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7 Engaging Ways To Teach Your Students Social Skills

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January 02, 2024


How many can you think of?

The new school year is just around the corner and with it comes plenty of excitement, stress, and planning. By now, you’ve reflected upon your last year and have determined which strategies, topics, lessons, etc., were successful and which flopped. With this insight, you can better organize your schedule. You should arrange plenty of time to teach subjects that are required, and plenty to teach those that aren’t.

This includes finding time for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) which can sometimes take the back seat to the standard curriculum. Your class will appreciate a break from the rigor of everyday classes when you save time to practice social skills. Activities for learning social skills can be fun and take a variety of forms, from play in group settings, vicarious learning through VideoModeling™ curricula, or even virtual interactions.

Unique Ways to Teach Social Skills

Student needs and interests vary greatly, so the most engaging approach to teach social skills will differ for each student. Experiment with the options we’ve detailed below and find which strategy is most engaging and effective for your classroom!

For the Do-ers

From a young age, we’re thrown into various social interactions and expected to be able to communicate effectively with others. While some social butterflies thrive in this learn-by-doing setting, some students including those with autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, or anxiety, benefit from having more explicit social skills training.

Try Improv. This is a great outlet if there are specific skills or situations your students need guided practice with. Whether you want to practice conversation starters, listening skills, eye contact, or any other social skill, improv can help. You can tailor improv games to the needs and interests of your class – here is a great place to start.

Teach the Value of Effort. Good relationships require effort to both build and maintain. Teach students how to apply effort to relationships using Making The Effort, which teaches students to rely on- you guessed it- effort instead of luck or innate skill. This proven-effective, motivational program promotes prosocial skills and clearly illustrates the rewards of students’ effort.

Students learn to identify likable behaviors, how to leave a good first impression, how to show interest in having relationships with others, and many more ways to achieve social success. Each lesson comes with role-play ideas to have students practice each situation and skill for themselves.

For Vicarious Learners

Research in Social Psychology has firmly established that most social skills can be and are learned “vicariously.” In other words, social skills don’t have to be learned the hard way, through trial and error. Instead, we can learn by watching the social successes and failures of others. This gives students the opportunity to build emotional intelligence and learn appropriate social conduct in the safe, familiar setting of a classroom. Below are some great curricula that utilize VideoModeling™ for vicarious learning.

Build a Good Foundation.  Prioritize self-care – First Impressions matter.

Within a few minutes of meeting someone (more likely seconds), we start to make judgments about their personality, their character and their values. If our first impressions are positive, we’re more likely to accept and like the person.

Due to this “First Impressions Effect,” it’s important to stress with students the importance of how they present themselves physically. It is the very first aspect that others consider in social situations. Help your students work on their hygiene, dress, grooming and attitude basics with the First Impressions Curriculum.

Teach PeopleSmart Behaviors.  Can your students distinguish the difference between a friend and someone who is just being friendly? Do they know how to deepen a relationship? If not, or they could just use a little more help in the area, then check out PeopleSmart. This VideoModeling™ program uses humorous vignettes to show students the Smart and Not Smart ways to handle numerous social situations. Students learn skills for building friendships and how to avoid being taken advantage of by acquaintances. See a trailer for PeopleSmart and the rest of the LifeSmart series here.

Remember Boundaries.  An essential part of social skills is understanding and recognizing social boundaries. This makes both parties involved feel more comfortable. Another great VideoModeling resource, especially for those who struggle with appropriate personal space and boundaries, is the CIRCLES curriculum.

CIRCLES was proven effective in a Harvard study in “increasing knowledge of social safety and appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviors for children with developmental disabilities.4

For the Tech-Savvy

Tech use in special education classrooms is expanding and for good reason. A study out of Vanderbilt University found students in special education classrooms are more confident in class subject matter after using digital education games. Additionally, students on the spectrum often begin to use electronics at an earlier age and at a higher rate than typical individuals their age.3

“Many people with autism are highly interested and motivated by computers, and computer-assisted learning can focus on numerous academic and support areas of need such as emotion recognition, social interaction, and communication.” (Goodwin, 2008)2

Use an App.  Circles Social Skills Utility™

This iPad & Chromebook app follows the same paradigm as the CIRCLES curriculum. It teaches students appropriate touch within each type of relationship students may have. Students create their own CIRCLES world, using personal photos and icons to fill each level of intimacy (color). (Bonus: it’s available now for $24.99 for both iOS and Android!)

Try VR. A buzzword in tech and education lately, Virtual Reality (VR) takes visual learning tools (and apps) one step further and puts students in simulated situations and environments. VR has been found to help students focus and remember things better than when two-dimensional options (like computer screens or books).

VR is also a great tool for students with autism. The simulated nature of VR gives students with autism, who may be uncomfortable in real-life social situations, a safe outlet to practice their social skills. In an experiment performed by Dr. Daniel Yang of Autism Speaks, found that:

“After the virtual-reality training, the participants with autism were better able to discern the ‘interacting’ [characters] from those moving randomly. They also improved their ability to identify the kinds of interactions the [characters] were mimicking (teasing, chasing, etc.).”5

Take a Social-Skills Break & Enjoy

Be sure to take a break from your day-to-day lessons for social skills activities. Remember not to take a one-size-fits-all approach and have fun with it.

  1. Ascione, Laura. “Virtual Reality Could Help Students Remember Better, New Research Says.” ESchool News, ESchoolMedia, 16 July 2018, eschoolnews.com/2018/07/17/virtual-reality-research-remember/2/?all.
  1. Goodwin, Matthew S. “Enhancing and Accelerating the Pace of Autism Research and Treatment.” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, vol. 23, no. 2, 2008, pp. 125–128., doi:10.1177/1088357608316678. https://www.autismspeaks.org/docs/sciencedocs/ita/In_Focus_Innovative_Technology_for_Autism_Goodwin_2008.pdf.
  1. Macmullin, Jennifer A, et al. “Plugged in: Electronics Use in Youth and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Autism, vol. 20, no. 1, 2015, pp. 45–54., doi:10.1177/1362361314566047.  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1362361314566047.
  1. Using a School-Based Program To Teach Healthy Social Relationships To Children With Developmental Disabilities; Sabrina Sargado, Noelle L. Huntington, Casey Walsh, Georgios D. Sideridis, Alison D. Schonwald. Division of Developmental Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA; Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. 25 April 2015.
  2. Virtual Reality Training Improves Social Skills and Brain Activity. (2014, November 17). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/virtual-reality-training-improves-social-skills-and-brain-activity.
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a passionate special education teacher with [number] years of experience, uses her classroom knowledge to craft engaging stories that celebrate the unique strengths of all learners.