Social skills training in early childhood can boost the social and emotional development of special needs children, according to a newly released research review by the federal What Works Clearinghouse.
Rather than denoting a specific program, social skills training, in this study review, is used as an umbrella term for methods which include modeling and reinforcement of positive social behavior. Two curricula involved in the review, "My Friends and Me" and "Taking Part: Introducing Social Skills to Children," use half-hour classroom sessions that include puppets, role-playing and direct instruction on various skills, such as how to touch a new person appropriately. Both of the curricula also include follow-up activities to reinforce the lessons during regular class or at home.
The clearinghouse, which vets evidence on educational effectiveness on behalf the Institute of Education Sciences, found three high-quality studies (out of 46 reviewed) involving more than 100 children with disabilities in early-education programs that included a social skills training approach. Within these studies, the clearinghouse found that students who participated in social skills training improved in both their classroom behavior and assessments of their social and emotional development. The review found no evidence that the training improved children's cognition generally.
The review is rare good news from the clearinghouse, which frequently finds no studies of high enough quality to review, or else finds no overall evidence of approaches that work. However, even these results come with a cautionary note: The studies that met the clearinghouse's standards are each more than a decade old, and so have no connection to more recent cognitive and neuroscience studies on social-emotional development.