Social Skills Interventions with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Problems: A Quantitative Synthesis of Single-Subject Research

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NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 5 describes the following:

Title | Social Skills Interventions with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Problems: A Quantitative Synthesis of Single-Subject Research

Author | Mathur, S.R., Kavale, K.A., Quinn, M.M., Forness, S.R., & Rutherford, R.B.

SourceBehavioral Disorders, 23(3), 193-201.

Year Published | 1998

Sixty-four single-subject studies examining the effectiveness of social skills interventions with preschool, elementary, and secondary-level students with emotional or behavioral problems were included in this synthesis. The results of quantitative synthesis procedures using percentage of non-overlapping data suggest that social skills interventions have limited empirical support for their overall effectiveness. Implications for future social skills research and quantitative analysis methodology are discussed.

One of the defining characteristics of students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) is a deficit in social skills. Their lack of interpersonal skills leads to problems forming and maintaining relationships with peers, and often start cycles of peer rejection, withdrawal, social isolation, and loneliness. Over the years many programs have been designed to teach social skills through direct instruction, modeling, role playing, and practice. Those who support these programs believe that, if students can master basic social skills such as greeting people, making conversation, or handling anger in the classroom, they will be able to generalize those skills to other situations they encounter in their daily lives. However, research on the effectiveness of social skills interventions has been mixed.

Research Questions
This synthesis sought to provide a clear and impartial evaluation of the size and effectiveness of social skills interventions for students with emotional and behavior disorders (EBD).

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 64
  • Number of Subjects | 283
  • Years Spanned | N/A

Research Subjects
Of the 283 participants, 72% were boys. Participants were at the preschool, elementary, or secondary level.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Average age = 9.78

Specified Disability
Autism, Emotional and Behavior Disorders (EBD). Students with delinquent behavior were also included in this study.

Interventions were grouped according to the social variables they primarily emphasized:

  1. social interaction skills (i.e., social initiations and social responses to peers and adults during social contact);
  2. social communication skills (i.e., verbal social behaviors); and
  3. social behavior (a broad category focusing on interpersonal behaviors).

Duration of Intervention
Average of 12 weeks, 2.5 hours per week.


  1. Overall, the data suggested that social skills instruction could enhance social interaction skills.
  2. However, many social skills interventions were only mildly effective for preschoolers.
  3. Students maintained their social skills across time, but were less successful at generalizing their social skills from one peer or setting to another.
  4. Social interaction skills were more responsive to interventions than were social communication skills.
  5. Students who were at risk for EBD or categorized as delinquents responded more positively to social skills interventions than did students identified as having either EBD or autism.

Combined Effects Size
The percentage of non-overlapping data (PND) was calculated for each type of intervention. A PND between 50% and 70% is considered to show that a treatment’s effectiveness is questionable.  A PND of 70% is considered the lower limit for a reliable treatment.  Only one PND score calculated in this meta-analysis was above the reliability cut-off of 70%.  The average PND for social skills interventions was 62%.  The PND for generalization of social skills across peers was 64%, and generalization across settings was 53%. The PND for maintenance and generalization of social interaction skills across time was 74%, making it the only PND score in this synthesis that indicated effectiveness.

This meta-analysis found that social skills instruction has a modest effect on social interaction skills (e.g., appropriate facial expression or voice tone, inviting someone to play, sharing, etc.) and communication skills (e.g., asking and responding to questions, expressing one’s point of view, complimenting others) of students with EBD. Looking at the two categories of skills separately, researchers have found that instructing students in social interaction skills is more effective than teaching them communication skills.  A possible reason for this outcome may be the fact that social interaction interventions use student peers to prompt, initiate, and reinforce students, which does not occur in communication skills training. Alternatively, this outcome could be due to the complexity and variability of social communication, which makes it much more difficult to teach. Interestingly, students categorized as at risk for EBD or as delinquents appear to benefit more from social skills interventions than do students identified as having either EBD or autism.

More research needs to be conducted on which students benefit most from social skills interventions, looking at such variables as disability, age, and IQ, all of which appeared to have been influences in this study. More examination of how they influence outcomes, however, is necessary.


Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which 1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; 2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; 3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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