Social Skills Programs: Can They Be Effective?
Research has indicated that social competency (i.e., the skills and behaviours needed to be socially successful) is a primary determinant of future success and happiness. Weaknesses in this area may lead to rejection and isolation, loneliness, poor self-concept, and mental health concerns. These issues, in turn, can lead to substance abuse concerns, vocational problems, aggressive behaviour, and delinquency.
Yet, there is hope. Social skills are not inherently acquired – they must be learned. Although most of us are able to pick such skills up implicitly, these children need to be taught explicitly what to do and when to do it! Therefore, we can work with these children to modify their social skills and give them the skills and information they require to become socially competent adults. Children with better social skills tend to be better accepted by their peers, have better coping skills, and have better school and social adjustment.
One of the ways to modify children’s social skills deficits is to have them participate in social skills programming. Social skills programming is a psychological and educational intervention used to strengthen social interactions and improve self-control. Although such training has been widely used, its effectiveness has been frequently questioned. One of the main criticisms is that the skills learned during the program are often not maintained or generalized. There are likely a number of reasons for this. For one, other factors that might impact a child’s/adolescent’s development of social skills cannot always be properly attended to in the training sessions (e.g., family problems, significant oppositional behaviour and conduct problems, limited cognitive abilities). Secondly, if the child/adolescent is forced to come to the program, or is under duress during the program, their participation, and in turn what they are able to take away from the lessons, is often hindered. Lastly, programs differ in their treatment content and intensity and target populations; thus it is difficult to compare programs to determine their effectiveness.
Thankfully, the research literature has been able to determine what features of such programs tend to be more effective. It identifies not only what the child needs to do to get the most out of a social skills program but also what those around the child can do. Research has found that the active inclusion of parents and significant others (e.g., teachers) during a social skills intervention is valuable to the child’s learning of the skills being taught. This is because they can provide additional cueing and reinforcement which helps lead to generalized behaviour change. Next, are a few recommendations on what each of these individuals can do to increase the chances of success.
WHAT THE CHILDREN CAN DO:
Research indicates that in order for learning and subsequent generalization of skills to occur, the child must:
- attend sessions regularly
- participate in the sessions
- complete out-of-session (i.e., homework) assignments.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO:
- Ensure that the program in which you are enrolling your child provides direct skill instruction. Such instruction involves: modeling and coaching, role-playing, performance feedback and reinforcement, and enhances generalization by conducting the instruction in naturalistic settings as much as possible. In addition to the teaching of specific prosocial skills, the programming should focus on teaching the children to change their thought processes through the teaching of cognitive problem-solving skills. Further, teaching how to recognize and reduce stress and anger is also critical.
- Prepare your child for the program. As learning disabilities expert Richard Lavoie describes, for there to be success in any social situation, you want to prepare the child for a situation and prepare the situation for the child. Discuss with your child why they will be attending the program and what it will involve. Also, if your child has specific needs that should be addressed (e.g., severe anxiety), be sure to discuss this with the professionals ahead of time.
- Be involved during the program. Learn the skills with your child. Ask questions of the professionals to ensure understanding of your child’s treatment (e.g., why the skills are being taught).
- If your child takes medication to treat their attentional/behavioural difficulties during the school week, ensure that there is compliance to the medication for the program. Research into the effectiveness of social skills programming has suggested that one of the most powerful mediators of the treatment outcome may be the use of medication which assists in the reduction of negative social behaviours.
- The social skills intervention cannot be successful in isolation. Practice the skills your child is learning – this can be done through the completion of the social skills homework. Role-play through new situations to continue to build the child’s social knowledge base. Then, accompany your child to new settings (e.g., grocery store) and coach him/her through the new social situation.
WHAT TEACHERS CAN DO:
- Research has shown that natural reinforcers such as praise, attention, and positive feedback are the most effective way to encourage new behaviours in different settings. When you see the child using appropriate social skills, praise them!!! Catch them being good!
- Modeling reinforces the concept of social skills. Therefore, be a good role model of prosocial behaviours for your students.
- Implement the teaching of social skills into your As the concept of universal design has taught us, what will assist one child will assist all of those around him/her.
In sum, social skills programming will not be a “magic fix” to the child’s social skills difficulties. Given that these children have struggled with social skills for most of their lives, researchers suggest that it would be overly optimistic to think that the students would learn all of the nuances that we use in our social world in a short, eight to ten week period. Nonetheless, such programming allows the child to begin to build the foundational skills required to develop social competency and to practice them in a safe environment. Moreover, research supports increases in self-concept for these children after such programming. There are also increases in self-confidence and peer acceptance. Therefore, whether such programs show a great effect on social skills development may be essentially secondary to these additional benefits. Regardless, it is clear that the success of such programming requires the teamwork and cooperation of everyone around the child, including teachers, parents, and the child himself.