More Social Skills for Special Needs Children

Last month, I presented some thoughts on principles of social skill development and inclusion for special needs children in community, school and homeschooling settings. Now I’d like to zero in on some specific social skills that are useful in American culture and some creative ways to help kids learn these skills. If you are finding these articles helpful, please drop me a “thumbs up” e-mail at .

What social skills and in what developmental order?

In order to teach social skills to the special needs child, he first needs to develop basic skills in:

– Staying calm, attentive and self-regulated
– Some degree of purposeful, interactive and imitative play
– Engaging appropriately with parent and sibs
– Responding to intentional interactions in ping-pong fashion (reciprocal, back and forth play, communication, games, humor, tasks, etc.)
– Awareness of the presence and personhood of other children and adults

Exactly what social skills to teach depends on the needs, strengths and developmental level of child as well as the specific setting the child is being prepared for. In general, the following are social skills needed to get along with peers and in groups before adolescence:

– How and when to greet another child or adult
– How to initiate or continue a conversation
– How to play interactively with a peer
– How to interpret facial expressions and body language
– How to adapt own behavior in response to social cues of others
– How to ask for help from adults or other children
– How to work or play in groups cooperatively
– How to anticipate potential outcomes of immediate social situations
– How to recognize and express personal feelings before getting overwhelmed
– How to recognize and respect feelings of others
– Looking at things from another person’s perspective
– Specific ways to handle difficult social situations

A few simple strategies for teaching social skills

Happily, there are many resources available for teaching social skills to children and teens with special needs. Just Google the topic along with your child’s disability and you will be amazed (and maybe overwhelmed) at what is out there. Since I do a lot of workshop presentations and counseling on this topic, I’ll share just a few of my favorite strategies which have proved successful over the years:

– Social Stories – use photo sequences from child’s own life, mag pics, pic books, short video clips, puppets, simple sentence starters about social situations the child has encountered or is going to encounter in the very near future. Stop several times in the narration to ask the child simple, direct questions: what is going to happen next? OR, how does that boy feel right now? OR what would be a good thing for that girl to do now?

– Direct Instruction – this is especially helpful soon after your child has responded inappropriately in a social situation. Once he regains inner calm and self-regulation, and is attentive to you, you can re-tell what just happened as a “social story”, stopping several times to get your child to give you input about what might happen next, how people were feeling, and what a different ending might be. It is extremely difficult for younger children with PDD-type disorders to see things from another person’s point of view. You may just need to tell your child how the other people in the situation felt and why they responded as they did. Then tell your child exactly what he needs to do in a similar situation. Next, SHOW him what to do. Model the behavior, the facial expression, the gestures, the body language, the words. Finally, have him practice a simple role-play with you. If this is a type of situation he will encounter frequently in life, decide on a clear cue you can give your child when he needs to demonstrate that particular social behavior (e.g., if the problem is that he refuses to share his toys when another child comes to play with him, your cue might be tapping him on the shoulder until her gives you eye contact, then putting your hand out flat in a giving gesture, and pointing to the guest child.) Practice, practice, practice the desired social behavior, facial expressions, gestures, body language and words, along with your special reminder cues. Make your practice times specific, emotionally warm and short (3 seconds to 3 minutes for a young child, 5-7 minutes for a teen). Don’t waste your time lecturing or sermonizing to your child. Just engage his attention, affirm him emotionally, and say, “Let’s practice our _____ skills now.” Do it, then affirm his success in the practice. For an older child, you can relate his success in developing that particular social skill to a social opportunity that you know is coming up in the near future.

– Cue Cards – make a red STOP sign on a 4×6 card as a cue to stop out of control or aggressive behaviors. Make a series of picture cue cards – emotions, desired behaviors, etc. You MUST teach your child the meaning of these cue cards and what exactly you expect him to do when you give him a signal and show him a cue card.

– Mirror Play – Use a mirror to help your child practice making and interpreting facial expression, gestures and body language.

– Social Coaching – Be your child’s coach in group activities such as homeschool co-op, library story hour, Scouts, 4-H or sports. Explain to him in advance what will be happening and what he is expected to do. Sit beside him in the group gathering (if appropriate) and cue him in on what’s going on and how he should respond. (You should talk with the adults in charge of the group privately ahead of time to explain what you need to do. Often, an experienced group leader will be happy to have you coach your child along for the first few meetings, but might ask you to try keeping your distance once your child seems to be getting the hang of things.) You can’t coach your child or teen forever, so plan to work yourself out of a job by letting him try his wings in various safe social settings, then re-teach and try again if difficulties arise.

– Teach the meaning of our many social idioms. Young people with developmental delays and learning disabilities often think in very concrete terms, and don’t pick up on the meaning of phrases like “You’re pulling my leg,” or ‘Until the cows go home.” During one of his year-end high school level evaluations, J. announced to me that he and his new girl friend had a good time sleeping together in their church. Now, you would think that after working with special needs kids for more than 30 years, I would be prepared for everything. But this one caught me off-guard. I gasped. His parents, sitting right there next to J., gasped. And then, miracle or miracles, J noticed that he had said something that didn’t quite sit right with the adults in the room. J turned anxiously to his dad and asked what he had said wrong. His dad suggested they take a little walk out to my waiting room and talk about it. That gave J’s Mom the chance to salvage the family’s reputation by explaining that J has gone to his first church lock-in – you know, the youth group all-nighters where nobody really sleeps at all but after the group activities, the guys are sequestered in a room at one end of the church and the girls in a separate room at the other end of the church. Aha! Whew! Got it! J came back after his emergency social coaching session with his dad, and next miracle, HE got it – he apologized appropriately for not saying it exactly right, corrected himself, and we went on with the rest of the evaluation with our friendship intact and J’s reputation restored. THIS is where we want our special needs kids to be when they hit those pesky teen years – increasingly aware of social cues, a solid relationship with parents as mentors and social coaches, a teachable spirit, and the ability to correct social glitches and move on.