Do you have a little one who struggles with social skills, language, communication, or challenging behavior? Social skills training may be an appropriate intervention for your child. SST has proven to promote development in young children in the following areas: communication, social skills, play, cognitive and challenging behavior (https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/). It is also effective for a wide range of ages and populations, but in this post, we will be focusing on intervention for young children, 18 months to 6 years old.
The nice thing about SST is that it is easy to use and works for children with or without a disability. ALL young children may benefit from SST. In this post I will cover the following:
1. Identifying the skill to teach
2. Setting up the environment
3. Identifying materials to teach the skill
4. Explaining what you will teach and why
5. Modeling or showing the child how to do the skill
6. Practice by role-playing
7. Giving the child feedback (did they do it right or wrong)
8. Monitoring (keep track of progress)
What is Social Skills Training (SST)?
Social Skills Training (SST) is an evidence-based practice identified by The National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice. (See the whole report here: https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/)
Social skills training can be conducted in a group or individual setting at home, school, or clinic. It often includes direct instruction, modeling, role-playing, and feedback.
Why use SST?
Social skills are an important part of development in young children. Social skills are often a predictor of success in school and later on in life. This is not to say that every child with good social skills will be a good student or be successful in life, or visa versa, but there is research to support the generality. Either way, it’s hard to argue that teaching appropriate social skills to children is important.
Deficits in social skills often lead to inappropriate behavior because the child does not know how to act. Often, as social and communication skills increase, challenging behaviors will decrease.
Social Skills Training (SST) is an evidence-based practice that has proven to be effective in teaching appropriate social skills as well as promoting development in other areas (communication, social skills, play, cognitive and challenging behavior).
In order to use SST effectively it is recommended the child have these foundation skills:
Imitation - the child is able to copy the actions, words or sounds of another child or adult.
Joint Attention - makes some eye contact and responds when his/her name is called.
Follows Basic Instruction - follows simple single step instructions (i.e. come here, sit down, etc.)
Steps to Implementing SST with your child:
Let’s take a look at how we can easily teach social skills to a young child at home.
Step 1: Identify the Skill
What skill do you want to teach? Observe your child and identify what skill it is that they are missing. For example, do they hit because they struggle with sharing or taking turns? Do they look the other way or hide when someone says, “hi” instead of responding with a wave or “hi”? Keep in mind how old your child is. Sometimes we expect a 2-3 year old to perform a skill that develops around 4-5 years old.
Look for my upcoming post for a list of common social skills that develop in early childhood. This is not a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will give you a starting point.
Example: I notice that my youngest child whines when she wants a toy from her brother or she runs away when she doesn't want to share or give something up. My daughter needs to learn to share things that she likes. Let's focus on the skill of sharing for this example.
Step 2: Set up the Environment
The skill you decide to teach can likely be taught and incorporated throughout the day, but it may be helpful to identify a consistent time and location for when you provide initial instruction for the skill. This may be done at the table during breakfast, in bed, on the couch before you play, in the car, etc. Find a location and time of day that works best for you and your family.
Example: I sit with my 18 month-old and 4-year-old on the couch after breakfast for 1-2 minutes at the start of the day to explain what we will be practicing that day, why, and role-play. When we are on the couch they don't have any toys so I have their full attention. A few months ago, using SST for my 4 year-old was during my daughter’s first nap time. Figure out what works best for you and your family.
Step 3: Find Materials to Teach the Skill (if appropriate)
Find materials that will be fun and engaging. This way you can build positive reinforcement naturally into the activity. For some skills you may not need any materials other than yourself.
Example: When teaching the skill of sharing I want to start with using toys that are moderately preferred. If I start with something my daughter is super attached to she is going to struggle with learning how to share. I will start with the magnatiles and then build up to something she really likes (i.e. baby doll).
Step 4: Explain What and Why
Next explain what you are going to teach and why. When explaining try to match your language to the child's ability. Limit the number of words you are using to explain the activity if your child is delayed with their speech or language.
Example: For the skill of sharing I might say, "We are going to practice sharing things that you like with your brother. When he asks for a magnatile, we are going to give him one. This makes your brother happy when you share with him." You may provide more or less information based on what your child understands, but be sure to explain what you will be practicing and why. You may also check to see if your child understands by asking a follow up question such as: "What are we going to practice?" or "Why is it good to share?" My daughter is not at this level yet, so I will not be doing this.
Step 5: Model
Here you will show your child what the skill is supposed to look like. Depending on the skill you may show your child good and bad examples. If you have older siblings in the house, relatives or friends you can use them to help model the skill. Research shows that children are more likely to copy other children close in age to them compared to an adult. Using adults will work if that's all you have, but if you have other children, recruit them as your helpers.
Example: This is where my 4 year-old will be helping. I will say, "Watch, your brother wants some magnatiles and I am going to share with him." I will then hand him some of the magnatiles that I have to show what sharing looks like. My daughter is 18 months so I will model more than one time and also model throughout the day.
Step 6: Practice!
Practice, practice, practice, and help your child out as needed! This is the most important step! Provide lots of practice for your child in structured settings and then try to provide those opportunities throughout the day. It’s okay to prompt or “help” your child respond correctly so they have opportunities to be successful.
Example: I will then hand the magnatiles to my daughter and have my son ask for magnatiles. If my daughter doesn't share right away I will prompt her share by physically helping her hand the magnatile to her brother. I will then praise her for sharing with her brother, "Wow, good job sharing! Your brother is happy because you shared with him!" I will practice with her for as long as I have her attention and with different items. Then I will work on it throughout the day. As she begins to understand sharing I will practice having her share highly preferred items (things she really, really likes!)
Step 7: Feedback (Reinforce or Correct)
If your child responds correctly, provide positive praise and a tangible item or reinforcer if needed. If your child responds incorrectly, gently let him/her know they were wrong and help them to respond the right way. This is important to do when initially teaching the skill.
Example: If my daughter shares when asked to I am going to act excited and provide specific praise, "Wow, good job sharing!" If my daughter tries to run away or pulls the toy back I am going to correct her with a neutral tone of voice and say, "No, let's try again." I will then ask her to share and immediately prompt her to share the toy with her brother.
A few tips on providing reinforcement:
Be specific when you provide praise (example: “I like the way you waited with your hands down” “thank you for having a quiet voice while you wait")
Give feedback immediately (within 3 seconds). This ensures you reinforce or correct the right behavior (Example: My daughter waits for her cracker, then hits her brother. If I give her the cracker after she hits her brother I may reinforce the hitting and not the waiting.)
Step 8: Monitor
You want to make sure that what you are teaching is working. Some children respond better to other strategies. If you are teaching with SST and your child is not making progress then you should change the skill, materials, or strategy you are using. Take a step back and observe again to see if your child is starting to perform the skill on their own. You can use the skill list to keep track of when your child has mastered a skill.
Keep in Mind:
When working with young children repetition is important. It may take a while for your child to master a skill and that's okay.
You may find your child is performing a skill great for a few days or weeks and then stops. It's okay to go back and work on the skill to remind them of what is expected.
It's typical for a child to perform a skill better with one parent or adult than another. It's helpful to practice the skill with different people, in different locations and with different materials to help your child truly master the skill.
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Thank you and I hope you enjoy the bonding experience and benefits of working on social skills with your child!