Teaching Social Skills

Seating students together is not enough to ensure teamwork. Many kids have very little idea how to interact appropriately with their classmates. They simply lack the social skills needed to perform the most basic cooperative learning tasks. Lack of social skills is probably the biggest factor contributing to lack of academic success in teams. Fortunately, social skills can be taught just like academic skills. If you use a systematic approach like the one described below, you’ll find that your students CAN learn how to interact appropriately and become productive team members.

For more information on how to explicitly teach social skills to young children to or children with special needs, visit Model Me Kids and check out their library of social skill videos.

Social Skills

Six Steps of Teaching Social Skills

1. Discuss the Need for Social Skills

Before you can help students improve their social skills, they need to understand why these skills are important. You might have students discuss the problems they’ve experienced in cooperative learning teams. Then point out that most of these problems are caused by poor “social skills,” sometimes known as “people skills.” Share with them that even adults need to work on their social skills from time to time! Have them brainstorm lists of social skills to work on throughout the year. You might offer a few suggestions from the list on the right to get them started.

2. Select a Social Skill

When teaching social skills, it’s best to focus on just one skill at a time. You can choose the skill, or you can let your class decide which skill they need to work on first. I generally start by teaching the skill of Praising, and along with that I reinforce the idea that I will not permit “put down” comments. Select just one skill as your focus. You might want to work on a different skill each week, perhaps even creating a Skill of the Week bulletin board.

3. Teach the Skill

This step is not as obvious as it might seem. It’s not enough to say, “Be nice!” You have to help students identify exactly what they need to do and say in order to improve the identified social skill. For this part of the lesson, I use the Social Skill T-chart shown below. You can make a laminated poster for your bulletin board or display it on a classroom whiteboard.

Write the social skill in the box at the top. Then ask members of the class to Brainstorm what students should do and say when they are demonstrating the social skill. The things that they DO are listed in the Looks Like column because this is what the skill looks like to others when it is demonstrated. The things they SAY are listed in the Sounds Like column because this is what the skill sounds like to others.


An excellent video called Time for School is available from a company called Model Me Kids that shows students exactly how to perform a particular social skill. The video is most appropriate for younger students or students with special needs, but teachers may be interested in viewing the video to see how social skills can be broken down into steps and taught. Model Me Kids started out with this one video and has now grown into a company that offers a variety of videos for kids who have difficulty with social skills. Students could complete the Sounds Like-Looks Like T-chart after watching the video.

Examples for the skill of Praising:
Looks Like: Thumbs up, Clapping, Smiling
Sounds Like: Terrific! I knew you could do it! You’re so smart! Way to go! I like the way you…

4. Practice the Skill

After you discuss what the skill Looks Like and Sounds Like, you need to provide an immediate opportunity for practicing the skill. The best way to do this is to plan a structured cooperative learning activity to follow the social skills lesson. For example, if you taught Active Listening as the social skill, you might follow up with a simple Roundrobin activity. Roundrobin would be an ideal choice because each person takes a turn responding to a question, and everyone else should be listening actively to their response. A structure like Line Ups would not work as well because students are not as verbal during Line Ups. Here a a few suggestions for social skills and corresponding structures:

Social Skills and Cooperative Learning Structures

Social Skills

Structures for Practice*

Active Listening Roundrobin, Think-Pair-Share, Mix-Freeze-Pair
Praising Rallytable, Roundtable, Pairs Check, Showdown
Taking Turns Rallytable, Pairs Check, Roundtable
Using Quiet Voices Think-Pair-Share, Numbered Heads Together, Showdown
Staying on Task Rallytable, Roundtable, Pairs Check, Showdown, Mix-N-Match
Helping or Coaching Rallytable, Pairs Check, Showdown, Mix-N-Match
Using Names Mix-N-Match, Mix-Freeze-Pair, Showdown
* For more information about how to use these cooperative learning structures, check out Dr. Spencer Kagan’s book, Cooperative Learning.

5. Pause and Reflect

Sometime during the structured practice activity, use your quiet signal to stop the class. Ask them to think about how well they have been using the social skill. If you have observed teams or individuals doing a good job with the skill, share your observations with the class. Challenge students to continue to work on their use of the social skill as they complete the activity. Refer to the posted social skills T-chart if students have forgotten what the skill Looks Like and Sounds Like.

6. Review and Reflect

At the end of the activity, reflect again on how well the social skills were used. You can use a different T-chart for this, one with the a plus sign and a minus sign for the headings. Take a few minutes to brainstorm with the class all the good things that were happening, and the things that still need work. This is a also a perfect opportunity for personal journal writing and reflections. Consider these writing prompts:

  • How well was the social skill being used on your team? What specific examples do you remember?
  • How did you personally use the social skill? What did you do and/or say? To whom?
  • How might you improve in using this skill next time?

By the way, it’s not necessary to follow all the steps to Teaching Social Skills every time you teach a new skill. The most important elements are explicitly teaching of the skill and immediately following the instruction with a cooperative activity to practice the skill. The reflection steps are important and should be included as often as possible, too.