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Social relationships among individuals account for much of what is studied in the social sciences. Considerable research supports the essential role of social relationships in behavioral, emotional, and academic/vocational wellbeing, showing that relationships with others directly impact self-esteem, daily functioning, and life success. Positive relationships foster positive well-being while problematic relationships result in poorer functioning. In keeping with these findings, the goal of social skills interventions (SSI) is to train individuals in specific skills and strategies that foster positive relationships.
One of the first theorists to propose that social relations with peers have a lasting impact on future intimate relationships as well as on personality development was Harry Stack Sullivan. In his seminal book The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (1953), Sullivan postulated that childhood friendships, or “chumships,” play a causal role in children’s understanding of social rules and social roles. This belief system then determines interpersonal actions and reactions throughout adolescence and adulthood. Correspondingly, though SSI have been applied across the life span, they are most frequently practiced and studied with children during the elementary school years.
Generally, learning theory is the theoretical basis of SSI through which individuals are taught specific social skills and given opportunities to practice in a structured fashion. The assumption in SSI work is that factors within the individual are largely responsible for the quality of one’s social relationships; if those factors are changed, then changes in social relationships will follow. Thus, the focus of SSI is on the individual, rather than the environment or other external contributing factors. However, conducting SSI within a group setting is considered an important ingredient for effecting change. In a group, individuals are able to learn and practice skills within a social context of same-aged peers. However, the group setting is more structured and safe than real-life peer settings, so fear of rejection and teasing is decreased and willingness to try new social behaviors is increased and supported. The social interactions within the group are also observed by group leaders who can then intervene when problems emerge and reinforce positive changes as they occur. The group leader serves as a coach, providing constructive criticism, alternative suggestions, and positive reinforcement. Behavioral skills have traditionally been the mainstay of SSI. How to control impulses, how to cooperate with others, and how to initiate contact with others are basic behavioral skills taught through most SSI. In the 1980s social scientists began to recognize the mutual impact of thought, emotion, and behavior, and increasingly incorporated cognitive and emotional skills into SSI. Cognitive skill training focuses on helping individuals identify, challenge, and restructure maladaptive thought patterns. Negative social experiences, such as being bullied, tend to engender negative expectations for future social encounters. Testing negative assumptions and managing their influence on behavior is a core social-cognitive skill taught through SSI. Emotional skill training focuses on building self-awareness of how one feels in the moment and learning to manage those emotions. SSI help individuals recognize when emotions, such as anger or hurt, are short-circuiting social skills so they can control those emotions before acting.
SSI are appropriate for anyone who experiences social difficulties, such as isolation, rejection, or bullying. However, certain groups are at higher risk for social problems and, therefore, benefit particularly from SSI. Aggressive individuals experience high levels of conflict that are closely linked with negative relationships. Persons with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibit increased activity level and impulsivity that are seen as intrusive and disruptive by peers. Individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism, or learning or physical disabilities stand out as different from peers and are more likely to display immature, awkward social behaviors that foster peer victimization and rejection. Finally, persons with emotional difficulties, such as depression or anxiety, are likely to withdraw from social interactions and experience isolation.
Research on SSI is intended to establish the effectiveness of intervention and better understand the mechanisms of change. A large literature exists evaluating the efficacy of different SSI with different populations and ages. A thorough review of interventions with school-age children was conducted by Mark Greenberg and colleagues in 2001. Overall, support for SSI for improving social competence and relationships has been found, although effect sizes tend to be moderate. SSI are most effective when: (1) cognitive and emotional skill training are included rather than behavioral skills alone; (2) training occurs over a longer period; (3) multiple components are used to bridge home, school, and clinical settings; and (4) training emphasizes both strengths and weaknesses of the individual.
- Greenberg, Mark T., Celene Domitrovich, and Brian Bumbarger. 2001. The Prevention of Mental Disorders in School-Aged Children: Current State of the Field. Prevention & Treatment 4: 1–67.
- Parker, Jeff G., Ken H. Rubin, Joe M. Price, and Melissa E. DeRosier. 1995. Peer Relationships, Child Development and Adjustment: A Developmental Psychopathology Perspective. In Developmental Psychopathology: Risk, Disorder, and Adaptation, Vol. 2, ed. Dante Cicchetti and Donald J. Cohen, 96–161. New York: Wiley.
- Sullivan, Harry Stack. 1953. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: Norton.
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