Saturday, January 22, 2011

What are Coping Skills? Part Two:Social Skills Training and Assertiveness

Social skills training has been used in school settings for students with emotional and/or behavioral problems, or EBD students, since the 1980’s (Zionts, 1996). The rationale behind teaching social skills to modify the chronically disruptive behaviors of EBD students is that, to profit from mainstream curriculum, these children   need more than just being placed in regular classroom settings with regular classroom peers. Because these students show severe deficits in the social skills they need to be able to interact in a positive and constructive way with teachers and peers, school staff needs to teach explicitly the social skills these children are lacking. Zionts cites research that supports the hypothesis that students who exhibit social skills deficits in the earlier years face both short-and long-term negative consequences that appear to be the precursors of more severe problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Definition of Social Skills

 Generally speaking, social skills are those skills that children need to get along with others in social situations. Most specifically, social skills describe the classroom behavior that students need to show in order to become productive classroom members. Regardless of how we define social skills, the consensus is that social skills are behaviors that produce positive consequences for the user (Forman, 1993). Gresham and Elliot (in Forman, 1993) define social skills as behaviors that help a child attain important social outcomes such as peer group acceptance, positive judgments by significant others, academic competence, positive self-concept, and good psychological adjustment (p. 49). Other authors focus on both parties involved in an interpersonal relationship, defining social skills as “the ability to interact with others in a given social context in specific ways that are socially acceptable or valued and at the same time personally beneficial, mutually beneficial, or beneficial primarily to others” (Combs and Slaby in Forman, 1993, p. 49). Among the ideas generally agreed by the different authors in the field of social skills are:
  • Social skills are interactive skills
  • Social skills deficits are performance deficits that we can measure and target for intervention
  • Social skills training aims at remediating deficits in interpersonal functioning, that is, aims at helping children learn new behaviors, or strengthen weak behaviors
  • Social skills are primarily acquired through learning (i.e. observation, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback)
Strayhorn, Strain, and Walker (as seen on Zionts, 1996) put together the following list of social skills or skills that “promote harmonious relationships” (pp. 155-156):
  • Noticing positive examples of behavior in another person
  • Giving immediate enthusiastic approval or thanks for positive behaviors in another person
  • Providing real-life and fictional models of kind acts
  • Taking pleasure in trying to make the other person feel good
  • Noticing the verbal and nonverbal indicators of another person’s feelings
  • Listening empathically to the other person
  • Having conversations that are fun for both people
  • Playing well with another person
  • Modeling enthusiasm when participating in joint activities
  • Withholding unnecessary commands and directives
  • Giving clear directives when they are necessary
  • Making correct decisions about how much to expect and ask of another person
  • Giving fluent explanations of how to do tasks
  • Enforcing directives in a kind yet firm way
  • Ignoring trivial negative behaviors
  • Remaining calm and rational when the other does undesirable things
  • Deciding which negative behaviors to punish or reprimand
  • Using only humane punishment or reprimands
  • Not accepting invitations for a hostile argument with the other person
  • Listing options and choosing among them rationally when joint decisions are to be made
As we can see, some of the social skills listed by Strayhorn et al. look more appealing to teachers than to students with behavior deficits.  For example, when we ask the students, ignoring negative behaviors from others and avoiding arguments are placed generally at the bottom of wanted social skills. Social skills’ training is conducted primarily in a group setting, following a similar procedure. First, the trainer introduces the skill. During this phase, the trainer defines, teaches and/or models the skill. Next, the students role-play the appropriate behavior, and the trainer gives feedback and reinforcement. Homework and generalization of skill to real-life situations follow. An individualized behavior contract between the teacher and each student participating may be developed to make sure that the child continues the new behavior after the training, and transfers the new behavior to other settings (Zionts, 1996). By experience, I can tell that generalization of skill is the most difficult aspect to accomplish, particularly because mainstream school settings are not well equipped to facilitate the transfer of skills to regular classrooms.

An Example of a Social Skills Training: Teaching Assertiveness

Forman (1993) defines assertive behavior as the midpoint of a continuum of behavioral styles ranging from passive behavior to aggressive behavior. The passive behavior style avoids confrontation and arguments at the expense of own well-being and happiness, that is, conceding defeat and giving victory to the other child. These children fail to express their feelings, thoughts, or needs to others, or they do it in such a timid way that they are easily disregarded by others. As Forman states, a passive child “violates his own rights” (p. 64). At the other extreme of the behavioral continuum is the aggressive style. These children almost invariably overreact to stress and troublesome events, attacking others, verbally and/or physically. In the school setting, we know these students as EBD children, and we can describe them as students that violate the rights of others. Placed in the middle of the continuum is the assertive behavioral style, which is a style of approaching social interactions respecting both own rights and the rights of others.
Bedell and Lennox (1997) describe an assertive request as the ability to state our feelings (how the other person’s behavior makes us feel) in a reasonable way, without being hostile to the other person, and without using coercion to settle the conflict. In an assertive request, the focus is always on our own needs, feelings, and rights. An assertive request gives an objective description (without judgment or name-calling) of the offending behavior together with a personal reaction to the behavior. For example, to make an assertive request, the child can say, “That is mine and I want it back (what I want or need). It makes me mad (my feelings) when you take it without asking me (my rights).” In other words, the child that is making an assertive request lets other children know when their behavior is bothering her without hurting their feelings, arguing, or provoking a fight. On some occasions, the assertive request will also include a request for a new behavior. To teach children make assertive requests, we can use the sentence stem, “When you _____ (specific behavior), I feel _____ (specific feeling), and I want _____ (specific goal)” (Bedell and Lennox, 1997).
Teaching assertiveness skills to sudents with chronic behavior problems is a popular coping skills intervention in special schools settings. Psycho-educational teachers and personnel intervene almost exclusively with acting-out and/or aggressive students. Although passive students rarely disrupt the classroom setting, these children benefit too from assertiveness training, this time, by a school's counselor. Both passive and aggressive students may show these behaviors coupled with low self-esteem and/or low self-confidence.       


Bedell, J. R. and Lennox, S. S. (1997). Handbook for communication and problem-solving skills training: A cognitive-behavioral approach. New York: John Wiley.
Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Zionts, P. (1996). Teaching disturbed and disturbing students: An integrative approach (Second Edition). Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed.

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