Never too late: Study finds social skills training matters for teen EBD students

7048967605_1754966fcb_zSocial skills training is routinely used with students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (EBD) in secondary school when social competence takes on increased complexity and importance.

But is social skills training (SST) effective for students at this age and do some theoretical approaches seem to be more effective than others? asks a recent article in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.

“One widely held belief that is often shared among educators is that if secondary students with or at risk for EBD have not been intervened upon early in their academic careers, then their behaviors are likely to become so entrenched by adolescence that any intervention designed to bring their behaviors within an acceptable range of performance will likely be ineffective,” write the authors.

Based on their review of 5 meta-analyses of studies on the use of social skills training for this population, the authors conclude that this intervention had an effect size of .32 or a medium effect, which is large enough that students and educators would notice the effect in everyday life, the authors write.

The 5 meta-analyses involved 77 studies on SST and 5,000 students aged 11 and up. The majority of studies included random assignment to the intervention, which is the most rigorous research procedure for ensuring results are not due to other factors besides the intervention.

“These five meta-analyses clearly show that SST produces practically important changes in social behavior, according to percentages of students in the SST groups that show improvements relative to controls,” the authors write.

One meta-analysis found that SST was equally effective for students who had externalizing or internalizing problem behaviors. Other researchers found that SST was slightly less effective for primarily aggressive students and for those with antisocial behavior patterns.

Only one meta-analysis compared the effects of different theoretical approaches to SST. In the early adolescent years, the researchers found that an SST grounded in an operant learning framework (reinforcement with reward or punishment) was more effective than a social or social-cognitive orientation.

However, in the mid- to late adolescent years, the researchers found that social learning tactics including modeling and/or coaching produced larger effects than either operant or cognitive-based programs.

One meta-analysis that was limited to studies of approaches with a cognitive-behavioral orientation found the largest overall effect size of all the meta-analyses under review.

In their review, the researchers of this study caution that these findings may be misleading because most SST programs involve the use of multiple strategies (e.g. modeling, coaching, behavioral rehearsal, addressing cognitive distortions, problem-solving, reinforcement, etc.)

“Although not all secondary students with EBD are likely to respond favorably to SST, it appears to be a viable and effective intervention for a number of these students,” the authors write. “The effect size estimates obtained herein are nearly identical to effect sizes found for the evidence-based psychotherapy research with children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems.”

Interestingly, one of the meta-analyses that focused on age or developmental period found that the largest overall effect sizes were reported for preschool children and adolescents with EBD. It may be that the SST programs were not appropriate for elementary-age children, the authors speculate, or that children in the elementary years may be on an early onset trajectory of behavioral problems and are more resistant to intervention.

Adolescent students also may be easier to reach because of their cognitive abilities. “Generally, late starters do not have as severe of social skill deficits or as intense of competing problem behaviors as early starters, therefore making them better candidates for SST than students with more entrenched child-onset social skills problems,” the authors write.

“Social Skills Training for Secondary Students With Emotional and/or Behavioral Disorders,” by Clayton Cook, et al., Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Volume 16, Number 3, September 2008, pp. 131-144.

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