Social skills instruction in class gives students academic edge

KindergartenSocial skills are so critical to learning that training in these skills should be included in daily academic instruction, according to a recent article in Preventing School Failure. Because learning occurs as a series of interactions among students and teachers, social skills not only determine how well-liked and popular a student is, but also how successful a student is at learning.

“Classroom teachers have long recognized the importance of social and behavioral skills, viewing cooperation, self-control and other social skills as critical to achieving academic and behavioral success,” the authors write. “Indeed, students who lack these skills are more likely to face a number of undesirable outcomes that include poor interactions with teachers and peers, diminished academic performance, and an increased number of disciplinary infractions.”

The authors outline a 6-step approach to incorporating social skills training into daily academic instruction for the whole class, rather than setting aside special time for teaching these skills or removing some students from the classroom. The more common and traditional approach to social skills training is to target a student or group of students with skill deficits and to intervene by explicitly teaching those skills.

“Although providing social skills training to an individual or small group of students is a good starting point, directly incorporating the intervention into whole-class content instruction has many advantages,” they write. “Not only is combining instruction time efficient, but also social skills learned in context are more likely to generalize to the settings where students need to use them.”

The ENGAGE blueprint created by the researchers is based on best-practice research for combining social skills training with academic instruction, write Naomi Schoenfeld and her three co-authors. Any sound social skills program, they write, needs to:

  • teach students to identify alternative prosocial behav iors and strategies
  • give students models of such behaviors
  • provide opportunities for students to practice the behaviors
  • reinforce the behaviors with specific and frequent feedback
  • introduce concepts of self-control.

The six steps of the ENGAGE process are:

1) Examine the demands of curriculum and instruction

Students who face repeated failure and frustration are likely to act up to save face or simply to avoid another unpleasant experience. Examine the class lesson plan and compare its fit with the range of students. Remove obstacles whenever possible with strategies such as scaffolding and graphic organizers.

2) Note essential social skills

Determine what social skills are most relevant in the classroom. What specific social and behavioral skills will afford students the most success? Consider which students are more likely to have difficulty performing those skills. If a number of students have major deficits, those students may need more intensive interventions in addition to interventions provided at the classroom level.

3) Go forward and teach

Choose and create social skills instructional materials for your students. Avoid simply using a packaged curriculum without making adjustments for your students. Instead, select lessons that address specific social skills that you want to focus on in your class. Rather than trying to find large blocks of time to teach social skills, use a little time within each lesson to touch on social skills every day.

4) Actively monitor behavior

One reason social skills training has not worked well in the past is that there has not been enough focus on promoting maintenance and generalization of those skills. It is important o give students consistent positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and negative consequences for inappropriate behavior. Students can become more intrinsically motivated when they have opportunities to set their own goals and measure their progress.

5) Gauge student progress

Use informal and formal assessment methods to measure student and class progress in acquiring, maintaining and generalizing social skills. One formal rating instrument is the Social Skills Rating System. Continuous assessment will help gauge who needs more intensive intervention in a small group or as an individual. Avoid doing it all yourself. Enlist the help of parents, colleagues and volunteers to monitor student behavior.

6) Exchange Reflections

Use class meetings, circle time or another shared period to hold a debriefing on social skills expectations. Avoid using this time to preach. Children should be discouraged from blaming or pointing fingers. The emphasis should be on the importance of mutual respect, shared decision making and fostering a positive and cooperative classroom climate.

Time-pressed teachers should not view social skills as another content area that must be squeezed into an already packed school day, but as a crucial set of skills that has a major impact on how well a student will do both in school and in the workplace.

“ENGAGE: A Blueprint for Incorporating Social Skills Training Into Daily Academic Instruction,” by Naomi Schoenfeld, Robert Rutherford, et al., Preventing School Failure, Volume 52, Number 3, pp. 17-27.

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