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Supporting Social Skill Development in Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

By Kimberly C. Crawford and Howard Goldstein

Laughing with the other children at the lunch table. Collaborating on a classroom project. Discussing plans for the Friday night slumber party. As teachers, administrators, and service providers, we observe these interactions among students on a frequent basis. They are commonplace for most children. Take a moment to ponder how our social interactions in school led up to our ability to exhibit social competence as adults. This competence contributes to our quality of life; our lives are built on positive interactions and relationships with the people around us. What about students who have not developed the skills necessary for successful social interactions? We may notice some students who sit alone at the lunch table, who are forced by peers to work alone, or who never receive an invitation to the slumber party. What impact will this have on their school experience and overall quality of life?

In this article, we describe the importance of supporting the success of students with emotional/behavioral disorders in school and life through interventions focusing on development of social skills. With appropriate assessment and intervention in this significant area of development, students can learn how to participate in positive interactions and build friendships. Thus, we must make a conscious and defined effort to provide these services to students with emotional/behavioral disorders.

The Development of Social Skills

As infants and toddlers, children learn social communication primarily through interactions with caregivers. Their social interactions typically start with recognizing and orienting to a caregiver’s voice. Although many children have opportunities to socialize with peers at home or in childcare settings, friendships have yet to be formed (Goldstein & Morgan, 2002). However, by age three, they are often using their expansive vocabulary to have adult-like conversations. This is when friendships begin to be cultivated. Relationships between peers begin to develop during the preschool years as natural opportunities for socialization and communication are readily available in the preschool classroom and other settings (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Development of positive social relationships is a typical goal for programs that serve young children. By the time children enter kindergarten, there are certain widely-held expectations for their behavior and social competence. By the end of the preschool period, there are great demands on children in terms of their ability to communicate verbally, inhibit negative behaviors, and take the perspective of others (Goldstein and Morgan, 2002). However, development of social communication skills is not automatic for some children, particularly those with emotional/behavioral disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (McConnell, 2002).

Children with emotional/behavioral disorders, including children with ASD, interact in some fashion with their peers. However, children with ASD spend less time interacting, have low-quality interactions when they join peers, and spend more time engaged in purposeless or no activity and at greater physical distances from peers (Lord & Magill-Evans, 1995). Sigman and Ruskin (1999) found that children with ASD spend a larger proportion of time engaged in nonsocial play and a smaller proportion of time in direct social play with others. The social interactions of children with other emotional/behavioral disorders also may exhibit these characteristics, along with aggression or other socially unacceptable behaviors. Without explicit intervention in social-communicative development, these children are likely to continue demonstrating social skills deficits throughout their lifetime (Goldstein, Kaczmarek, & English, 2002; McConnell, 2002). There is a need to utilize current and develop new interventions to increase the social competence of children with emotional/behavioral disorders.

Social Competence Evaluation and Intervention

There is a vast list of skills that falls under the area of social competence. This list includes communicative behaviors such as making requests, gaining the attention of another, and commenting. It also involves other interactional behaviors such as sharing, taking turns, and playing cooperatively. Thus, a key factor in creating an intervention program tailored to the needs of a particular student is assessment of social competence. Kaczmarek (2002) describes an interdisciplinary model of assessment and discusses a conceptual framework within which multiple measures can be used to assess a child’s social appropriateness, communicative appropriateness, and social-communicative effectiveness. This model involves direct observation in the child’s natural environment and in analogue and role-play situations, during which social skills and task-coding taxonomies can be used to record observed behaviors. Another component of this model is gathering information about the child from family members, teachers, and peers; through this method, a comprehensive picture of a child’s overall level of social competence can be acquired. Other methods of evaluation and assessment involve the use of rating scales, such as the Social Skills Rating System (Gresham & Elliot, 1990). Sociometric measures that assess peers’ feelings of acceptance for other children (Foster, Inderbitzen, & Nangle, 1993) and other peer ratings can be utilized. Through the evaluation process, appropriate goals and intervention strategies can be established.

An assortment of interventions targeting social skills in children with emotional/behavioral disorders have been investigated, particularly with children with ASD (Rogers, 2000). Although much of this discussion involves strategies found to be effective with children with ASD, these strategies have been shown to be effective with children with other types of emotional/behavioral disorders as well (Goldstein, Kaczmarek, & English, 2002). Over the past 30 years, interventions with multiple age groups have focused on various strategies, including adult instruction, peer-mediation, video modeling, self-monitoring, and combinations of these strategies. Adult-mediated intervention involves social skills training using direct instruction and/or naturalistic strategies. Adult instruction methods have taught children to initiate and maintain interactions with typically-developing peers (Belchic & Harris, 1994; Kohler, Anthony, Steighner, & Hoyson, 2001; Kamps et al., 1992). Peer-mediation strategies have addressed the same skills, but have capitalized on social responding on the part of the child with ASD, as typical peers are taught to initiate persistently (Goldstein, English, Shafer, & Kaczmarek, 1997; Odom & Strain, 1984; Gunter, Fox, Brady, Shores, & Cavanaugh, 1988; Oke & Schreibman, 1990). Self-monitoring techniques using methods such as monitoring responses to initiations from peers also have shown positive results (Strain, Kohler, Storey, & Danko, 1994). Other self-monitoring techniques utilize video feedback (Kern et al., 1995; Wert & Neisworth, 2003), or a package of strategies such as peer training, and use of pictures, written text cues, and video feedback (Thiemann & Goldstein, 2001). There are numerous options available for social skills intervention. The type of intervention strategy that is chosen for a particular student should be based on their level of social competence, the specific social skills that will be targeted, the setting in which intervention will take place (e.g., inclusive classroom), and available participants (e.g., peers developing typically).

When Should We Start?

The time to start providing support in social skills development through explicit instruction and intervention is now. With the appropriate support, children with emotional/behavioral disorders can learn the necessary skills to begin to foster friendships. Interactions with their friends will allow them to learn even more sophisticated social skills, which, in turn, will enable them to continue to develop relationships. These children will then be able to have a more rewarding school experience and, over time, a higher quality of life.


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Kimberly C. Crawford is a clinical education instructor and doctoral student in the Department of Communication Disorders, Florida State University, Tallahassee. She may be reached at 850/645-2618 or Howard Goldstein is professor and chair in the department. He may be reached at 850/644-6264 or


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Gaylord, V., Quinn, M., McComas, J., & Lehr, C. (Eds.). (2005). Impact: Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders 18(2). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available at

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