As a middle school special educator, social skills have been one of my favorite areas to teach. These skills are so important but often get left behind, especially in the upper grades. These are a number of roadblocks to teaching social skills to kids and young adults, including now having enough time, difficulty scheduling a group, or just not having the right resources to get started. That’s why as a curriculum specialist now, I feel it’s so important to help educators find a way to teach these important skills. So many kids struggle with understanding others’ perspective, engaging in peer conversations, making friends, managing their emotions, dealing with conflicts, and much more. These are all critical skills that help kids have success in school, with friends, and for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes it might feel like there is not enough time in the day for social skills instruction due to scheduling, academics, and other needs throughout the day. Still, there are ways to fit it in. If a middle or high school student still needs social instruction, it’s critical they get it right away! Consider pulling a group out of study hall once a week for instruction, having a lunch group every day for a week, or structuring time for a morning meeting. It’s important to think outside the box to find a time that works. Once you figure out the timing, here are some tips and strategies for making social skills groups work for you and your students:
Identify social needs ahead of time. Consider the students you are thinking of and what specific social skills they need the most. Start with the most important skills first and work your way through. For example, if a young adult is getting into trouble for acting out in aggressive ways, focus on managing emotions first. If you have a student who is constantly arguing with peers because they only see things one way, focus on perspective-taking. The term “social skills” is really a huge umbrella, so work to be purposeful about what specific skills you are teaching.
Involve peer role models. This can’t be stressed enough! Inviting peer role models into a group can help kids feel more excited for the activities. Of course, it’s no secret that kids learn best from other kids. Peer role models are perfect supports to help give appropriate social responses throughout activities. You really need these learners around to help support the other students who need the social skills the most.
Communicate with other educators and professionals. Let the students’ teachers and other professionals know what skills the students will be working on. Encourage them to reinforce certain behaviors to help kids generalize the skills they are learning. I always found this extremely helpful because if I wanted to work on conversations with a group, the speech language pathologist could use strategies to help highlight the same skills. Communication and collaboration is key.
Give time to get to know each other. If students in your group aren’t already friends, it’s important to give time for them to develop relationships. Some students might feel nervous to meet in a small group with other kids they don’t know well. Use your first session to give kids time to just get to know each other and start to feel more comfortable. Let students share important facts about themselves through activities or games. My favorite is “Two Truths and a Dream”. In this activity, kids write down 3 things about themselves: two that are true and one that isn’t true yet but is a dream for the future. Have students read their three statements and see if others in the group can guess what is true and what is a dream. Whatever icebreaker activities you choose, it’s important to give that time so that all students can feel comfortable and open in the group.
Incorporate interests. Find out some interests for each student in your group. Work to incorporate those interests into your lessons. For example, if a few students love basketball, you can use references of playing on a team to teach about friendship skills and sportsmanship. If students are into art, you can teach acceptance by painting a picture and discussing how each of ours are different and unique. Adding those interests into the group will help kids feel more invested in the group, which of course leads to increased learning over time.
Teach social skills explicitly. Once you know exactly what skills you want to target, spend the time to explicitly teach those skills. Note that it’s most helpful to really define your group to focus on the skills your students need. “Social skills” is a huge umbrella, so it helps to narrow down what social skills really need to be targeted explicitly. Some of my favorite social skills units to teach include perspective-taking, communication skills, and managing emotions. If you are struggling with where to start, consider this complete set of social skills lessons with activities and more. Let students know what skill you are working on, why it matters, and give practice with each skill in action. Kids and young adults need to know exactly what skills they need to improve and how to get there.
Use role-play. One of the most fun and effective way to learn some of these social skills is acting them out! Students can work in partners or small groups to act out a variety of situations. Have students role-play having a group conversation at lunch. Encourage kids to act out how to solve a disagreement with a friend. Those are just a few small examples! The options are really endless. Best of all, with the added practice, this strategy can really help the skills stick over time.
Encourage real-life connections. Give time for kids to relate their new skills to what is going on in their real lives. You can ask questions to prompt these connections, such as, “When have you seen someone use this skill in your life?” or “When do you think you might need this?”
Incorporate hands-on activities. Middle and high school kids need something active to keep them focused and engaged in social skills groups! Have students create interactive crafts, color, act out situations, and just get up and move. Kids will always remember more when they are doing something!
Add incentives (and make them learning activities, too). Let your students know that they will get 10 minutes of activity time at the end of the group if you get through what you need to. Then, of course, plan that activity to be centered around critical skills! Give time to play basketball, but discuss and encourage turn-taking as kids play. Watch a funny (but appropriate) YouTube video and see if kids can use their self-control to not laugh right away. In the small amount of time educators get to support kids with social skills, we really need to make every minute count.
Discuss real-life scenarios. Real-life situations can help kids understand social skills in a meaningful way. My favorite way to do that is to give a scenario and pose a question. For example, “You notice your partner in math has their head down. How might they feel? What can you do?” In this situation, kids can work on learning social cues, building empathy, and developing social problem-solving skills all from one scenario. You can make your own or use sets already created for you.
Give encouragement. I can’t stress enough that learning new social skills will often take lots of practice, discussion, encourage, and repetition. Learning these skills is often challenging, especially for the kids who struggle socially. Know that it will take time, so provide lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement along the way.
Play games. Social skill learning can be tough for kids who struggle in this area. Sometimes kids even avoid participating because they are embarrassed or nervous to work on the skills head on. A perfect strategy for this is to play games. Blurt is one of my favorites to practice self control, while games like Pictionary can help encourage teamwork. I’ve even developed some games to specifically target skills like building empathy, improving social communication skills, or working on social problem-solving.
Provide follow-up. A few weeks after the group, check in with the students to see how they feel about what they’ve learned. Learning social skills is often an on-going and evolving process.
Get in the classroom. If possible, spend time in the students’ classrooms to see those social skills in action! This is the best place to provide extra encouragement and reinforcement to make sure our learners are following through with what we’ve taught them. This can also be a great way to provide support to the classroom teacher, too.
Teaching social skills can be lots of fun and extremely rewarding when you see kids making social gains. If you are teaching older kids, give this complete set of Social Skills Lessons and Activities for Older Kids a try! It includes units and activities teach about basic interactions, managing emotions, conversations, empathy, and perspective-taking. Just some of the lessons and activities target being respectful, following directions, accepting criticism, working with others, understanding emotions, dealing with anger, understanding perspectives, accepting different perspectives, flexible thinking, understanding social cues, developing empathy, using perspectives to resolve conflicts, and more.
If you’re needing resources for younger kids, try this set of Social Skills Activities for Younger Kids. It includes social skills task cards, lessons, worksheets, and social stories for teaching positive social behaviors. Skills targeted include basic interactions, conversations, empathy, friendships, dealing with conflicts, and more.