Learning Social Skills

By Carledge, Gwendolyn; Kiarie, Mary W. | Teaching Exceptional Children, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Learning Social Skills


Carledge, Gwendolyn, Kiarie, Mary W., Teaching Exceptional Children


Through Literature for Children and Adolescents

Misperception of situations

Inappropriate behavior

Social incompetence

Failure cycles

Poor school outcomes

Poor adult outcomes

This litany, this vicious circle, is far too familiar to educators of many children with disabilities, who experience difficulty in interpreting social events and in behaving appropriately. Social incompetence can lead to failure cycles and eventual poor school and adult outcomes.

Despite these obvious needs, we find little evidence that social skills are systematically being taught in the schools. Classroom time is increasingly crowded by academic demands-particularly reading literacy-to the exclusion of needed social skills instruction. Teachers find both their time and expertise for teaching social skills greatly limited by these increasing academic demands. One way to address both areas-social skills and literacy-is to incorporate social skill instruction into the academic curriculum (Bauer & Balius, 1995; see box on page 42, "What Does the Literature Say?").

This article presents children's and adolescents' literature as a means of fostering critical social learning, which simultaneously can augment reading literacy skills.

Selecting Books for Social Skill Instruction

Children's literature is an extremely important aspect of the childhood experience. Children should be encouraged and permitted to enjoy books for a variety of reasons, including adventure, the love of words and reading, the beauty of the books, excitement, humor, increased knowledge, personal interest, and so forth. What we are suggested here is that teachers and other professionals may capitalize on the inherent attractiveness and messages of literature as a means of helping young people develop maximally.

Of course, lessons on social learning should not dominate children's literature exposure. Many books provide valuable lessons about social behaviors, but some books are easier to use for this purpose than are others. The following set of guidelines may be useful (see also Figure 1).

Make sure there is a good match between the skill being taught and the lessons) presented in the story. You need to be clear about the skill that you are targeting for instruction. Many books provide good lessons about social skills, but may not address the specific one focused on in a particular lesson.

Once you are clear about what behaviors you want students to develop, finding appropriate books/stories is simplified considerably. For example, if you desire to increase positive statements to others and to point out the relative effects of positive and negative statements, The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zolotow (1963) is an excellent book for this skill for primary-aged children. This is a wonderful, simply told story depicting the reverberating effects of saying kind and unkind things to others. On the other hand, The Rainbow Fish (Pfister, 1992) also deals with positive interactions in terms of how the fish learns to be unselfish, but probably would be more appropriate in teaching a skill on sharing.

Consider how the story is presented, in terms of violence and physical action. A perusal of children's literature, especially folk or fairy tales, makes one aware that violence or aggressive acts are a frequent occurrence in these stories. We do not recommend censoring these stories or removing them from children's libraries, but we suggest that stories dominated by violence not be used for explicit social skills instruction. This is especially the case for stories where the principal character achieves his or her goals primarily through the physical demise of some opponent. In cases where counteraggression is unavoidable, such as in self-defense, we need to discuss this with children and emphasize, in all of our instruction, alternatives to aggression.

A particularly attractive story for this purpose is Swimmy by Leo Lionni (1958), where Swimmy, the little fish, uses social problem-solving as a means to outsmart potential "bullies," avoids aggression, and achieves his own goals. …

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