Sunday, August 13, 2006

How to Teach Your Child Social Skills

How to Teach Your Child Social Skills

For over forty years, special education teachers have focused on helping children with learning disabilities improve their academic skills. However, it is now quite clear that a child’s life long success is more dependant upon his social adeptness than it is to his scholastic ability. Yet, although children with learning disabilities are often way behind their peers in their social development, these deficits were very rarely addressed.

Children with learning disabilities tend to be less skillful in social interactions and have difficulty creating and maintaining good peer relationships. They tend to be less accepted by peers, interact inappropriately, awkward in social situations, and misread social cues. There is now a greater awareness that we must to teach special needs children appropriate social skills.

Factors that Lead to Social Skill Deficits

Social skills involve daily interactions such as sharing, taking turns, and allowing others to talk without interrupting. More advanced social skills involve facets of self-control such as anger management. Most children learn social skills by observing how others in their environment handle social situations. These children imitate desirable responses, such as taking turns, and learn to avoid responses that do not work. For some children, particularly those with learning disabilities, a more direct approach is needed to help them develop appropriate social skills.

Not all children with learning disabilities have difficulty with social skills. There are three factors that often lead to social skill deficits. There factors are more common in special needs children. These are:

  1. Cognitive deficits Children with language processing disorders or low intelligence tend to have difficulty with social development.

  2. Severe or complex learning disorders.

  3. Hyperactivity Children with ADHD or poor impulse control tend to have more pronounced social skill problems.

Also, girls are more likely to experience social adjustment problems than are boys.

What You Can Do: The Social Autopsy

It is vital that you as a parent takes steps to help your child develop the social skills that he needs to succeed in life. This is not particularly hard to do, but it must be done.

One of the easiest techniques developed to help children learn to improve their social ability is called the social autopsy. This is a strategy in which you assist your child to improve his social skills by jointly analyzing social errors that your child makes and by planning alternative strategies. This process is particularly effective in helping your child to see the cause-effect relationship between his social behavior and the reactions of others.

This is what you do:

After your child makes a social error you should discuss with your child what happened. Your goal is to teach your child to:

  1. Identify the error

  2. Determine who was harmed by the error

  3. Decide how to correct the error

  4. Develop an alternate plan to prevent the error from occurring again.

Remember, a social skills autopsy is not a punishment. It is a supportive and constructive problem-solving strategy.

The Social Autopsy in Action

For example, if your child has a friend over and they fight over a toy and the friend goes home upset, then this is what you can do:


  1. Identify the error: fighting over a toy.

  2. Determine who was harmed by the error: your child’s friend was hurt because he left upset, but also your child was hurt because now his friend won’t want to play with him

  3. Decide how to correct the error: Your child should contact the other child and try to make friends again. You might suggest giving the other child a treat to help smooth over hurt feelings.

  4. Develop an alternate plan to prevent the error from occurring again: What should your child do next time? He can choose to share the toy. If he would rather not share, he can choose to not play with the toy when his friend is there.

When to Use the Social Autopsy

You can use the social autopsy to analyze and improve upon your child’s mistakes. However, you also can use it to emphasis your child’s successes.

When your child does particularly well in a social setting, you can assist him in examining and identifying the behaviors that contributed to his success. This teaches him to repeat those behaviors in other settings.

Why the Social Autopsy Works

The advantage of using the social autopsy technique is that it focuses on the three things that special needs children require in order to develop and learn:

  1. Repetitive practice

  2. Immediate feedback

  3. Positive reinforcement

Some Things to Remember

When you apply the social autopsy approach with your child, it is important to remember a number of things:

  1. The social autopsy is meant to be a supportive and constructive strategy to foster social competence. It is not meant to be or administered as a punishment.

  2. The social autopsy is a problem-solving technique. It should not be a negative experience for your child.

  3. The social autopsy is an opportunity for your child to actively participate in the process of his own social development. It requires his input and understanding. It should be directed by you but not in a controlling manner.

  4. The social autopsy can be conducted by any significant adult in the child's life. You should try to have other adults in your child’s life participate in this process.

  5. The social autopsy is most effective when conducted immediately after the social error or success. Remember that all children learn best when they have immediate feedback.

  6. The social autopsy should be done on a one-to-one basis. This is the most effective way children learn and will help avoid embarrassment for your child.


If you have a child with ADD ADHD,
Oppositional Defiant Disorder, learning disabilities, or cognitive or functional problems, you have to take special care to make sure that he is developing socially as well as academically. The social autopsy is one technique that you can use to teach you child better social skills.

Anthony Kane, MD

ADD ADHD Advances

Anthony Kane, MD is a physician and international lecturer.
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