Social skills are critical for long term success. Sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence, it is a combination of the ability to understand and manage one's own emotional state (Intra-personal Intelligence in Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences) and the ability to understand and respond to other people. Although social skills include understanding and using social conventions, it also includes the ability to understand the "Hidden Curriculum," the ways in which peers communicate and interact, reciprocity and the ability to build interpersonal relationships.
Difficulty with social skills, and deficits in social skills, are found to different degrees across abilities as well as disabilities. Both children with disabilities and children from low socio-economic groups may not have extensive understanding of social conventions, and may need instruction in conventions such as:
- Appropriate greetings depending on relationships: i.e. peer to peer or child to adult.
- Appropriate and polite ways to make requests (please) and express gratitude (thanks.)
- Addressing adults.
- Shaking hands.
- Taking turns.
- Giving positive feedback (praise) to peers, no put downs.
Intra-personal Social Skills, or Managing One's Self
Difficulty managing one's own emotional state, especially tantrumming or aggression in response to frustration, is common in children with disabilities. Children for whom this is the primary disabling condition are often diagnosed with an emotional or behavioral disorders which may be designated as "emotional support," "severely emotionally challenged," or "conduct disorders." Many children with disabilities may be less mature than their typical peers, and may reflect less understanding of how to manage their own emotions.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders commonly have difficulty with emotional self-regulation and understanding emotion. Difficulty with social situations is a component of the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders, which reflects deficits in understanding and expression their own emotional states.
Emotional Literacy needs to be explicitly taught to students, especially students with emotional and behavioral disorders and children with autism spectrum disorders. This requires teaching the ability to identify emotions by looking at faces, the ability to identify cause and effect for emotions and scenarios, and learning appropriate ways to deal with personal emotional states.
Behavioral contracts are often useful tools for students with poor self-regulation skills, both to teach and self-monitor difficulty with self-regulation as well as teach and reward appropriate or "replacement" behavior.
Inter-Personal Social Skills
The ability to understand others' emotional states, wants and needs is critical not only for success in school, but also success in life. It is also a "quality of life" issue, which will help students with and without disabilities, to build relationships, find happiness and succeed economically. It can also contribute to a positive classroom environment.
Appropriate interactions: Children with disabilities, especially Autism Spectrum Disorders, often need to be taught appropriate social interactions, such as making requests, initiating interactions, sharing, exercising reciprocity (give and take) and turn taking. Teaching appropriate interactions can involve modeling, role playing, scripting and social narratives. Successfully learning and generalizing of appropriate interactions requires lots of practice.
Understanding and building relationships: Children with disabilities often do not have the skills to initiate and sustain mutual relationships. In the cases with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, they need to be explicitly taught the components of friendship or relationships.
Building and Generalizing Skills
Students with disabilities have problems both with acquiring and applying social skills. They need lots of practice. Successful ways to learn and generalize social skills include:
- Modeling: the teacher and an aide or another teacher enact the social interactions you want students to learn.
- Video Self Modeling: You videotape the student performing the social skill with lots of prompting, and edit out the prompting to create a more seamless digital recording. This video, paired with rehearsal, will support the student's effort to generalize the social skill.
- Cartoon Strip Social Interactions: Introduced by Carol Gray as Comic Strip Conversations, these cartoons let you students fill in the thought and speech bubbles before they role play a conversation. Research has shown that these are effective ways to help students build social interaction skills.
- Role playing: Practice is essential for maintaining social skills. Role playing is a great way to give students an opportunity not only to practice the skills they are learning, but also teach students to evaluate each others or their own performance of skills.