Behavioral and social skills refer to the skills that people exhibit to maintain and create relationships, interact with others, respond to difficult situations, and manage emotions. These skills are especially important for young children as they learn to navigate friendships/relationships with others, identify qualities of friends, respond to bullying, and handle overwhelming situations through adaptive coping strategies. For individuals with autism, these skills can be more challenging to acquire without direct teaching and support. Through various evidence-based strategies, caregivers can promote and develop these skills across environments.
Here are 5 essential skills we teach in ABA therapy.
Communication skills embody all skills children exhibit when communicating with others and when receiving communication/information from others. Specifically, communication refers to an individual’s understanding of the information around them which can include responding to instructions, labeling, and answering questions. This also refers to an individual’s ability to communicate their wants, needs, and emotions. Having productive communication skills helps individuals connect with others, advocate for their wants and needs, and create conditions appropriate for problem-solving. Individuals on the autism spectrum often struggle with this skill area, which can be manifested by engaging in challenging behaviors (screaming, physical aggression, self-injurious behaviors, etc.) to communicate/get their wants and needs met.
Functional Communication Teaching is one of the foundational interventions used in ABA Therapy to replace problem behaviors with adaptive methods of communication. Specifically, individuals will be taught to communicate using gestures, vocalizations, picture exchange communication systems, or AAC devices as replacements for challenging behaviors. To teach this skill, therapists will withhold reinforcement when a child communicates using inappropriate behaviors and will instead reserve reinforcement for when a child communicates in a functional way. For example, if a child’s scream is typically met with the parent going to the refrigerator and preparing a snack, teaching functional communication may involve telling the child to “use words” or sign language to ask for a snack instead. The caregiver should avoid delivering a snack in response to screaming and should instead deliver a snack contingent on the child using their method of functional communication.
The most productive way that caregivers can promote these skills is by withholding reinforcement for inappropriate methods of communication and instead, delivering the reinforcement in response to appropriate or functional methods of communication. Parents can “prompt” their children through these skills by modeling the skill, physically assisting the child, or verbally reminding the child. When first teaching the skill, it is recommended to deliver reinforcement even if the child requires a prompt to communicate appropriately. Over time, parents should deliver more reinforcement when the child communicates independently and less reinforcement when the child requires prompting to communicate. These prompts can be applied to all methods of communication, including instruction-following, labeling, and responding to questions.
Cooperation refers to an individual’s ability to work with others to achieve a common goal. This can most commonly include cooperating with peers during play activities, cooperating with parents/caregivers when given instructions, and cooperating when required to wait for a delayed item/activity. These skills are especially important for building a child’s foundational skills for problem-solving, empathy, and compromising.
Teaching cooperation skills can be implemented across various modalities, including through turn-taking, hypothetical problem-solving situations, and during daily living routines/everyday rule-following. To teach these skills, reinforcement should be utilized in response to children exhibiting these skills. Specifically, turn-taking can be contrived during structured and unstructured play opportunities, and delivering praise in response to independent turn-taking/sharing can be an easy way to begin promoting this skill. Another way to contrive additional learning opportunities for cooperation is to involve children during basic problem-solving encounters. Have the child identify potential solutions for problems in the natural environment or when solving a problem, vocally identify the reasoning/rationale for the chosen solution to promote child understanding.
When observing a child engage in cooperation in the natural environment, provide behavior-specific acknowledgment. For example, instead of saying “Nice job sharing” say to the child, “Nice job letting your brother play with your toy and for keeping your hands to yourself.” Generalize this tactic whenever possible, especially when observing a child cooperating during situations that are typically more difficult/prone to problem behavior engagement.
Problem-solving skills are important for children to develop at a young age to navigate difficult situations, discriminate between problems that require adult assistance/independent resolution, and find alternative, creative solutions for various problems. For young children especially, these skills can be taught through play before being generalized to other situations in the natural environment.
Parents can contrive problem-solving learning opportunities during a child’s favorite play activities where they are naturally motivated. Specifically, if a child enjoys playing with cars and race tracks, a parent may remove a piece of the train track and have the child identify solutions: modify the train track where the piece is not required, find an alternative household item or toy that can replace the train track, etc. Teaching problem-solving skills during highly motivating activities will help the child associate problem-solving with positive interactions, thereby increasing the motivation to learn, attend, and find solutions in the absence of any problem behaviors. Once the child is comfortable responding to suggestions for problem-solving, parents can shift to asking their child to identify the solution without assistance. When a problem arises, instead of the parent mentioning suggestions and having the child assist, the parent may ask “What could you do to solve this problem” or “Let’s think of 2 solutions” so the child has an opportunity to practice the skill.
For older children, games such as escape rooms, brainteasers, crossword puzzles, and other board games will help create problem-solving learning opportunities before contriving opportunities in the natural environment. Presenting hypothetical scenarios or “what would you do” with various examples is another way that parents can equip their children with the skills to begin problem-solving in real-life settings.
Self-control skills refer to the ability of a child to navigate their own emotions, make their own decisions, and respond to difficult situations in the absence of “impulsive” behaviors. When a child exhibits deficits in self-control, they may engage in challenging and unsafe behaviors when experiencing various emotions (i.e. hitting when a toy is taken away, running through a parking lot when seeing a friend on the other side, etc.). The goal for children is to identify their own emotions and act on them with consideration of their environment and surroundings.
Teaching this goal involves several steps, including helping children identify their own emotions in the current moment, as well as finding solutions and appropriate responses for those emotions. Once those skills have been promoted, children must learn to anticipate events that may trigger those emotions and be prepared to implement solutions and strategies before the event can occur.
Several executive functioning games can help promote self-control skills before working on the skill during real-life situations. Games such as Red Light, Green Light, Freeze Dance, Jenga, and Simon Says help build the skill of self-control where the child has to engage in multi-step processes to problem solve, find solutions, and control their behaviors. When presenting these games, explain the significance of the game to the child (i.e. for Jenga, “we’re playing this to work on making decisions” or “we’re playing this to work on ‘thinking before doing’”).
Presenting hypothetical coping strategies and scenarios to the child before contriving learning opportunities in the natural environment will be another effective way to promote these skills. Present several “what if” scenarios so the child can identify several coping strategies and solutions. Creating a visual for the child is also helpful and can include three columns where one column the child identifies a trigger, in another column, the child identifies the corresponding emotion, and in another column, the child identifies the adaptive coping strategy. Have this visual available when first teaching the skill and present it to the child upon the onset of the trigger or precursor behavior.
A child exhibits empathy when they can identify and understand the emotions and perspective of others, and be able to respond as if they were experiencing the emotions themselves. This skill is especially important for children as it sets implications for the child’s ability to consider different perspectives, understand the way others feel or could feel in hypothetical situations, and identify responses that may be comforting to other individuals. Additionally, this skill is important as it helps children engage in meaningful relationships with others and can promote understanding of their own emotions as well.
This skill can be taught in several ways, including labeling a child’s emotion during various situations to bring awareness. Specifically, if a child appears frightened of a dog, one could respond by saying “I see that you’re scared, dogs can be scary sometimes.” Additionally, discussing the feelings of others and labeling their emotions in the presence of your child will help promote understanding. At younger ages, children can learn these emotions through play and preferred activities–have the child identify the potential perspectives and emotions of their favorite toys or favorite movie characters. Contriving learning opportunities for new skills in the most enjoyable environments helps children associate these skills with positivity, thus increasing the motivation to continue practicing them.
Conclusion: The 5 Essential Skills
Teaching these skills can be daunting, but breaking up each skill into smaller steps will make these goals more achievable. Additionally, contriving learning opportunities for these skills in a child’s highest preferred environments, whether during play, mealtime, bath time, etc., assists in associating these skills with positivity and promotes continued motivation to learn.
Utilize reinforcement procedures when observing your child participate in these skills independently-for most children, behavior-specific acknowledgement can help promote learning (ex. “I love that you noticed the bear was feeling sad because he was crying after dropping his toy” versus “good job”). For children who may not respond to verbal praise, creating learning opportunities during their favorite activities is an easy way to associate these skills with positivity and fun. Communication, cooperation, problem-solving, self-control, and empathy are skills that will help children engage in meaningful interactions with others and will help promote independence across all environments.
If you’re ready to learn more about ABA therapy for your child, reach out to us today. We have compassionate expert-level clinicians ready to support you.