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Will make eye contact

How to write social skills IEP goals that work.

By Valle Dwight

Ben Greene, 9, was at recess when a classmate asked him to play. “I would, but you smell really bad,” he replied. The girl walked away hurt. Ben, who has Asperger’s syndrome, had no idea why his remark bothered the little girl (“It’s a fact,” he said with a shrug). The next day, at the insistence of his aide, he apologized to her. “I’m sorry I made a personal remark, but you really do smell bad,” he said.

Anyone with a child on the autism spectrum probably recognizes that scenario and, in part, it’s just such situations that led Massachusetts to pass a law requiring that IEP teams consider and address the social skills needs of children on the spectrum. Advocates hailed the law, which recognizes that social skills are a critical part of a child’s education and development.

Despite the fanfare around the law's passage, in some ways it raises more questions than it answers: What exactly are social skills? Who needs them? And how do we teach them? Unfortunately the gaps in the law reflect a larger gap in our understanding of how we can help, measure, and develop social skills in kids who lack them.

Though by far the most common group targeted for social skills are children on the autism spectrum, many children with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have social skills deficits, as do kids with intellectual disabilities. This fact makes developing a social skills curriculum or an IEP program all that more difficult.

Why? Because each child has different and unique needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Just call in the experts? Easier said than done. According to Michelle Garcia Winner, an author and the leading expert in the field of social skills (what she calls “social thinking”), this is an emerging field with very few experts to answer the questions. At the same time, she says, social skills are one of the most important predictors of a child’s success.

“Most people are not trained in the intricacies of the social mind,” she says.

Garcia Winner maintains that teaching social skills to some kids can be fairly straightforward. Children with low language skills or cognitive impairment may need to learn concrete social rules, such as “Don’t stand too close” or “Wait your turn,” that will suit them well. Other kids with LD or autism may need to go back to square one to learn that what they say and do has an effect on other people.

So how is a parent (or teacher) to know how to write effective social skills goals? There’s no easy answer, says Garcia Winner, but essentially the goal needs to target the root of the child’s issue.

She can also tell you what is not effective. “I see this goal a lot,” she says. “'Will improve social skills 80% of the time,’ or ‘Will make eye contact 80% of the time.’”

These goals are not measurable or specific and essentially meaningless. The team needs to figure out which skills the child needs and how they are going to teach that.

Often teams assume that if a child makes eye contact, for instance, it means a big social leap forward. But if a child makes eye contact but doesn’t have any idea why it’s important, the skill is meaningless. (Ben may have been making great eye contact when he told his classmate she smelled bad.) What children need to do, says Garcia Winner, is learn to take the perspective of another person in their interaction and to recognize how their own behavior affects that interaction. To get a child to that point, the team may have to ratchet back their goals to make sure some basic skills are in place.

A better IEP goal for a child who needs to work on conversation skills, for instance, might be: “Joe will describe what it means to 'add a thought' when socially speaking to others with 90% accuracy and then be able to add a brief thought of his own in connection with others’ comments, 80% of the time in structured settings."

This goal shows that the child understands the concept behind the skill and can actually perform the skill accurately.

So how do you measure a child’s progress on such a seemingly vague skill? It’s not like many other IEP goals where you can perform a test and come up with hard data. Instead, teachers need to measure social skills goals by noting behavior changes in the child, looking for subtle changes in his interactions, says Garcia Winner. Looking at the child’s ability to talk about his own behavior and skills is another indicator of a child’s developing social awareness.

While the whole field of social skills is an emerging science, there is no question that it is key to a child’s development and success. Until more professionals are trained in proven strategies, it’s important that parents get involved.

Maybe someday soon experts will have an answer for kids like Ben who are truly perplexed by the intricacies of social interactions. But until then parents need to be sure that the people they turn to for help understand that social skills means more than the ability to make eye contact and answer when spoken to.


Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"Ironically, teachers have less and less time to concentrate on teaching social skills to children on the spectrum because they are too busy teaching to the high-stakes tests the sponsors of this website actively promote. This is especially true in the older grades, which is when a lot of these kids finally have the language skills and drive to be social! "
"Thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room! I've tried to find resources for 'social stories' and been frustrated with the shallowness of the instruction. No matter how much we talked about the behavior we wanted to see our son develop, and how much he seemed to understand it conceptually, we haven't seen significant improvement over the past five years. I agree that going back to the core skills is essential to see lasting change. At lease I hope so :) What resources are actually 'out there' to help develop social skills?"
"Thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room! I've tried to find resources for 'social stories' and been frustrated with the shallowness of the instruction. No matter how much we talked about the behavior we wanted to see our son develop, and how much he seemed to understand it conceptually, we haven't seen significant improvement over the past five years. I agree that going back to the core skills is essential to see lasting change. At lease I hope so :) What resources are actually 'out there' to help develop social skills?"
"I have been teaching social skill to children in small groups for the past 15 yrs. Cognitive comprehension of why social skill is important can not be achieved by many of the children I work with and for them, just learning personal space and personal safety is the most important basic skill. Many children with sensory issues are not even aware when someone is intruding in their space or touching them. That brings up being able to pay attention to their environment and situation. Making eye contact for many children on the spectrum is too much sensory information especially if they are trying to listen and process what the other person is saying. I teach children it is important to face the person speaking with their body and their head and look at that person's forehead or left ear or chin since no one can tell exactly where the child is looking. That takes a lot of pressure off the children I work with. I tell them it makes the other person feel good thinking they a! re interested in what they are saying and ask them what things make them feel good. Once they have identified what feeling good means, they understand how their paying attention to others make them feel. In a school setting, social skill needs to be taught in small groups so children are not only dealing with adults but with same age peers which is where most of the trouble is apparent. Board and card games at sessions and at home teach personal space, taking turns, paying attention and good sportsmanship. No game should last more than 20 mins. and games like adult Monopoly and Life are too complex, take too long and all the lessons that could be taught above, fall into winning or losing and feeling helpless. Board and card games teach random luck which means anyone could win even without strategy. I would love to see social skill on an IEP but who is going to teach it. Budgets are strained as it is and cannot provide art, music or sports in many states and there are more children that could gain from those activities than the minority of those needing social skill. That is where peer counseling could take off not to mention required classes in Jr. college and universities that bring students into the primary and secondary schools to work for credit not money and have an opportunity to see what working with 'at risk' or 'socially challenged' children is like which helps them to make better career choices. Also parents have tons of resources at their fingertips for teaching social skills at home and in small groups. Waiting for the schools could take years - years your child doesn't have. There are social skill curriculums out there on sites like Future Horizons,Childwork-Childplay, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. Usually if you want something done and you're working against large institutions, I believe parents need to take control and start working on social skills with their children. I run 18 groups per week and find no loss in my business as parents are now aware that social competance will be more important in getting a job one day than all A's in college. As you know there are thousands of college grads out there who cannot find a job. On an interview you must be able to face the interviewer and look interested and act 'as if' you want the job. Hope I have inspired some parents out there to return to their youth when people played games in the kitchen at the table or in their den on the floor. Be social with your children if you expect them to model your behaviors."
"and a parent can help by reading a applying social skills trainings such as the ones describe in a good book I read from Cathy Cohen called 'Raise your child social IQ', I certainly recommend it."
"'More than the ability to make eye contact' Indeed. What 'experts' do understand is that social intelligence is cognitive, and the development of social intelligence is slow and/or different in persons identified as autistic. You provide some good guidance on issues and methods for stimulating progression in this domain. "
"Wow, another thoughtful article, Ms Dwight. I worked for many (30+) years with the spectrum of addiction, much of it evaluating the care of children with fetal alcoholism in the foster care system. 99.999% of these children are never diagnosed at birth (purposefully, who wants to adopt a child w/FAS, knowing they often become violent during adolescence). The point is, that it's now believed that many of our FAS children become 'violent' (aggressive), because they lack the development of frontal lobes, which ARE developing in other children, along with those children's increased language capacities. Particularly the ability to comprehend and initiate non-verbal language. ie - how to 'flirt' with a girl becomes critical at age 13. the focus of folks who are fortunate enough to have received the FAS diagnosis in their infants, has been language and social skills FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. When I lived/worked in New Mexico, there were a number of Native American reservations who had devestating 3's of FAS children, up to 80% of the tribe population in one case. As a result, there were programs being instituted in those schools (San Juan Pueblo, for one). I wonder what there findings were, and if they found a better way to teach children social skills already? thanks for the thoughtful article, LMark, RN"
"With a grandson who has had 7 years of various therapies and is emerging rather to have high functioning autism, social skills has been one of the 2 hardest pieces of the puzzle to solve. The other is focus/attention. So, so little training and literature that I have found on social skills. Thanks for the article and hoping that this will be addressed more and more in the near future."