5.6 Social skills

Thinking functionally – skills deficit coping

Students with challenging behaviour may experience deficits in their academic and social emotional capacities. In times of stress associated with academic and social challenges, such deficits can leave them feeling vulnerable. Their efforts to cope may be to get feelings of mastery, agency and competence through engagement in disruptive and anti-social behaviour e.g., being the class clown, being the toughest child in the class. These students may also be looking to get away from feelings of shame and embarrassment linked to their delayed capacities compared to their same aged peers.

A diagram on get and get away functions of childhodo with the factors of attachment coping, skill deficit coping and regulation coping
Figure 5.2 Understand the function by Govind Krishnamoorthy and Kay Ayre licensed under CC BY-SA.

Such behaviours may include lying, attempting to cheat on tests, being secretive or teasing and bullying others on perceived areas of incompetence to pre-empt others picking on them first. Building on these student’s social emotional capacities would benefit them academically and socially while reducing the need for these students to engage in these maladaptive coping behaviours.

Social skills

Remember from chapter two the competing pathway and replacement behaviour? When we think about disruptive behaviour from a functional perspective we think about what replacement behaviour we can teach the child that is acceptable to the context and the people in it. This replacement behaviour is what we want the child to do to get what they need instead of the current serious, disruptive behaviour they are using to get what they need. Therefore, the replacement behaviour  must serve the same function as the serious, disruptive behaviour (that is, it must be an acceptable way for the child to either get or escape) otherwise there is no point in the child using it. If a replacement behaviour does not serve the same function as the disruptive behaviour then the child will not use it. Instead, they will continue to use the serious, disruptive behaviour that did fill the function of enabling them to get or escape because it is working for them.

The goal is to teach a replacement behaviour that works better for the child than the disruptive behaviour and if the replacement behaviour does work better than the disruptive behaviour, the child will use it and keep using it because it works for them. Replacement  behaviours need to be more efficient and effective than the disruptive behaviour and this includes taking less effort to demonstrate. Many replacement behaviours are associated with social skills and teaching the child how a particular behaviour looks and sounds in context. Often we assume that a child knows what an expected behaviour looks and sounds like without stopping to think what if? What if, that behaviour does not exist in the child’s world beyond school? What if, that behaviour has never been demonstrated to the child? What if there has never been reason for that behaviour to be used?

Because many disruptive behaviours can be triggered by a lack of social skills, social skills are a crucial ingredient in any intervention into disruptive behaviour. Social skill difficulties according to Gresham (2015, p. 202) fall into two categories either acquisition deficits or performance deficits. Acquisition deficits are about the child not having had opportunity to acquire the skill. Lack of knowledge of the skill, not understanding where and when it should be used or how it looks, make this a ‘can’t do’ problem.

Performance deficits on the other hand can be thought of as a ‘won’t do’ problem. The child knows how to demonstrate the skill but won’t. So, this is a performance problem tied to motivation not a learning problem and this is where knowing and changing the antecedents and consequences, play a critical role in increasing the frequency that these skills the child won’t do, will be performed.

Social Skills Improvement System 

Classwide Intervention Program (SSIS-CIP) 

Read about the Social Skills Improvement System – Classwide Intervention Program (SSIS-CIP) developed by  Gresham and Elliott. The program focuses on teaching ten skills which have been proven by research to be the most critical skills according to teachers for students from prep through to adolescence. The ten skills are outlined within the reading. While it is a manualised program written within an American specific education context, it lends itself well to be an excellent framework to structure the teaching of social skills to children demonstrating serious, disruptive behaviours.

Gresham (2015, p. 210) notes the theory of change model derives, in part, from social learning theory (Bandura, 1977, 1986). This model uses strategies from social learning theory such as modelling (vicarious learning and observation), coaching (verbal instruction) behavioural rehearsal (practice) and feedback/generalisation. Within the theory of change model, social skills are taught following six steps:

  1. Tell (coaching) – the skill is defined, why is it important is discussed and the steps needed to demonstrate the skill are outlined.
  2. Show (modelling) – appropriate and inappropriate behaviours are modelled, and visuals and video clips are also used. The importance of modelling is well supported by the research as a highly effective strategy.
  3. Do (role playing) – review, revise, explain and demonstrate through role play the new social skill.
  4. Practice (behaviour rehearsal) – the child practises the new skill within the context in which the problem occurred as well as wherever else the skill may be needed.
  5. Monitoring progress (feedback and self-assessment) – reflecting on own progress. The teacher monitors and keeps written notes and gives feedback to the child during the teaching of the skill.
  6. Generalise (generalising across contexts) – the child uses the skill in various contexts – in different areas/situations in the school.

While the steps above build upon each other in the order listed, more than one strategy can be used at the same time. For example, coaching and modelling would most often be used simultaneously to complement each other and strengthen the child’s understanding of
the skill being taught. The six steps apply to developing social skills of both acquisition and performance.

In summary, social skills are learned behaviours that are viewed as acceptable for the context within which they are performed. Social skills help children to interact positively with others. Throughout a childhood development, variations will exist in the strengths and weaknesses of social skills and therefore the child’s competence in performing them. Developing social competence is critical for all children so that they can demonstrate behaviours necessary for building positive relationships with others (e.g. teacher and peers) and engage successfully in learning.


The BeYou site has a wealth of resources and information to support children with behaviour and social-emotional learning. Explore the many topics available and implement the strategies where applicable to your context.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gresham, F. M. (2015). Disruptive behavior disorders. Evidence-based practice for assessment and intervention. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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