Teaching Social Skills
ShipsWheel To Kids Who Don't Have Them



Do any of these comments sound familiar?

"I tell him to stop doing that, but he keeps on doing it.  Darn. This kid must have been raised by wolves!"

"That kid knows how she is supposed to behave.  She CHOOSES to misbehave."

"If I ask him what he is supposed to be doing, he can tell me.  He knows better, so why isn't he doing it?"

   Yep. Some kids know (intellectually) what they should be doing in any particular set of circumstances, but they've never (physically) done it before.  They have not practiced the "correct" behavior for that setting or event. In fact, they've had a great amount of practice demonstrating the present "inappropriate" action. It is ingrained in their memory and behavioral repertoire. It is difficult for humans to all-of-the-sudden display a completely different behavior than we've been showing for years.  Could you engage in an immediate change in your behavior pattern? Changing a habit is no easy task.  To get an idea of what it's like, try this activity:

Do now activity (YES!...right now.)
    1. Cross your arms across you lower chest.  2. Uncross your arms, and then cross them again.

Chances are that you crossed them the same way each time. Notice how one arm goes over the other with it's hand tucked under its biceps (upper arm).  At the same time, the hand of the lower arm has it's hand resting on top of the biceps of the other limb.

  OK, now unfold your arms again, but this time switch their positions so that the one that was on the bottom is now on the top (and vice versa). Now unfold the arms and do it in your old way. Now unfold the arms and cross them in the new way. Repeatedly switch back and forth between the two positions.

All right.  It took you awhile, but you were able to do it.  Does this new position feel a bit uncomfortable and odd?  Yes. It's not your ingrained way of doing things. However, I now want you to show this new way of crossing your arms for the rest of your life.  Don't ever make a mistake or revert to the old way.

    Do you think that directive might be difficult to follow?   Yep.    Now imagine what we are asking our socially unskilled kids to do when we say "Just do it.".  We're expecting them to immediately change a behavior that is indelibly etched into their brains, feels "comfortable", and has been "assigned" to them by other adults who have labeled them as the type of person who "does that thing".  Kids who display the wrong behaviors as they interact with others will have a long and arduous path to travel as they work to change to "a better way of doing things".

  Thank goodness they have a patient and supportive teacher like you.  You'll support them as they undertake the struggle to show the new action.  You'll be sure to focus on progress rather than perfection, recognizing and drawing attention to evidence of the new way as it emerges rather than attending to vestiges of the old reaction pattern.

Why Don't Our Kids Have Social Skills?
Social skills are those communication, problem-solving, decision making, self-management, and peer relations abilities that allow one to initiate, build, and maintain positive social relationships with others.  Deficits or excesses in social behavior interfere with friendship, adult-child relationships, learning, teaching, and the classroom's orchestration and climate.  One's social competence is linked to peer acceptance, teacher acceptance, success of inclusion efforts with students with disabilities, and post school success.


Deficits in social skills can be viewed as mistakes in learning.  Arnold Golstein, a renowned expert in the teaching of social skills to students with behavior disorders and challenges believes that there are four primary reasons that explain why students are socially unskilled:

(1) They don't know another way to (re)act other than their present pattern of behavior.  Many of our youngsters never learned "appropriate behavior" for social settings (situations in which they must interact/cope with others).  Perhaps they did not receive this guidance in the home (either because of lack of training by elders or another system of values & behaviors being taught).  Perhaps they did have good role models in the home and neighborhood who promoted "good" behavior, but our youngsters didn't notice the actions and/or emulate them as well as other kids (just like some kids learn to read without formal instruction previous to school, while some learners need the structured process of reading instruction).

(2) They know (cognitively) other ways to behave, but haven't had enough practice to display them competently.  Many of my former students could tell me (after the fact) what they SHOULD have done in that situation.  Those failures to display the behaviors that were being promoted in my self-contained classroom of students with severe behavior disorders pointed to the need for more and varied practice in their use. That instruction became a part of each day.

(3) They tried another way, but it didn't work for them the first time(s) they tried it, so they assume that it would never work for them.  Given their failure experience, they return to the previous action pattern.  Remember that humans show behaviors for a reason. Any behavior you show has a benefit. If there wasn't a "payoff" for demonstrating the behavior in a situation, you would stop doing that action. We show behaviors for one of two general reasons: Doing so (1) brings something desireable to us (positive reinforcement), OR (2) keeps something undesireable away (negative reinforcement).

This explanation applied to me in a certain setting when I was a younger man.  One night, a female friend of mine joined me in a gathering spot for young singles (The "Philosophers Bar"...It's motto: "I think.  Therefore I drink.").  She saw me using various "pick up lines" to meet women.  She told me that if I really wanted to make a positive impression on a woman, that I should "compliment something she's wearing", "make introductions", and "just be yourself".  I tried this approach a few times and failed miserably.  I quickly returned to the quirkly comments that were so solidly embedded in my repetoire.  I learned an important lesson that night... Never be myself!  No, No... What I mean to say is that I needed to be persistent and modify my new actions in order to experience success with them. I needed more than a "just do it" instruction. I needed ongoing training with performance evaluations and revisions in goal setting in order to make the more socially appropriate replacement actions my new modus operandi.

(4) Tension and anxiety interefere with the ability to perform the practiced behavior well in real life.  I can also apply this explanation to a personal situation.  I'm an avid white water kayaker (one who paddles a small boat down raging river rapids and over small water falls while dodging rocks).  I paddle "class 3" rivers (of 5 and 1/2 levels of difficulty).  If I flip over, I'm able to execute an "Eskimo roll" to right my craft and keep paddling.  A paddling partner decided that it was time for me to paddle a "class 4" river.  I paddled furiously and anxiously down the rock strewn, furious malstrom of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, forgetting my usual relaxed paddling style.  I went over one 7 foot waterfall into the jaws of hell, was flipped, and found myself repeatedly banging on my helmeted head while I tried, poorly, to right myself to the surface.  The hard beating while being twisted and twirled in that hellacious water discombobulated me.  I was unable to accomplish my usual effortless Eskimo roll, and out-of-breath exited my boat underwater in panic to then take a long pinball machine swim down more turbulant rapids.  Bruised, battered, and coughing up much of the river from my lungs, I dragged my sorry, beaten carcass up onto shore.  My never-fail roll had failed due to panic.  Soon though, with specialized practice on lesser rivers and in certain spots on that class 4 river, my skills became useful there.  I now enjoy class 4 rivers, demonstrating the indicated actions even under pressure.


So...Ask: Is it a skill deficit (the student cannot tell you the correct response for a social situation and the actions are not in the student's behavioral repetoire) or a performance deficit (the correct action can be identified by the student when questioned, and has been practiced, but is displayed only during the role playing practice situations).  A skill deficit usually responds to direct instruction of the necessary skills (perhaps through task analysis and shaping).  A performance deficit usually requires a quarantee that demonstration of the new behavior will bring at least the same amount of benefits as the present (inappropriate) behavioral response. We need to arrange for the "payoff" to be greater than the rewards acquired by the present inappropriate action. A willingness to change one's behavior is also a necessary factor. To assess and promote this "readiness to change" in a youngster, look for Dr. Mac's package in the advertisement boxes on this site.


    Displaying poor social skills is likely to get one rejected by others (other kids don't like them and won't associate with them).  Others of our kids work hard to show the new and better behaviors they've been told to show but are still rejected by others (perhaps due to a long-time character reputation or maybe because others don't like the awkward and unsure demonstration of the newly learned behaviors which don't appear "natural").  At other times, our pupils may still fail because they have difficulty monitoring and controlling their behavior when unexpected reactions occur.  They misread social cues given off by others (examples: 1. Not noticing the rejection actions by others that non-verbally/verbally say "Get lost. Leave us."  2. Viewing the positive social forays of others as being threatening).  If rejected because of their behavior (past or present), they'll rarely (if ever) get the chance to display the "correct" behaviors under naturalistic circumstances and therefore will probably fail to incorporate them into their behavioral repertoire.

    Others of our kids will not respond positively to social skills instruction because they don't see the skills as being necessary/useful (Example: 1. Assisting the teacher, 2. Avoiding conflict with adults, 3. Disagreeing in an non-confrontational manner).  The behaviors they display now seem just fine to them.  They obtain the attention, objects or power they seek.

A Note to Teachers of Students with Emotional & Behavioral Disorders (EBD)
    Are you are a teacher of students with behavior disorders? If so, are you teaching social skills to your students?  Are you doing so in structured daily lessons?  If not, why not?  The defining characteristic of kids with EBD is their inability to build and sustain positive relationships.  Kids with EBD are 3 times more likely than general ed kids to be rejected because of their behavior.  It's time to use more than point systems to "manage" the behavior of these pupils.  We need more than "The curriculum of control".  We must teach the skills we wish to see displayed by our behaviorally challenged students.

Dr. Mac's book FOR kids with behavioral challenges!

  The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids

Use it as the activity-filledsocial skills program for your learners. Includes 100 free lesson plans that are aligned with the content of the book

Click here to order & for more information



What Exactly Is Social Skills Training?
    If our kids don't have 'em, we've got to teach 'em.  "Social skills training" is a general term for instruction conducted in (behavioral) areas that promotes more productive/positive interaction with others.  We teach social skills to students who are (at present) socially unskilled in order to promote acceptance by teachers (and other adults) and peers.  A social skills training program might include (among other things):

1. "Manners" & positive interaction with others
   -how to approach others in social acceptable ways  
    -how to ask for permission rather than acting impulsively
    -how to make & keep friends
    -how to sharing toys/materials


2. Appropriate classroom behavior
     - work habits/academic survival skills
        -attending to task
        -following directions
        -seeking attention properly
        -accepting the consequences of one's behavior


3. Better ways to handle frustration/anger
        -counting to 10 before reacting
        -distracting oneself to a pleasurable task
        -learning an internal dialog to cool oneself down and reflect upon the best course of action  
4. Acceptable ways to resolve conflict with others
        -using words instead of physical contact
        -seeking the assistance of the teacher or conflict resolution team


Examples of Social Skills for Pre-Schoolers

1. Skills that will help in later instruction (example: listening skills)

2. Skills that enhance success in school/daycare settings (example: asking a question)

3. How to make and keep friends (examples: asking for something, asking others to play)

4. Feelings:
    -awareness of own and other's feelings (Called "Theory of mind"...being able to predict how
                others might feel in a situation, understanding that others might not feel as you do)
    -coping with negative feelings

5. Positive, non-aggressive choices when faced with conflict

6. Dealing with stress:
   -what to do when you make mistakes
    -handling teasing and taunting

Social Skills Terms/Definitions:
Socially Skilled: The ability to respond to a given environment in a manner that produces, maintains, and enhances positive interpersonal (between people) effects.

Social competence: One's overall social functioning ... a composite or multitude of generalized social skills. Social competence can be improved by teaching social behaviors/social skills.


    Essentially, we teach new or replacement social skills like we teach academics; directly and actively.  The steps are the same: Assess the level of performance/skill, prepare the materials, introduce the material, model it, have them practice it, and provide feedback.  If you purchase a social skills curriculum (see the listing at the bottom of this page), it will probably include an assessment device, lessons, and activities.  Teaching is a matter of following the directions in the kit.  If you're on your own in developing a curriculum and devising lessons, here's how to develop a curriculum that is designed for your students:

Select the students who need training in certain skills via an assessment device. Many assessment instruments can be found free-of-charge on the internet.

Identify powerful reinforcers that will motivate the students to attend to lessons and attempt new behaviors. (Examples: group and/or individual points, raffle tickets, progressively moving a paper dog along the wall toward a food bowl which earns a reward upon reaching the dish)

Identify and specifically define the target behaviors to be taught.  Decide which behaviors are needed.  Define them precisely so that everyone agrees on what is to be accomplished (...what the student will be able to do/show after instruction).

Task analyze the target behavior(s) (If this listing of sequenced actions is not done for you by a packaged program.  If you are unfamiliar with the procedure, go to task analysis on this site.)

Teaching social skills
-Create groups of 3-5 youngsters with similar skill deficits.  Small groups give students a chance to observe others, practice with peers, and receive feedback.

-Remove obstacles to learning (Examples: close class door, remove corrections officers)

-Meet early in the day so that kids are attentive and have the whole day to practice what they learn in your lesson.

-Introduce the program, its content, and why and how it will benefit them (Examples: It will help them to return to general education classes; help them obtain and keep a job; result in less trouble with teachers/parents; impress their boyfriend's/girlfriend's parents when they meet them; be able to convince the police to release them if stopped).

-Set up the rules and regulations (Identify the behaviors you'll prompt, recognize, and reward during lessons: One person speaks at a time, pay attention, be positive in comments ...all of which may need to be taught in the initial lessons.)

-Teach the easy-to-learn skills first to ensure student (and teacher) success and reinforcement.  Use the traditional teaching model of:
    - Tell them

    - Show them

    - Provide "Guided practice", meaning:

        With the steps provided on a handout, have them
            -discuss when the behavior could be used
            -role play it (at least two different scenarios with right & wrong behaviors being demonstrated). 

     - Provide feedback (with lots of encouragement and specific praise)
            -from oneself
            -from peers
            -from the teacher 

- Practice, practice, PRACTICE via homework assignments, review sessions, assignment in real-life settings, and surprise "tests" (Example: Your student has been learning to handle interactions with authority figures...Send the student on an errand and have an unknown teacher confront him/her, accusing the pupil of "forging" a hall pass.  If the student performs poorly...runs, is rude, etc...the teacher says "This is a test.  How did you do?") 


 *Given that the behavior of group leaders is emulated by their followers, teach to the high status kids in your group first.  Have them demonstrate the new behaviors and be seen being rewarded.  Have your lower status kids demonstrate the behaviors after the leaders do so.  Make sure the lessons are interesting and fun so that kids look forward to the lessons. For example, start the teaching of "following directions" by having them cook/make candy, play "Simon says (Kids who make mistakes go to the back of the group and try to work their way forward. Don't have them sit out: They're the ones who need the practice!), or do magic tricks.  Then move to more school-based examples.


-Promote generalization to different settings/circumstances by: 
   -practicing in different settings and under various conditions
    -prompting and coaching the student in naturally occurring situations throughout the day 
    -having the student submit self-report forms for each class period
    -meeting with the students to discuss their performance in and out of school.


-Monitor the behavior outside of the lessons.  Keep track of the display of the behavior for IEP documentation, motivation of the student, etc.  Have the student self-monitor/self-assess in order to build internal motivation/control.


-Adjust and enhance the skills as necessary.


-Recognize and reward its display in everyday school situations.  When you see a good situation for a student to display a "new" behavior, prompt it's use with cues and hints (as subtle as possible, but as strong as necessary).

Pedro is going to be congratulated by the principal for being "Most improved student" with regard to behavior.  As the principal approaches, the teacher whispers into Pedro's ear "Remember to wipe the booger off your finger before shaking hands with Mr. Yoon."

Wording for more socially advance student
"What do we do with boogers before we shake hands?"
(The student must decide on correct course of action)


Social skills training, helps individuals make better choices in situations. 




We want to strive for the lofty goal of all of our students interacting positively with others ...especially us!  In order to promote more socially skilled and appropriate actions among our pupils, we must move beyond simply telling them to stop what they are doing wrong.  While we might tell them which behaviors to avoid, we then need to teach them what they should be doing in those situations.


Sometimes, the process involves pre-teaching, in which we work to prepare a pupil for the change process through a discussion of the drawbacks of displaying the present inappropriate behavior (e.g., rejection by peers, penalties from school administration), and the benefits of adopting a particular replacement for it.


Do remember: Humans show specific behaviors because there is a benefit to doing so.  In order to fully convince the student to change his or her ways, the benefits of the new actions must outweigh those of continuing the old patterns of behavior.  The new ways must also be viewed by schoolmates as being acceptable.  Often, packaged social skills programs promote social actions that, while esteemed by adults, would never be shown by any self-respecting, socially accepted kids in the mainstream.  In that case, becoming skilled in the new behavior does little to promote acceptance and positive interactions. 


Sometimes, we don't want new behavior skills to "generalize" (be applied in settings outside of school). If my former students had used their "school skills" after school on the streetcorner or ball field, they would have been ostrasized or victimized. Outside of the school building they had to "act street".


As with the teaching of academics, begin with the prerequisite skills and then move on to the more advanced ones.  Your curriculum will be comprised of the skills that are most important to classroom decorum and your students’ social needs.


While the teaching of social skills consumes time during the school day, over the weeks and months we gain back lost academic instructional time as our students display more acceptable behavior.  Our school life becomes more productive and personally/professionally rewarding.  The same applies to the school-based and outside lives of our students.





1. Look at this list of commonly needed social skills.  Think of students you know who would most benefit from instruction in each one. (You could use this list as your assessment device and assign students to groups by skills)
-Saying "please" and "thank you"
-Dealing better with anger and frustration
-Asking questions in an appropriate manner of body language, wording, and voice tone.
-Accepting the consequences administered by the teacher
-Accepting responsibility for one's own (mis)behavior
-Dealing with losing/frustration/making mistakes/insults and so forth in an appropriate manner (devoid of yelling or physical aggression)
-Initiating a conversation with others 
-Accepting "No" for an answer
-Joining a group activity already in progress
-Following directions
-Making friends
-Complimenting others
-Understanding the feelings of others (and accepting them as valid/OK)
-Compromising on issues
-Cooperating with peers
-Coping with taunts and verbal/physical threats/aggression from others
-Seeking attention in an appropriate manner
-Waiting one's turn

2. Behaviorally/specifically define the following behaviors that you might decide to teach (see the home page link on "behavioral recording" if you are unclear on this procedure)
-Asking permission
-Avoiding fighting with others
-Interrupting others appropriately
-Showing sports(wo)manship
Click here to read possible definitions (but try to define the behaviors first... No cheating!)

3. Task analyze the following behaviors (Delineate, in order...if there is an order...the sub-behaviors that must be displayed in order to accurately display the desired behavior that you have identified and defined.)
(See the home page link on "task analysis" if you are unclear on how to conduct this procedure)
-Following Directions
-Respecting the opinions of others
-Accepting praise from others
-Apologizing for wrong doing
-Greeting others
            -same gender
            -different gender
Click here to read possible task analyses of each behavior (C'mon...try it first)

4.  A student displays social skills that appropriate in his/her cultural group, but are not desirable in the mainstream North American culture (e.g., lowering one's eyes when spoken to by an adult, physically fighting when mother's honor is insulted by another).  Is it appropriate to teach the "right ways" (as viewed by school personnel)?  When, how and why would you do so?

5. Obtain a social skills curriculum.  Evaluate it using the following form:


McIntyre Evaluation Form for Social Skills Curricula

Name of Curriculum:

Date & Publisher:

Designed for which ages/grades?

Designed for special education or general education kids?

If designed for general education students, could it be adapted for special education students?

    If so, what would need to be done to adapt the materials?

Does it have an assessment component to determine which skills need to be taught?

Does it have prepared lessons for each skill?
    -For how many skills (total)?
    -Are the skills task analyzed?
    -Is the instructional format same for all skills?

Are all necessary materials included?

Are sufficient practice activities provided?

Does the curriculum contain suggestions for ways to motivate the students?

Are there suggestions for adapting to individual student needs and strengths?

Are provisions made for the maintenance and generalization of behaviors?

Does it includes forms for:
    -Identification of students who would benefit from program
    -Review of lessons
    -Assessment of mastery of skills

Is the material appropriate for ages of the students who were identified?

Is the material appropriate for the stated objectives?

List the positive and negative points of this curriculum:

Give your overall evaluation of it's usefulness:

Samples Of Social Skill Instructional Units




Videos & DVDs for Teaching Social Skills at Home & School

This site offers videos/DVDs of students displaying the appropriate behavior for various events.  Videos are available for different age groups, and while designed for students with PDD/Aspergers Syndrome/Autism, they would also serve well for others in the elementary grades.  The scenarios would work well as part of a structured social skills training program, or perhaps for periodic "free time" viewing followed by discussion and role play.  The following words were written by me after a review of the videos:

"I finally found the time to watch the Model Me Kids DVDs and I'm glad that I did so. Model Me Kids videos provide a valuable resource for teaching children appropriate behaviors that will serve them well in school and other group situations. I can imagine teachers making use of these video vignettes as part of their planned social skills instruction, or in a spontaneous manner during a "teachable moment". Thanks for sharing them with me. I look forward to seeing the new one presently in development."
- Tom McIntyre ("Dr. Mac"), Professor and Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Behavior Disorders, Department of Special Education, Hunter College, NY & www.BehaviorAdvisor.com

Social Skills Curricula/Kits

Dr. Mac's book for kids with behavior challenges.  It's the ONLY book written FOR kids.  Parents can read it along with their children.  Many teachers use it as their social skills curriculum (see the reviews by parents, teachers, kids, teachers, and professional organizations on the home page of this site).  Appropriate for kids 8 to 18.  Written on a fourth grade reading level (Just like this web site!  HA!)

The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids Click here for more information

Just read the reviews!

“Sensitive and thorough.”—School Library Journal

“Encouraging.... Parents of children with behavior challenges would benefit from reading this book.”—Children’s Literature

“Excellent material.”—Voice of Youth Advocates

“Chock-full of information.”—School Library Journal’s Curriculum Connections

“A great book—very practical and helpful. Positive, encouraging, and supportive.”—Eleanor Guetzloe, Professor Emerita, Department of Special Education, University of South Florida

“Kids who use this book will not only make their own lives better, but also ease the lives of family adults, classmates, and teachers.”—Steven R. Forness, Ed.D., Professor, School Principal, and Chief Educational Psychologist, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Los Angeles, CA




Skillstreaming: Perhaps the most popular program for teaching social skills.

(for adolescents)





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Author: Tom McIntyre at www.BehaviorAdvisor.com