Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

Five Ways Adults Can Support the Social Success of Students with Social Learning Challenges


Brenda Smith Myles is a Consultant with the Ziggurat Group, Dallas, Texas. She is co-author of numerous books on learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders

The importance of building and maintaining social relationships and friendships cannot be underestimated – they are an essential part of everyday life. Research is slowly becoming available indicating that all learners may benefit from possessing strong social skills. For example, one recent study of 10th graders found that "noncognitive" factors including social skills, work habits, and involvement in extracurricular activities during high school were at least as important as cognitive abilities (as measured by achievement test scores) in predicting their success in the worlds of work and education 10 years after high school (Lleras, 2008). Intentional and systematic support from adults for building and maintaining social relationships and friendships can be critical to all young people, and especially those with social learning challenges. Many learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), emotional/behavioral exceptionalities, and other disabilities can benefit from adults attending to their social knowledge and skills development, and from opportunities to practice social relationships.

Five Practical Strategies

There are at least eight areas in which learners need skills for social success (see Table 1). This article describes five practical strategies that can be embedded into a learner's day in a timely, efficient, and meaningful manner to support development of these and other social skills. Although developed specifically to meet the needs of those with social learning challenges, the strategies can also be used to benefit all learners. The five strategies are as follows:

  • Prepare for social events through priming. Providing learners with information about situations and events prior to their occurrence can help create social success. Known aspriming, this intervention is designed to (a) familiarize the learner with the materials or events; (b) introduce predictability into the information or activity, thereby reducing stress and anxiety; and (c) increase learner success. Priming can occur by presenting a learner with a written schedule of events, a social narrative, a photograph, or a brief verbal overview (Wilde, Koegel, & Koegel, 1992).
  • Teach assumed or expected knowledge using the hidden curriculum. Teaching assumed or expected knowledge to learners with social learning challenges may be as important, if not more so, than teaching them academics. The hidden curriculum is composed of the so-called "common sense" that helps people function in their daily lives. It helps learners fit in with others and aids them in avoiding being taken advantage of. One strategy is to use a one-a-day approach to introduce and teach one social common sense item daily (see Myles, Trautman, & Schelvan, 2004).
  • Teach social problem-solving. Problem-solving skills are often not inherent in individuals with social learning challenges and require direct instruction and support. One strategy is to teach and support learners to be social detectives by using Jessum's (2011) "Worksheet for Solving Social Mysteries" inDiary of a Social Detective, an engaging story that guides youth in understanding social mysteries and solving social challenges.
  • Teach self-advocacy and self-awareness. It is essential that individuals with social learning challenges understand and advocate for themselves. One way in which some learners can be more successful in social situations is to use tools such asThe Sensory ScanTM(Paradiz, 2009) to understand sensory aspects of an environment and advocate for what they need to function well socially within it.
  • Teach self-regulation. To help individuals with social learning challenges become aware of, and control, their own problematic reactions to everyday events a resource such asThe Incredible 5-Point Scale(Buron & Curtis, 2003) can be helpful. Using the scale, the learner rates his or her emotions, or a condition or situation, in order to provide information to the teacher, manage their own thinking process, and/or implement an alternative behavior. Learners can use the scale to rate their own voice volume, rate frustration or anger levels, monitor their perseveration on events or topics, and so forth.

Table 1: Partial List of Skills for Social Success


Brief Description

Nonverbal communication

Understanding gestures, facial expressions, voice tone, proximity, and so forth.

Theory of mind

Understanding the perspective, beliefs, intents, desires, and other mental states of self and others.


Determining cause of events and the impact that individuals can have on these events.


Matching emotions to events, recognizing emotions in self, controlling impulses, and changing levels of emotions.

Relationship skills

Developing deep functional relationships using skills that include needs negotiation, toleration of differences, sensitivity to others; the desire to be around people more than wanting to engage in a specific activity with them.

Hidden curriculum

Understanding and applying rules and mores that are typically not taught yet are assumed and expected.

Technical skills

Applying skills such as making eye contact, staying on topic, greeting others, maintaining conversations.


Having the skills to ensure a dignified existence in all environments, including effectively communicating wants, needs, desires, rights, and so forth.


Individuals with social learning challenges have complex needs. We also know that they have incredible potential. We must carefully analyze their needs, capacities, and interests, and teach the complex skills that will help them succeed in life. This will help to ensure that they will be ready for education, relationships, employment, and eventually, independent living to the greatest extent possible.

  • Buron, K. D., & Curtis, M. (2003). The incredible 5-point scale: Assisting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in understanding social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

  • Jessum, J. E. (2011). Diary of a social detective: Real-life tales of mystery, intrigue, and interpersonal adventure. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

  • Lleras, C. (2008). Do skills and behaviors in high school matter? The contribution of noncognitive factors in explaining differences in educational attainment and earnings. Social Science Research, 37(3), 888–902.

  • Myles, B. S., Trautman, M., & Schelvan, R. (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding unstated rules in social situations​. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

  • Paradiz, V. (2009). The Integrated Self-Advocacy (ISA) curriculum: A program for emerging self-advocates with autism and other conditions (student workbook and teacher manual). Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

  • Wilde, L. D., Koegel, L. K., & Koegel, R. L. (1992). Increasing success in school through priming: A training manual. Santa Barbara, CA: Koegel Autism Center, University of California.