How to Teach Social Skills to Children with Special Needs

Why are social skills important for kids? Research shows that kindergarteners who have strong social skills are more likely to pursue higher education and get jobs that pay well.

Figuring out how to teach social skills to kids with special needs can be more challenging. Developmental differences can make it difficult for kids to understand social situations.

These methods can be used when teaching social skills to special needs students.

Model Social Skills

Your social skills were developed long ago, so you might not think about how you use them every day. It's also easy to forget certain social skills when you're in the middle of teaching. You might not always greet your associate or thank your associate for doing a task or you.

Tune into your own social skills and interactions when you're with your students. Be intentional with using the skills you're currently teaching.

Teach Skills Directly in Related Setting

Teaching and then practicing specific social skills helps special needs students understand the expectations. You can teach any skill in the classroom, but it can be more effective if you're in a related setting.

If you're teaching bus etiquette, arrange to have a bus at the school where you can practice the skills. If you're discussing a situation that happens on the playground, take the kids outside to learn the skill there.

This makes the lesson more realistic because they're in the setting where they're likely to encounter the situation.

Practice Through Role Playing

Role-playing gives kids the chance to test out their social skills. Role-playing activities help kids practice decision-making in real-world situations. It can help them learn the skills more deeply than just having them taught to them.

When you roleplay social situations, you give your students a safe, controlled place to use the skills. They still get real-world experience, but it's a lower-risk situation.

Explain the situation to the class. You might explain that two kids just got to the slide at the same time and both want to go down first. Or you might set up a scenario in which one student broke another student's favorite toy.

Choose students to act out the situation. Remind them of the social skills you want to reinforce before they start.

After the situation plays out, talk as a group about what happened. You might offer some alternative suggestions or ask the students if they might do something differently.

Use Pretend Play

A similar option is to set up social scenarios in pretend play areas. Kitchens, doctor's offices, and any number of pretend settings can give students a chance to practice social skills.

If the kids are pretending to run a restaurant, there might be an unhappy customer. In a home situation where each child is playing a role in the family, there might be a conflict between the family members.

The kids can work through those scenarios using the social skills they've learned. Guide them when necessary to encourage them to use the skills if they don't automatically use them.

Play Emotions Games

Emotions play a major role in social interactions.

Kids need to understand their own emotions and how they impact others. If you're mad and take it out on peers, you won't get a positive response.

It's also important for kids to be able to recognize different emotions in others. Realizing that someone is sad helps you decide how to interact with them to make them feel better.

Practice identifying different emotions by playing games.

One option is an emotions bingo game. Create bingo cards with different facial expressions that show specific emotions. 

To play, you can either call out the name of the emotion or act out the emotion. The kids cover up the square with the corresponding emotion.

Another option is emotion charades. Write different emotions on paper slips. For younger kids, you can draw a picture to go along with the word to help the player figure it out.

One person chooses a piece of paper and acts out the emotion. The other students use the clues to identify the emotion.

Read Relevant Books

Age-appropriate books offer a different way to present social skills. Social narratives can reinforce what you're trying to teach.

Some books focus specifically on one type of skill or social scenario. This can give you a direct way to teach the skill.

The regular trade books you read to the class might touch on some of the skills and social situations you're teaching. When you come across those situations, pause and talk about them with the class.

You can also create your own class book that talks about different social skills. This gives kids the chance to apply their understanding of the situation while you reinforce literacy skills.

Post Visual Aids

Visual aids posted around the classroom can help kids remember how to respond in certain situations. 

It can be something as simple as illustrations or photos of kids using correct social skills. Examples include using eye contact while talking, smiling at each other, or comforting a child who is sad.

One way to make this option more meaningful is by having your students act out those situations while you take photos. Enlarge the images and hang them on the wall as a reminder of expected social norms.

Reinforce Social Skills

When special needs students use the social skills you teach, use reinforcers to encourage them to repeat those behaviors.

Pointing out and praising the correct social response is one simple way to reinforce the behavior.

You might also use special experiences or privileges as positive reinforcers for using social skills. This could be something such as helping the teacher or having time with the class pet.

Charts to track social skills can also work as part of the reinforcement system. When kids display the expected social skills, they get stickers on their charts. They can earn special privileges once they earn a certain number of stickers.

How to Teach Social Skills to Kids With Special Needs

Teaching social skills to kids with special needs can help them have positive interactions with their peers. Using a variety of teaching methods gives your students lots of practice in ways that click with them.

Check out our collection of social skills stories as resources for how to teach social skills.

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