What’s a good way to teach social skills

I teach students with autism. I feel confident teaching academics and life skills, but not social skills. I need an easy and effective teaching method that is flexible, because I need to teach a variety of skills to a variety of children. Many of my students have intermediate or advanced language skills, but have trouble making friends and maintaining relationships. I can’t arrange to work 1:1 with every student, so it needs to be something I can do in a group. Any suggestions?

Answered by Chante Stoeckley, MEd, BCBA, LBA
Association for Science in Autism Treatment

This is a common question, because although the available research on teaching social skills is increasing, it can be hard for teachers to find evidence-based social skills curricula and strategies. One strategy that has been shown to be effective in group instruction across a variety of learners and different social skills is the Teaching Interaction Procedure. The Teaching Interaction Procedure is a 6-step process in which the teacher introduces the skill to be taught, gives a rationale for doing the skill, describes the steps involved in doing it correctly, models the skill, has the students practice the skill in role play, and provides feedback and reinforcement. This procedure has been studied numerous times in the past ten years, including using it 1:1 (e.g. Leaf et al., 2009), in groups (e.g. Leaf, Dotson, Oppeneheim, Sheldon, & Sherman, 2010), and in schools (Tullis & Gallagher, 2016). In this installment of Clinical Corner, I will show you how it is commonly implemented, a helpful variation, how it compares to other options, and where you can find more resources.

Before teaching social skills, start by choosing the skills to teach and setting up appropriate motivational systems for the instruction. While identifying skills to teach is outside of the scope of this particular article, it is arguably more important than how you teach it! Teaching the right skills (ones that are at the student’s level based on assessment, are meaningful to the learner and their social community, and will open up new opportunities) is both crucial and difficult. Teaching these skills in a group format adds an additional measure of complexity. Please see chapters 1 and 5 of Teaching Social Skills to People with Autism: Best Practices in Individualizing Interventions (Bondy & Weiss, 2013) available here for guidance in choosing goals and assessing social skills. Once you have skills chosen, set up a token or point system to motivate your students to do their best during social skills practice. To do this you’ll need to identify one or more preferred activities or items that each student would like to earn and design points or tokens they can exchange for their chosen reward. Please see this ASAT Treatment Summary for references on how to do this effectively. Once these steps are done, you are ready to teach.

Here are more details on how to implement the six steps of the Teaching Interaction Procedure with examples. The examples cover both 1:1 and group instruction, elementary and adolescent age groups, and intermediate and advanced social skills.

Step 1- Introduce the Skill: Tell the student(s) what they will be learning. Give the skill a name that is descriptive and appropriate based on their skill set and language level. Then have each student tell you what the skill is (It’s important that students respond actively throughout the instruction, so each step should include opportunities to respond. Don’t let it become a lecture!)

ExamplesTeacherStudent(s)
Elementary 1:1“Suzie, we’re going to learn to say ‘hi’ to our friends. What are we going to do today?”“Say ‘hi’ to friends!”
Adolescent Class“Hi Class! Today we’re going to practice changing the topic of conversation. John, what are we going to learn today?”“We’re going to switch the subject in a conversation.

 

Step 2 – Rationale and Cue: Provide a rationale explaining why the students would use this skill. It should describe a natural consequence of implementing the skill and be meaningful to the individual student. You can provide an example and have each student give you their own rationale. Then identify the setting or the cues that show it’s an appropriate time to use the skill. Have each student tell you when they would use the skill.

ExamplesTeacherStudent(s)
Elementary 1:1“If you say ‘hi’ to your friends, they’ll want to play with you. Why should you say hi to your friends?” “So they play with me.”
“You can say hi to Bobby when he comes to the water table. Who will you say hi to?” “Bobby”
Adolescent Class“It’s important to be able to change the topic of conversation correctly so that your friend doesn’t get bored talking about the same thing and leave. Sarah, what is one reason you think it’s important to change the topic of conversation carefully?”“So my friends get to talk about things they want to talk about, too.”
“For me, I need to use this skill when talking with my daughter about school, so she has a chance to talk about other things she’s interested in as well. Jordan, when would you need to change the topic of conversation?”“When I’ve been talking about myself for a long time.”

 

Step 3 – Break Down Steps: Before teaching, break down the skill into a series of steps (typically 2-5). The number of steps should capture the most important elements of the skill and be easy to memorize. Tell the students each step and have them say the steps in order.

ExamplesTeacherStudent(s)
Elementary 1:1“When it’s time to say ‘hi’ to a friend, you should look at your friend, smile, and say ‘hi’ in a friendly voice. How do you say ‘hi’ to a friend?” “Look at her… Say ‘hi’ in a nice voice.”
Adolescent Class“Here is a good way to change the topic of conversation. First, wait for a pause in the conversation. Second, use a bridge statement to connect the old topic to the new topic. A bridge statement is something like, ‘speaking of…’ or ‘that reminds me of…’ Third, introduce your new topic. And fourth, watch your conversation partner to see if they are interested in the new topic. Who can remember all four steps in changing the topic? John, give it a try…”“Um.. wait for a break, then use a bridge. Start talking about my new topic and watch to make sure they are interested.”

Step 4 – Model: Model the skill you are teaching. In the Teaching Interaction Procedure, it is often (but not always) modeled both incorrectly and correctly, so that the students can learn to identify examples and non-examples of the skill. Try first modeling it incorrectly by doing some, but not all, of the steps. Have the students tell you whether you included all of the steps or missed any, and then tell you what you missed and how to fix it. Then model it again correctly. You can model with another adult, a confederate peer, one of the students, or sometimes (depending on the skill) by yourself.

ExamplesTeacherStudent(s)
Elementary 1:1“Watch me say hi to my friend Ms. Smith. Tell me if I do it right.” Look at Ms. Smith with a serious expression and say “hi”. “Did I do it right? What did I do wrong?” “No! You didn’t smile and your voice wasn’t nice.”
“That’s right! How should I do it right?” “You should smile and use a nice voice like this, ‘hi’!”
“Great job! I’ll try it again. Tell me if I do it right…” 
Adolescent Class“Watch me change the topic and get ready to tell me if I followed all four steps correctly. Sarah, you can be my partner. Let’s have a conversation about our favorite music, and I’ll change the subject.” Sarah: “Who’s your favorite singer?”
     Teacher: “I like the Beatles. How about you?”Sarah: “I like Taylor Swift”
     Teacher: “Yesterday, while I was running, I lost my favorite headphones…”

 

“Ok, everybody, how did I do? On three, give me a thumbs up if I followed the steps and a thumbs down if I didn’t. One… two… three!”.

Students give thumbs down
“Everyone thinks I didn’t follow the steps. Right! What did I do wrong and how should I fix it?” “You didn’t use a bridge.”
Right! I left out my bridge statement. Can anyone think of a good bridge statement that I could have used”“Speaking of listening to music…”

Step 5 – Role Play: Give each student a chance to demonstrate the skill in a role play with you. Make sure to provide the cue that starts the skill you are teaching. After the students demonstrate the skill, give them descriptive feedback about what they did right and any errors they made. If they made errors, have them try it again. If they make errors the second time, you might need to provide prompts during the role play to make sure they get it right by the third try.

ExamplesTeacherStudent(s)
Elementary 1:1“When Ms. Smith comes into the room, show me how you would say ‘hi’ to her.” (Ms. Smith walks in.) Suzie looks at her, smiles, and says “hi” in a cheerful voice.
“Great job, Suzie! You looked at Ms. Smith, smiled, and said ‘hi’ in a friendly way!” 
Adolescent Class“It’s your turn to show the group how to change the topic of conversation. John, you start. I’ll be your partner. We’ll start talking about Pokemon, and you can change the topic to something new.”

 

“When I was playing Pokemon the other day, I…”

 

 

 

 

 

(interrupts) “Speaking of video games, have you tried the new World of Warcraft game?”

Looks dejected. “No…”“It’s great! My favorite part is the new equipment you have to use. There is this one spell you can place…”
“Let’s stop there. John, you used “speaking of video games,” a great bridge statement and you introduced a new topic that was related to the current topic. But you didn’t wait for a pause in the conversation, and you didn’t watch my face and notice that I wasn’t interested in the new topic. Please try it again.” 

Step 6 – Feedback and Reinforcement: Throughout the Teaching Interaction Procedure, the student should receive reinforcement for correct responses (typically both descriptive praise along with some kind of reward) and corrective feedback for errors. Before starting the instruction, identify the student’s preferences and items that are likely to reward (reinforce) correct responses and participation. For many students learning social skills, a token or point system is a good way to do this. Throughout the lesson, they can earn points or tokens for correct answers to questions (during steps 1-4) and role playing the skill accurately (step 5). At the end, they can turn in their points/tokens for rewards such as small items or special privileges. One method for giving these tokens is to give two points for correct performance on the first try, one point for correct performance on the second try, and give just praise if they respond correctly on the third try or with prompting. This would occur at every step in the teaching interaction, not just at the end.

Here is another example of the Teaching Interaction Procedure also used with a group. This time, the example is for a group of elementary students and the feedback/reinforcement procedure (dispersing points throughout the procedure) is included.

StepTeacherStudents
Step 1: Introduce the Skill“Today we’re going to learn to invite a friend to play a game. Everyone, what are we going to learn to do?”(responding in unison) “Invite a friend to play a game!”
“That’s right!” (gives every student two points on their point sheet). 
Step 2:

Rationale and Cue

“Why is it important to invite friends to play with you? Olive, what do you think?”Olive: “I don’t know.”

 

“Give it a try. Why would you want to invite a friend to play?”

 

Olive: “Cause it will be more fun, I guess.”
“Yes, it will be more fun!” (gives Olive 1 point for answering correctly on the second try, and continues with other students in the group until everyone has given a rationale).

“When would you invite a friend to play with you? For example, you can invite someone to play if you see them watching your game. Levi, when would you invite someone to play?”

 

 

 

 

Levi: “I’ll invite Caden to play foursquare at recess because I know he likes it.”

“Great idea! I bet that will make Caden really happy!” (gives Levi two points for answering correctly on the first try and continue with the other students until everyone has given an answer) 
Step 3:
Break Down Steps
“Here is how to invite someone to play. First, find a person who might be interested. Choose someone who isn’t playing something else right now. Second approach them in a friendly way. That means come over to them and smile. Third, ask them if they want to join and tell them what you are doing. Fourth, if they say yes, tell them how they can join, like saying ‘you can be on my team’ or ‘here, you can use this marker’. That was a lot of steps to remember. Let’s try to say them all. Calvin, you start.”Calvin: “Find someone to play with and ask them if they want to play.”
“You got two of them! The two you missed are approaching them in a friendly way and then telling them how they can join.”Calvin: “Okay. Find someone to play with, ask them to join, and then tell them how to join.”
“Good try. You got three of them. Try once more and I’ll help you remember when to approach them in a friendly way.”Calvin: “Find someone to play with…”
Interrupts with, “and approach…”“And approach them in a friendly way. Then you ask them to play and tell them how they can join.”
“You got all the steps! Nice work.” (Doesn’t give any points since he needed prompts to answer correctly and continues to the next student.) 
Step 4: Model“Now I’m going to show you inviting someone to play. I might do the steps correctly or I might make a mistake. Watch carefully and get ready to tell me if I did it right or not.”

 

(Demonstrate the skill with a co-teacher who is busy playing another game. Do all the steps except for the first one of finding someone who might want to play.)

 

 

“Okay, tell me if I did it right or wrong and what I should have done differently if I did something wrong. Olive?”

 

Olive: “Wrong! Ms. Smith was busy. You should have asked someone else.”
Perfect, Olive! (Give Olive 2 points and give each student a chance to answer.) 
Step 5: Role Play“Now it’s your turn to show me how to invite a friend to play a game correctly. Levi, you start playing UNO with Ms. Smith.” (After they are playing, walk up and start to watch them play without saying anything as the cue that you are a person who might want to play.)Levi sees you watching, approaches you with a smile, and asks you if you want to play. When you say yes, he goes back to playing.
“Nice job Levi. You got the first 4 steps correct. You forgot the very last one, which is to help me start playing. You could do this by dealing me some cards or by telling me that you are almost done with the and will give me cards for the next game.”Levi repeats the role play getting all the steps.
“Perfect! You got all the steps right.” (Give Levi a point, and continue giving each student the opportunity to practice.) 
Step 6:
Feedback & Reinforcement
“Great job, everyone! You all have learned to invite someone to play a game! Be sure to try it out today at recess. Before we go out to recess, count up your points and raise your hand if you want to cash them in.”

 

Repeat these procedures each session until each student has mastered the skill. You can adapt it in future lessons. For example, you may not need to label and explain the skill after the first session or two. You could have the students do that instead! In the research, students often needed 3-6 sessions to learn a skill, but it will vary based on your learners.

How would you know if the skill has been mastered? Doing it correctly on the first try in the role play is one way, but a better way would be to do a test or a probe as follows: without telling the student what you are doing, set up a situation outside of the group where it would be appropriate for them to use the skill, and see if they do it. For example, in the first example of teaching changing conversation topics, at a random time during the day, start a conversation with the student, and then suddenly look bored. See if they change the topic. Or in the second example of teaching Suzie to say hi, wait until Suzie is playing alone, and suddenly walk in and sit by her, to see if she says “hi”.

Students will progress through the procedure at different rates, and it’s important to make sure each student gets enough practice. However, if a student does not make progress or master a skill despite adequate practice opportunities, consider the following troubleshooting tips:

  • Is the Teaching Interaction Procedure being implemented correctly? Using the steps listed here (or in the references at the end), make a checklist of the steps, and have an observer check off whether the teacher is following each step consistently.
  • Do any of the steps require more definition or more detailed teaching? For example, a step of “decide whether this person would make a good friend” in the skill of making friends is likely to require a definition that identifies what does and does not make a good friend and many opportunities to practice identifying examples and non-examples of good friends.
  • Do students have the needed pre-requisite skills? Generally, a student needs solid basic language skills (communicating in sentences, for example) to benefit from this procedure, but they may also need prior instruction in certain steps (as in the previous example).
  • Are the students motivated to do their best? If not, look to your reinforcement system. Check that you are using it consistently and consider replacing some of the rewards you use with something more motivating. You might also try to choose a special and highly preferred reward that is only used for Teaching Interaction Procedure lessons.
  • Has the student mastered the skill in the role plays, but not in real life? If so, read on.

One potentially useful variation of the Teaching Interaction Procedure adds some steps to ensure generalization: that the student will actually use the skill taught, not just with the teacher or during role plays, but in real life situations where appropriate (Kassardjian & Taubman, 2013). You can see whether generalization is occurring by observing the student in other settings to see if the social skill is used or by asking parents whether it occurs outside of school. To use this variation, make the following minor modifications to Step 5 and add some additional opportunities to practice in real life settings (generalization phases):

Step 5 – Role Play: When doing the role plays, use a wide variety of realistic potential scenarios, and bring in as many components of potential real-life situations as possible, particularly those in which the skill hasn’t been observed. Have the students role play with other students so that they have opportunities to interact with daily. Do the role plays with materials that are common in their daily life and in locations where the skill would actually be used. For example, in the previous example teaching students to invite someone to play a game, you might conduct the role plays with students in the locations they typically play (such as outside on the playground) using the actual games the students play at recess.

Generalization Phase 1- Reminder, Praise, Reward: After students reach mastery on the role plays, set up or identify situations when they can use the new skill in real life. If the skill was related to game playing, for example, you could use recess or a classroom game time. At the beginning of the activity, remind the students to use their new skills. If they use it correctly at the right time, provide both praise and a reinforcer.

Generalization Phase 2 Praise and Reward: During natural situations (same as Phase 1), do not remind students in advance of the skill, and if they do it correctly, provide praise and a reward afterward.

Generalization Phase 3 – Praise: During natural situations (same as Phase 1), do not remind students in advance of the skill, and if they do it correctly, provide only praise afterward.

Generalization Phase 4 – Independence: Continue to set up situations for the skill to occur but provide no reminders or consequences. Now the students should be doing it on their own in the natural environment! Congratulations!

There are other options for teaching social skills besides the Teaching Interaction Procedure. While there are more than this, let’s compare it to two others: Social Stories and Behavioral Skills Training.

Social Stories: Social Stories are stories that are individualized for the learner and provide information to a learner about a social topic. To be considered a social story, there are currently 10 characteristics that are available on the official website. Social Stories are a common intervention, and so researchers have compared them to the Teaching Interaction Procedure to see which is more effective. In the first comparison (Leaf et al., 2012), six students were taught six different skills each, three taught with the Teaching Interaction Procedure and three with Social Stories. The results were that the students mastered 18 out of the 18 skills that were taught using the Teaching Interaction Procedure and the students mastered only 4 out of the 18 skills taught with Social Stories. While this comparison was between 1:1 applications of both techniques, it was replicated with a group instruction using both strategies (Kassardjian et al., 2014). In this study, they found that the teaching interaction procedure was effective for all students, while Social Stories did not result in any improvement, and therefore they recommended the use of Teaching Interaction Procedure over social stories based on their research.

Behavioral Skills Training: If you are familiar with Behavioral Skills Training (BST), you will have noticed the similarities. Behavioral Skills Training has four components: instructions, modeling, practice, and feedback. The defining difference between the two is that BST does not identify the rationale for using the skill. Another difference is that in the Teaching Interaction Procedure, it is common to model both the correct and incorrect performance, in order to develop discrimination (the ability to tell the difference between the two). A specific version of this step has been named the “Cool Not Cool” procedure and has been shown to be somewhat effective in and of itself (Au et al., 2016). In BST, only the correct version of the skill is modeled. When a review of the research on Behavioral Skills Training and the Teaching Interaction Procedure with individuals with Autism was conducted (Leaf et al., 2015), they found that both procedures had adequate evidence and were effective.

If you want to use the Teaching Interaction Procedure to teach social skills, one thorough curriculum and teaching guide is the book Crafting connections: Contemporary applied behavior analysis for enriching the social lives of persons with autism spectrum disorder, by Taubman, Leaf, McEachin & Driscoll (2011) available through this link. The articles I’ve referred to throughout this piece (below) also provide examples of how the Teaching Interaction Procedure can be implemented.

References

Au, A., Mountjoy, T., Leaf, J. B., Leaf, R., Taubman, M., McEachin, J., & Tsuji, K. (2016). Teaching social behaviour to individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder using the cool versus not cool procedure in a small group instructional format. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 41(2), 115–124. doi:10.3109/13668250.2016.1149799

Bondy, A., & Weiss, M. J. (2013). Teaching social skills to people with autism: Best practices in individualizing interventions (1st ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Kassardjian, A., Leaf, J. B., Ravid, D., Leaf, J. A., Alcalay, A., Dale, S., … Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L. (2014). Comparing the teaching interaction procedure to social stories: A replication study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(9), 2329–2340. doi:10.1007/s10803-014-2103-0

Kassardjian, A., & Taubman, M. (2013). Utilizing teaching interactions to facilitate social skills in the natural environment. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 48(2), 245–257.

Leaf, J. B., Dotson, W. H., Oppeneheim, M. L., Sheldon, J. B., & Sherman, J. A. (2010). The effectiveness of a group teaching interaction procedure for teaching social skills to young children with a pervasive developmental disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4(2), 186–198. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2009.09.003

Leaf, J. B., Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Call, N. A., Sheldon, J. B., Sherman, J. A., Taubman, M., … Leaf, R. (2012). Comparing the teaching interaction procedure to social stories for people with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(2), 281–298. doi:10.1901/jaba.2012.45-281

Leaf, J. B., Taubman, M., Bloomfield, S., Palos-Rafuse, L., Leaf, R., McEachin, J., & Oppenheim, M. L. (2009). Increasing social skills and pro-social behavior for three children diagnosed with autism through the use of a teaching package. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 3(1), 275–289. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2008.07.003

Leaf, J. B., Townley-Cochran, D., Taubman, M., Cihon, J. H., Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Kassardjian, A., … Pentz, T. G. (2015). The Teaching Interaction Procedure and behavioral skills training for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder: a review and commentary. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2(4), 402–413. doi:10.1007/s40489-015-0060-y

Taubman, M. T., Leaf, R. B., McEachin, J., & Driscoll, M. (2011). Crafting connections: Contemporary applied behavior analysis for enriching the social lives of persons with autism spectrum disorder. DRL Books.

Tullis, C., & Gallagher, P. (2016). Effects of a group teaching interaction procedure on the social skills of students with autism spectrum disorders. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 51(4), 421–433.

Citation for this article:

Stoeckley, C. (2020). Clinical corner: What is a good way to teach social skills in a group? Science in Autism Treatment, 17(2).

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