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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


How to Teach Social Skills Effectively

Social skills training can be effective, but only if certain conditions are met, according to researchers Frank Gresham, George Sugai, and Robert Horner. The trio reviewed a number of meta-analyses of research results on the effectiveness of social skills training, and found hope for teachers who are looking for successful instructional approaches for students with disabilities. To be effective, social skills training must be individualized, taking into account the skills the student already has and addressing the student's specific deficits.

Social skills training (SST) is a popular intervention for students with high-incidence disabilities such as specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Yet the researchers found that "most SST studies deliver a treatment to students with an almost complete disregard for the types of social skills deficits students may have," and thereby lose effectiveness. They identified three distinct types of social skills deficits that interventions must target: acquisition deficits, in which the students simply do not have the needed social skills; performance deficits, in which students may have the skills but fail to perform them at acceptable levels in given situations— other words, they can but won't perform; and fluency deficits, in which students may know how and want to perform given social skills but, because of a lack of practice or reinforcement, do not exhibit them competently. These differentiations are important because, to be effective, each one requires a distinct intervention approach.

Additional qualities that are necessary for effective SST are:

  • Since social behavior is contextual, training must specifically address how to transfer skills to situations other than those in which they were taught. "Social skills training," the authors state, "should result in substantive and durable change in the social competence of a student throughout the school day, not just the acquisition of an isolated skill."
  • The most effective SST strategies combine modeling, coaching, and reinforcement procedures.
  • SST interventions should exceed the typical 30 hours and be more intense.
  • Newly acquired social skills must be reinforced functionally to overcome competing problem behaviors.

For further details about this study and its implications for practice, refer to Gresham, Frank M., Sugai, George, and Horner, Robert H. "Interpreting Outcomes of Social Skills Training for Students with High-Incidence Disabilities," Exceptional Children, 67, no. 3 (spring 2001): 331-344. The study was funded in part by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education, Contract No. HS 0201, Frank M. Gresham, Project Director.


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Last updated: October 8, 2001

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