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May 2017Vol. 18, No. 3Toolkit to Help Build Social Skills in Children With Disabilities

Being able to understand and navigate social and interpersonal situations is an important skill that every youth must learn in order to interact appropriately with others and handle difficult situations. Unfortunately, many youth with disabilities have difficulty building these skills, leaving them at a disadvantage in securing employment, developing relationships, and connecting with the community.

The toolkit, Skills for Independent Living: Parents Help Build Social Skills, which was produced by PACER's National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, describes the following seven tools that parents can use to help their children practice and improve social skills:

  • Use social skills stories to build skills in understanding situations—Situational stories can be used to illustrate certain social skills. The stories should clearly identify the topic, who is involved, and where and when the situation usually occurs. Additionally, the stories should explain what is happening, how it happens, and why it happens as well as the reasoning behind what people think, do, or say in a given situation.
  • Define boundaries with a five-point scale—This tool is aimed at helping children understand that there are different degrees of behavior, different boundaries, and that there are consequences for going too far beyond a boundary. For example, parents can teach their children to rate their anger levels or the appropriateness of different behaviors using this scale.
  • Teach social boundaries with a circle chart—A circle chart made up of concentric circles can help define personal space, such as knowing when it is appropriate to hug or touch another person. The circle illustrates examples of groups a child may interact with, such as strangers, familiar people in the neighborhood, friends and acquaintances, personal caregivers, extended family and close friends, close family, and individuals.
  • Practice role playing—This tool gives children the opportunity to practice what they would do in various situations. Roll playing encourages children to think about, anticipate, and develop alternate plans for unexpected situations.
  • Create opportunities to practice skills—This tool encourages parents to create real-life opportunities for their child to interact with others, such as practicing how to greet someone and conversation starters.
  • Explore a social skills training program—This tool encourages parents to consider enrolling their child in a social skills training program that would give them a structured opportunity to learn and practice new skills, such as dating and relationships or ensuring personal safety. In these programs, trained instructors introduce new skills and the ways they are used and then models them for students. The student then models these new skills back and continues to practice at home.
  • Help young adults try social skills groups—Social skills groups can provide an opportunity for youth to explore, practice, and use the social skills they have learned with a group of peers. These groups can be centered on extracurricular activities or friendship groups at school, recreational groups in the community, or other educational activities.

The toolkit also includes the "Parent Social Skills Action Plan" worksheet that allows parents to list their social skills goals for their children and determine the best course of action to help them attain these skills. This tool may be of interest to child welfare professionals working with children with disabilities and their families.

The Skills for Independent Living: Parents Help Build Social Skills toolkit is available at (205 KB).