIEF consists of two questionnaires—one to be filled out by the teacher and the other by the parent—each consisting of items that target behaviors within the relevant setting (school or home). The raw scores are then tabulated to provide aggregate information in eight areas related to executive functions.

For areas where the scores are elevated, Dr. Heitzman advises the IEP team to look at the raw data. For example, if a child’s Inhibition score was elevated (reflecting difficulty with controlling impulses and stopping behavior), then the team should drill down to the raw data where they will find, in this case, that the child interrupts others. That’s a specific behavior that can be turned into an IEP objective:

With no more than two visual reminders from teacher during a 45-minute period, Tommy will raise his hand and wait to be called on during classroom discussions 90% of the time.

Social Skills Instruction

Once objectives have been written, the next challenge is teaching the behavior through direct instruction.

Using the example of planning for social interactions, Chris Abildgaard, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven in Wallingford, CT explains how to teach the skill. Abildgaard recommends coaching the student before entering a social setting and developing a Plan A and Plan B.

He offers this sample ‘social planning checklist’ that may be used as both an instructional tool and a way to help children develop a sense of reflection and self-monitoring:

____ Do I feel good about how to ask Johnny if he wants to play with me? If not, who can I ask for help?

____ I know what I am going to say and have Plan A. It is________________________________.

____ If Johnny says ‘no’ or another roadblock appears, I am ready with a Plan B. That is________________________

____ After I followed either Plan A or Plan B, I thought about how I did. Sometimes I may need to talk with an adult to help me with this part.

Many IEP teams are just beginning to address social skills and executive function deficits with students, as much of the thinking in this arena is still quite new.

If you believe that your child has social skill deficits that should be addressed, here are three excellent resources to jump-start your next IEP team discussion:
  • Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
  • Think Social!: A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students by Michelle Garcia Winner (www.socialthinking.com)
  • Daily Behavior Report Cards: An Evidence-Based System of Assessment and Intervention by Robert J. Volpe and Gregory A. Fabiano.

The information in this article was first presented at a program sponsored by Smart Kids with LD. Ann McCarthy has experience as a special education advocate and is the former Managing Director of The Southfield Center for Development.