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Socially speaking – not always an easy task

Adequate social language skills are essential for academic, social and vocational success.

Since the 1980’s, parents and professionals alike have become increasingly aware that effective non-verbal and verbal skills such as starting, maintaining and ending a conversation, expressing emotions, dealing with conflict or understanding humour are not always easy tasks for children with pragmatic social skill difficulties.

Failure to acquire these skills can be the source of anxiety, feelings of isolation and low self-esteem.

Current research suggests that about 15% of primary school children (one in five children in each classroom) have social and/or behaviour problems significant enough to interfere with their ability to make friends. As such, there is a growing need for educators to recognise and support children with social language difficulties to help contribute to each child’s overall cognitive and emotional well-being.

Children who have been diagnosed with a learning disorder and the estimated 3% to 12% in every classroom with a language disorder may not possess the language skills to interact appropriately with their peers. They can have difficulties both in the classroom and the playground.

Unfortunately for these children, the current school curriculum assumes that they will have developed age-appropriate listening and speaking skills to enable them to succeed in the classroom on a social and academic level. Consequently, the educational curriculum has become progressively more heavily language-based.

Current research indicates that individuals with learning difficulties are likely to have poor social skills.

These individuals may experience difficulties with:

• solving social problems;
• predicting consequences for certain behaviours;
• using meaningful and concise oral language;
• interpreting or inferring language used in conversation;
• using complex social interactions successfully, such as persuasion, negotiation, giving or accepting criticism;
• being aware of their listener in conversation;
• tolerance for frustration and failure;
• being accepted by their peers;
• adapting to new social situations; and
• interpreting and using non verbal language such as eye contact, facial expressions and body language.

Developing children’s social skills

What are social skills and who helps children to develop the skills that are ultimately essential to their success at school?

Pragmatic social skills refer to ways of behaving which help children to develop and maintain relationships.

They include such things as eye contact with the person you are talking to; using expressions on your face such as smiling or frowning to show you are interested or that you don’t agree; being aware of personal space and the appropriateness of touch and using or being aware of things such as how fast you talk, the pitch of your voice and the content of what you say.

A table in this article outlines some of the basic non-verbal and verbal social skills required for effective communication.

Who helps children develop appropriate social skills?

Social skill development is a multidisciplinary task.

Many people are involved in the process of providing students with the necessary skills to interact appropriately with the people around them. These include parents and/or caregivers, peers, teachers and learning support staff, psychologists and speech pathologists.

Although some children will ‘pick up’ these skills as they progress through school, most children will benefit from being directly taught appropriate social skills. This can be done in a specific program as well as using naturally occurring opportunities throughout the day to both teach and reinforce appropriate behaviour.

Developing social skills – a combined approach.

For social skills training to be effective, it needs to be incorporated into all areas of the child’s environment including the classroom, playground and home environment.

Social background and culture also play an important part in social skills training. Facilitators need to be aware of and plan around cross-cultural differences such as personal space and directness of approach, eye contact and intonation.

The focus of social skills training can be:

• therapeutic to provide positive skills, attitudes and strategies to replace negative or ineffective ones; and/or

• educational and preventative for children with a reasonable level of skill already to enhance friendships, resilience, problem solving and conflict resolution skills.

Training methods can include role-playing, modelling, homework assignments to practice skills and/or reinforcement of skills.

Many programs are designed around a cognitive-behavioural model. This approach encourages the student to identify the problem, recognise the emotions involved and analyse the situation and consequences of their actions in various social situations.

A six-step approach provides the framework for many successful social skills training programs. The approach is as follows.

1. Definition
Describe the skill to be taught – it can be demonstrated by video, pictures, cartoons or puppet shows. Discuss the importance of the skill.

2. Model the skill

Break down the skill into simple components and demonstrate these clearly.

3. Imitation and rehearsal

The student practices the skill in a structured situation.

4. Feedback

Feedback should be immediate, specific and positive, for example saying “that’s better, you looked at me and smiled!”.

5. Generalisation

Where possible, try to create a situation in the classroom or at home where the skill can be generalised. Alternatively, practice with someone outside the group.

6. Intermittent Reinforcement

Watch for instances of the student applying the skills without prompting. Provide descriptive praise and reward.

Although most social skill training programs are better run in groups, some cases require individual training.

Franco et al (1983) presented a case study of a shy adolescent with poor social skills. The student attended individual, 20minute sessions, twice a week for fifteen weeks. Therapy focused on improving conversational skills, asking questions, commenting, acknowledging what others say, showing warmth and using eye contact. The skills were then practiced outside therapy with different adults, both male and female, to help generalise the new skills. At the completion of the sessions, lasting improvements were reported in the student’s peer interactions in the classroom.

Examples of other successful structured programs, implemented in Australian schools include:

• Friendly Kids Friendly Classrooms (McGrath & Francey, 1991),
• Resilient Kids (Cambell Rate, Gleeson, Kearney & Dale, 2000),
• Room 14. A Social Language Program (Wilson, 1993),
• Socially Speaking (Schroeder, 2003), and
• Stop Think Do (Petersen & Adderley, 2002)

Useful questions to ask about your child’s social development

If you are concerned about your child, it is recommended that you make an appointment with your child’s classroom teacher to discuss their social development. Alternatively, your child’s school may have a psychologist, school counsellor and/or speech language pathologist, who may be able to assist. These professionals will be able to direct you to the appropriate services in your area.

Questions to ask yourself about your child’s social skills include the following.

• How easily do they make friends?
• Are they confident initiating and maintaining conversations with people?
• Do they know how to share and take turns?
• Do they know how to ask for help?
• Do they know how to make friends?
• Do they tend to isolate themselves from peer games?
• Are they regularly invited over to other children’s houses to play? Do they ask to have friends over?
• Are they able to express their emotions in words?
• Do they use appropriate volume and pitch when speaking?
• Do they recognise non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions?


Learning Disabilities OnLine

Tony Attwood

Stop Think Do

Carolyn Bowen Speech Language Pathologist

  • Grooming and hygiene

Source: Westwood, P. (1997) Commonsense Methods for Children with Special Needs (3rd Edition). London, Routledge.

by Ashleigh Freed, Psychologist & Katie Whitworth, Speech Language Pathologist