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Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety

Good social skills are critical to successful functioning in life. These skills enable us to know what to say, how to make good choices, and how to behave in diverse situations. The extent to which children and adolescents possess good social skills can influence their academic performance, behavior, social and family relationships, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Social skills are also linked to the quality of the school environment and school safety.

While most children pick up positive skills through their everyday interactions with adults and peers, it is important that educators and parents reinforce this casual learning with direct and indirect instruction. We must also recognize when and where children pick up behaviors that might be detrimental to their development or safety. In the past, schools have relied exclusively on families to teach children important interpersonal and conflict resolution skills. However, increased negative societal influences and demands on family life make it imperative that schools partner with parents to facilitate this social learning process. This is particularly true today given the critical role that social skills play in maintaining a positive school environment and reducing school violence.

Consequences of Good Social Skills

With a full repertoire of social skills, students will have the ability to make social choices that will strengthen their interpersonal relationships and facilitate success in school. Some consequences of good social skills include:

Consequences of Poor Social Skills

Students with poor social skills have been shown to:

Impact on School Safety

Given the demonstrated relationship between social skills and school safety, schools are increasingly seeking ways to help students develop positive social skills, both in school and in the community. Social skills related to school safety include:

In isolation, social skills are not sufficient to ensure school safety; interventions should not be limited to student instruction and training. Change in the school culture should be facilitated by infusing social skills training into a comprehensive system of school safety and discipline policies, emphasizing relationship-building between students and faculty (teachers and administrators) and between schools and families, and providing effective behavior management and academic instruction.

Defining Types of Social Skills

While there are hundreds of important social skills for students to learn, we can organize them into skill areas to make it easier to identify and determine appropriate interventions. For example, the "Stop and Think" program organizes skills into four areas:

1. Survival skills (e.g., listening, following directions, ignoring distractions, using nice or brave talk, rewarding yourself)

2. Interpersonal skills (e.g., sharing, asking for permission, joining an activity, waiting your turn)

3. Problem-solving skills (e.g., asking for help, apologizing, accepting consequences, deciding what to do)

4. Conflict resolution skills (e.g., dealing with teasing, losing, accusations, being left out, peer pressure)

Identifying Social Skills Deficits

Prior to determining the best means to help a student develop better social skills, it is important to understand specifically what a student can and can't do. It is crucial to assess and classify the nature of a child's social skill deficits in order to devise and implement the most appropriate intervention.

Children may experience difficulty performing a skill:

Social Skills Interventions

Effective social skills programs are comprised of two essential elements: a teaching process that uses a behavioral/social learning approach and a universal language or set of steps that facilitates the learning of new behavior. Interventions can be implemented at a school-wide, specific setting, classroom, or individual level, but at all levels the emphasis is on teaching the desired skill, not punishing negative behaviors.

Facilitate learning through normal activities. Teachers and parents must take advantage of incidental learning, in which naturally occurring behaviors or events are used to teach and reinforce appropriate social behavior. Adults can reinforce demonstrated positive social skills by praising children when they behave correctly, or offer alternatives to poor decisions to teach the more appropriate behavior. It may be necessary when working with children who have particular difficulty to intentionally "catch" them doing the right thing or devise situations in which they can make a good choice.

Address environmental factors. The school or home environment can affect a child's ability to learn and perform good social skills. If a child is experiencing difficulty demonstrating a particular skill, it is best to first evaluate the environment to determine what might interfere with the child's appropriate acquisition of that skill. For instance, a student may be unruly at the beginning of the day because the teacher needs to establish more specific routines for coming into class, hanging up coats, checking in, etc. Addressing environmental obstacles like this also will benefit all children in that environment.

Address individual factors. Some children need more intensive, personalized training because of individual factors, such as a disability. These interventions might be aimed at children experiencing a specific difficulty or those who have previously been identified as at risk for behavior problems. For example, studies have shown that children with mild disabilities tend to exhibit deficient social skills and excess problem behaviors more than students without such disabilities. Interventions aimed at at-risk students are based on individual assessment of the particular child's skills and deficits. Selected interventions aim to prevent existing behavior problems from developing into more serious ones.

Social skills training should:

When planning social skills training programs, schools should:

Examples of evidence-based social skills programs

Often school administrators or mental health professionals opt to introduce one of the many empirically supported, commercially published programs into their schools. Effective existing social skills training programs include:

For further resources go to

2002, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402,Bethesda, MD, 20814, (301) 657-0270, fax (301) 657-0275, TTY (301) 657-4155.