Using ABA to Teach Social Skills in Early Years

Using ABA to Teach Social Skills in Early Years

Social skills are skills we use to communicate and interact with others, verbally and non verbally.

 Some social skills that are important in early years and that often may be in deficit in SEN students may be following instructions, asking and using names, greeting others, sharing and turn taking, asking others to play, joining ongoing games, transitioning, dealing with losing, asking and giving help, maintaining good body boundaries, making friends, dealing with feelings, alternatives to aggression, and coping with stress, just to name a few.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science of learning and behavior. The principles of ABA can be used in approaching social skills by 1) breaking the skills down into smaller, achievable teaching steps, until they cannot be broken down any further. We want to see achievements and create success and focus on the right level of skill for a child, 2) using Incidental Teaching strategies to provide structured learning opportunities in the natural environment by using the child’s interests and natural motivation, 3) using systematic, instructorled teaching through Social Stories, and 4) using an evidence-based social skills curriculum that includes elements such as modeling, role playing, feedback, and generalization. The use of positive reinforcement, specific prompting strategies, visuals, and practice and repetition is also hugely beneficial throughout all of the aforementioned strategies. A big goal is to make the abstract targets often seen in social skills more concrete for a child.

Again, Incidental Teaching is type of Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Intervention (NDBI) that uses the principles of ABA to provide instruction within ongoing typical activities based on interest and motivation. It is taught in the natural environment, and the individual should not even realize they are being taught. A myriad of skills can be taught through incidental teaching, such as losing in games appropriately, saying hi and bye to others, playing games appropriately, and conversation skills. Systematic teaching involves more direct instruction that includes verbally going through a skill, role playing the skill, modelling the skill, and then generalization and feedback on performance of the skill in a natural setting. A social story is a type of direct instruction for social skills and is an individualized short story that describes social relevant cues in any given situation. It breaks down a challenging social situation into understandable steps by omitting irrelevant information and by being highly descriptive to help an individual understand the entirety of a situation. Social stories include answers to questions such as who, what, when, where, and why in social situations through the use of visuals and written text and would also involve a role-playing component.

Adult-mediated facilitation entails teaching individuals social skills through structured social skills programs and incidental teaching methods, with the adult serving as the prompting and reinforcement agent. A drawback of using adult-mediated facilitation is that it can increase the dependence of the child on adults and decrease the spontaneous flow of reciprocal interaction. Therefore, systematically fading prompts is recommended for the purpose of skills generalization. If adult-mediated facilitated is being used, after acquisition of social skills, adults could introduce and train peers as social partners and reinforcement providers. Peer-mediated facilitation entails teaching individuals social skills through incidental and naturalistic teaching methods using their peers as the agent of change and reinforcement. Peer-mediated interventions are beneficial because they increase the likelihood that learners will generalize new social skills to different activities and with different peers that were not involved in the initial training and intervention (Rogers, 2000). This is particularly important given the difficulty that SEN students often have with generalizing the use of skills to new situations and to different people.

Even when using peer-mediated facilitation, adults still play a vital role in teaching the peers how to interact and teach the SEN students. It is important for other peers to have a positive attitude toward the student they are helping and to create supportive environment for social interactions, and this often starts with the adults. The peer may require four or five sessions to reliably learn the prompting and reinforcement strategies (Strain & Odom, 1986). After selecting 1-2 targets for the child, you would sit down with the peer and describe what you are going to teach them. You would then practice this with the peer, pretending to be the focal child and give reinforcement and feedback to the peer. You would then model for the peer by implementing these skills with the focal child and then observe the peer implementing these skills with the focal child. All the while, providing reinforcement such as thumbs up and pats on the back to the peer and providing feedback after a session. The benefits to the peers is huge, resulting in improving their skills and characteristics of teamwork, empathy, understanding, tolerance, patience, responsibility, and self-confidence.

An important aspect to consider when teaching Social Skills to SEN students is the power and necessity of intrinsic reinforcement and internal motivation. We need these 2 elements to take over and play a part at some point in the development of social skills, in order for the learned skills to be generalized and maintained. This starts by creating positive environments that foster social skills and by getting everyone involved for a SEN student

Carrie Green, M.S., BCBA, IBA
Thriving Souls
Educational Director and Co-Founder