Social Skills Can Help Some “Problem Behaviors”

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ECACCross-posted with permission from our friends at Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC). ECAC is a Regional Parent Technical Assistance Center in North Carolina serving families of children with disabilities, their teachers, and other professionals. Visit ECAC’s website at http://www.ecac-parentcenter.org/Default.aspx to access free publications, training opportunities, and other resources, and be sure to check out their Ask ECAC blog (http://askecac.org/).

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Sometimes we forget that, other than basic bodily functions, just about everything we do is learned behavior. In schools we learn obvious things like reading, writing, and math. At home we learn communication, self-help, and independent living skills, as well as how to function as part of a family group. Social skills can and should be taught everywhere that children can possibly find themselves.

It Takes a Village to Socialize a Child

Years ago, entire communities understood their responsibility to socialize children. By “socialize,” we mean the process of teaching a child the written and unwritten rules of our society. These rules include things such as how to behave in various situations, how to communicate appropriately, and what to expect from others. Some rules are a little different for members of specific ethnic, religious, or cultural groups, while other rules are understood by almost all Americans. In this amazing, diverse country of ours, it’s a wonder how so many people are able to figure out how to function with all of the different things to consider.

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Social Learning Curve

The key to successfully socializing children is to not assume that they have figured it all out. There will be children of any age group, in a typical school or community gathering, who are at very different points on the social learning curve.  Some will be able to easily meet expectations, and others will be clueless about the many factors that should be influencing how they behave. They may not know that, most of the time, children are expected to speak differently to adults than with other children. They may not understand the difference between “inside” and “outside” voices. They may not understand that personal space boundaries vary depending on people’s relationships with each other. They may not realize that what counts as physical play in one setting can be seen as physically aggressive in another. They may not understand why certain questions or comments may insult, embarrass, or frighten someone else. They may not notice that the rules for male:female interaction change as they grow older.

Children and young people who violate our social rules may have difficulty making and keeping friends. They may also find themselves being disciplined and isolated when they unknowingly violate social rules. If the punishment happens without instruction as to what they should do differently in the future, many children will continue to behave in a way that is considered inappropriate. They could develop low self-esteem and possibly be frustrated to the point of either acting out or withdrawing from social interaction, because they can’t figure out how to prevent the missteps from happening.

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Social skills are learned, so teach!

Children need to be taught social skills just like they are taught other skills! If a child behaves inappropriately, the adult in the environment should always stop and consider whether the behavior in question could be the result of a social skill deficit. Always use these occasions as teachable moments, rather than presume malice and intentional disobedience. Help children understand the context of the situation and describe alternative ways to behave or interpret the behavior of others. Even if the child does “know better,” it won’t hurt to remind him or her of what doing “better” looks like.

Social skills are taught over time, so there is no quick fix that will instantly eliminate all behavior issues. Building those skills, however, is really the only way to give children and young adults the best chance for the high quality of life experience that we want for them.

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