Effective Social Skills Programming: The May Institute, Inc. (Early Childhood)

The Exceptional Parent, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Effective Social Skills Programming: The May Institute, Inc. (Early Childhood)


This article has been developed for parents of children with difficulties in social interactions. In particular, parents of children with special needs--mental retardation, pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) and other disorders where social behavior is of concern--may benefit from the information presented here on promotion of social skills in young people.

Good social skills are important tools for day-to-day living; they help children navigate social interactions effectively and smoothly. The most basic and essential skill is the ability to communicate with others. Social skills are the specific behavioral strategies that allow one to initiate and maintain positive social interactions with others, develop friendships and social support networks, and cope effectively with the social environment. Children have many important social relationships to negotiate:

With parents and direct support professionals (DSPs): they must be able to follow directions, sit quietly when needed, assist with household chores and self-care as possible, and communicate needs in an appropriate way.

With teachers: they must be able to respond to teachers' behavioral expectations.

With peers: they must meet the behavioral requirements of peers in free play settings.

Importance of promoting social skills and prosocial development

Studies have demonstrated that a child's social competence is a critical developmental achievement for later social success. Social competence has been strongly associated with successful school performance, transition into school and work settings, better job opportunities and corresponding adult support, and improved overall interactions with others. Without intervention, children who demonstrate poor social skills may continue to experience problems into middle childhood and beyond.

Children with good social skills are better accepted by their peers, have better coping and attention skills and make better adjustments to school and social situations. Children with poor social skills have a greater risk of developing patterns of aggressive behavior and experience higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems. Developmental delays, however, affect the ways children demonstrate and develop social skills.

People with mental retardation show impairment in at least two adaptive skill areas such as communication, self-care, home living, social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, leisure, and work.

There are several ways in which people with PDD may be weak in social skills.

Qualitative impairment in social interactions: People with PDD may have impairment in the use of such non-verbal behaviors as eye gaze, posture, facial expression or gestures; or they may fail to develop peer relationships appropriate to their developmental level. They may not understand social and/or emotional reciprocity and generally do not spontaneously seek to share their interests and achievements.

Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped behaviors, interests, and activities: There may be preoccupation--abnormal in intensity or focus--with one or more restricted, stereotyped interests. People with PDD may demonstrate inflexible adherence to specific, non-functional routines or rituals, stereotyped or repetitive motor mannerisms, or persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.

Qualitative impairment in communication: This may be a delay in or total lack of the development of spoken language. If speech is adequate, there may be an impaired ability to initiate or sustain conversation. Stereotyped and repetitive use of language and idiosyncratic language are common, as is lack of varied, spontaneous pretend play or social imitative play.

Social Skill Deficits

With an acquisition deficit, the child does not know how to perform particular skills. For example, Jack stands by the wall while watching a circle of his friends; he wants to join in but doesn't know how to start the process. …

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