A Two-Part Series on the Value of Teaching Social Skills (Part 2)

Posted by Erin Green, MS, Director of Boys Town Press and Co-Author of Teaching Social Skills to Youth, Fourth Edition on Sep 20th 2022

Part 2: How to Teach Social Skills

After exploring how social skills help us make connections, foster a sense of belonging, and strengthen our social-emotional health ( see Part 1 ), let’s take a step back and examine how, exactly, we can help kids learn and use these skills so they can succeed in the classroom, at home, and in our community.

Here is a straightforward, five-step action plan you can follow to successfully teach social skills to any child in your care.

1. Start with the basics. In Teaching Social Skills to Youth (Fourth Edition) , you will find 196 social skills and their behavioral steps. The skills are grouped from “Basic” to “Complex.” It’s best to start with a basic skill, such as Following Instructions. Basic skills are foundational and, once mastered, make teaching and learning higher-level skills much easier.

Choose a neutral time to teach the skill, avoiding those moments when you and/or the child are frustrated, angry, or emotionally exhausted. A calm, relaxed environment will reduce resistance from the child and increase the chances that both of you will actually have fun!

2. Explain the skill and describe its behavioral steps. Introducing a skill might sound something like this:

“Following Instructions means doing something the first time you are asked to do it and doing it the right way. The steps of Following Instructions are…

a.Look at the person.

b.Say ‘Okay.’

c.Do the task right away.

d.Check back.” (This step can be optional, depending on the request, the child’s age and ability, or other considerations.)

3. Offer a reason or rationale why the skill is important. “Why?” is usually the first response a child utters when given an instruction or task. By providing a reason, you answer that question from the get-go and limit any chance of getting into arguments or irrelevant discussions. Make sure the reason is simple, appropriate, and meaningful to that child.

Here is an example of an appropriate rationale for a child who’s elementary school-age:

“When you follow instructions, you get your work done the right way and can move on to something else.”

For a middle schooler or older teen, a meaningful rationale might be:

“When you follow instructions right the first time, you’re less likely to have to do your work over, and you won’t have me coming around and bothering you with more reminders.”

4. Practice. Creating an opportunity for the child to practice is the best way to ensure they understand all the behavioral steps while at the same time giving them a safe space to ask questions and try. Practice should happen, without delay, after you’ve explained the skill steps. The practice scenario should be appropriate for the child’s age and ability. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“Let’s give it a try, Angel. I’m going to give you an instruction. Just remember, you should look at me, say ‘Okay,’ and do it right away. Does that make sense?”

“Angel, please take this book from the table and place it on the bookshelf.”

5. Praise! Praise! Praise! Once the task is complete, or the skill is practiced, give the child some love. If something gets messed up, don’t worry about it. Acknowledge the effort and practice again! That’s the nice thing about teaching social skills. There are lots of opportunities to praise the child for what is done right.

If a child skips a step or does them incorrectly, stay calm and provide encouragement and feedback. Here is an example of how you can address a mistake and still be encouraging.

“Great job putting the book on the shelf, Angel. Next time, remember to say ‘Okay’ so I know you understood the instructions. Let’s try it again. This time, I’m going to ask you to grab a book from the shelf and bring it to the table. Remember to look at me, say ‘Okay,’ and do it right away.”0

“Angel, let’s read a story together. Please pick a book from the second shelf and bring it to the table.”

Again, praise the child for following the instruction (or performing the task)!

Even though this example relates to teaching the basic skill of Following Instructions, you can use this same five-step approach to teach every skill outlined in Teaching Social Skills to Youth, Fourth Edition!

Just like any other teaching interaction, keep the focus on positive learning. It will make the experience better for everyone. Remember, some children will need extra time, different explanations or rationales, unique practice situations, or they might even need an occasional break. No matter what is needed, the learning should always stay positive!

If you’re caring for a child who requires additional support, try to keep things as simple as possible. Offer praise even if they don’t do each step exactly as you explained it. For children with special needs, modifying the skill steps and practices is helpful. For example, instead of asking the child to walk to the shelf to return a book, you might want to keep the child closer to you by handing them the book and asking them to gently place it on the table. If the child drops or throws the book on the table, your feedback can sound something like this:

“Marcus, you did a great job of looking at me and saying ‘Okay!’ But I just realized we never talked about what the word gently means. What does that word mean to you?”

Once you’ve confirmed that Marcus understands your specific expectations, you can practice again.

“That’s great, Marcus! I think we’re both on the same page now, so let’s try it again. I’m going to ask you to place the book gently on the table. Remember to look at me, say ‘Okay,’ and then softly place the book down on the table, alright? Let’s try it!”

If Marcus shows improvement, even if it’s just small, point out his improvement and praise the effort!

Teaching social skills doesn’t have to be difficult. But it does require practice, and it often requires patience. Adopt the mindset that learning social skills is like learning any new subject or technique. Practice, repetition, and feedback leads to success!

Taking time now to teach social skills can change the direction of a child’s life. Simply choose a handful of skills to work on at first, teach them at a neutral time, and model what you want to see!