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

Preparing for Adult Life:
Important Social Skills for High School Students


Christine D. Bremer is a Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota

Sharon Mule is a Coordinator at the Institute on Communinty Integration, University of Minnesota​

John G. Smith is a Project Coordinator at the Institute's Research and Training Center on Community Living

When they reach adulthood, youth with disabilities need to be able to communicate with others, establish and maintain relationships, and participate in a variety of work, community, and home settings. Supporting youth in developing social skills can help them in the short-term to have more satisfying friendships, more positive family relationships, and better success in school. In the long-term it can equip them for success in work and community life. In fact, in the context of work and community life, appropriate social behavior may be even more important than academic or job skills in determining whether one is perceived as a competent individual (Black & Langone, 1997). For example, a study investigating the ability of adults with mild intellectual disabilities to appropriately engage in workplace "small talk" found that those who demonstrated competence in social skills were generally perceived more positively than those who lacked such skills, regardless of task skill level (Holmes & Fillary, 2000). The idea that competence in using social skills can lead to positive perceptions of persons with disabilities in the workplace can be extended to other community settings such as postsecondary education, neighborhoods, and faith communities.

The Role of Transition Teams

For transition-age youth with disabilities, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team plays an important role in identifying needs in the area of social skills development and creating goals to help prepare youth for work and community life. The IEP team, in which the student is a key participant, has the responsibility to address social skills development if this is one of the student's needs. Students with disabilities may be motivated to improve their social skills in order to better relate to peers, have dating relationships, advocate for their own needs and wishes, and successfully engage in community activities of all kinds, including employment. A jumping-off point in building new skills or addressing deficits can be discussion with the student of his or her interests, goals, existing social strengths, and social network. This can lead to identifying the social skills needed by the student to achieve his or her personal goals during and after high school. Based on this discussion, the student, parent/guardian(s), and school staff will have a roadmap for selecting skills to work on, and can develop goals for the IEP. Goals written into the IEP should include strengthening existing social skills as well as developing new ones. In addressing secondary and postsecondary education, employment, and community living in the IEP, the team should take care to look at social skills needed by the student to succeed in each of these life areas. It is also important to spell out how to determine whether each goal has been met.

The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability (NCWD, 2011) identifies the following skills as necessary soft skills for job success: communication skills, interpersonal skills, decision making skills, and lifelong learning skills. Within these areas are specific skills, which may be developed through individual or group skills training. These include active listening, cooperating with others, problem solving, planning, and using technology. All of these skills may be identified on an individual student's transition IEP through social skill goals.

Transition is the time to ensure that students understand their disabilities and the impact that a disability may have on social skill development as well as everyday life. To that end, the transition IEP should include goals for self-advocacy, including the student's ability to explain his or her disability, appropriately express his/her needs and wants, and advocate for any necessary accommodations. The transition IEP should also take into account the need for students to attend to their own safety in social settings as they begin to navigate more adult situations. Safety becomes more of an issue for all teens as they begin to attend activities without adult supervision and deal with issues involving dating, being a driver or passenger in a car, and situations where alcohol or illegal drugs are readily available. Students with disabilities may face particular challenges in such settings; helping them learn to respond appropriately is a joint responsibility of parents and schools.

Classroom Support of Social Skills

During the transition years, the social skills listed below in the section, Social Skills Needed by Transition-Age Students, are suggested as essential to a young adult's success in the adult world. One way that classroom teachers can help students with (and without) disabilities practice these skills is by providing structured small group learning opportunities such as cooperative learning, in which students build on each others' skills to improve their understanding of the subject while helping other group members learn as well. The goal is for all the group members to achieve (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). 

Social Skills Needed by Transition-Age Students

General Social Skills for School, Family, and Community

  • Greet and approach people in ways appropriate to the setting.
  • Focus attention on the person speaking, using eye contact and non-verbal body cues.
  • Check your own understanding of conversations and the understanding of others.
  • Recognize and express feelings appropriately.
  • Support dialog by building on other comments.
  • Keep conversation and comments to an appropriate length.
  • Match voice volume to setting.
  • Keep self-disclosure appropriate to the setting.
  • Be able to identify risky social situations and have strategies for staying safe.

Additional Skills for the Work Environment

  • Understand job requirements and know how to request work-related accommodations.
  • Be on time.
  • Stay on task and complete your work.
  • Know how to give and respond to instructions.
  • Be open to redirection.
  • Be able to give directions and offer criticism without demeaning others.
  • Respond to supervisors and coworkers with courtesy.
  • Be able to respond appropriately to criticism.
  • Manage conflict by using problem solving and, when necessary, requesting assistance.
  • Work as a team, understanding your own and others' roles in the group.
  • Demonstrate a positive attitude about the job and other employees.
  • Demonstrate acceptance of other people/cultures.

In addition, dozens of programs have been developed specifically to teach social and emotional skills and knowledge in schools and other settings. Information on selecting and implementing social and emotional learning programs is available from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) . Their Web site also includes information about creating a school climate that supports the development and practice of social and emotional skills.

Creating a Positive School Climate

Social skills will be most consistently employed in settings where people appreciate each others' individuality and contributions. The goal of establishing a positive school climate is to ensure that all students know they are valued and respected members of a community of learners. The following tips (Curtis, 2003) can help teachers and administrators set the stage for a positive school climate, and thus for social learning:

  • Learn and use students' names and know something about each one. This can be difficult in secondary schools; using name tags or assigned seating at the start of the term can help.
  • Use homeroom time to build a sense of community and provide opportunities for conversation among students.
  • Provide unstructured time (e.g., a lunch period that is not too rushed) when students can practice social skills with peers and receive feedback.
  • Encourage journal writing to improve self-awareness.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in inclusive extracurricular activities that do not require tryouts or auditions, and provide accommodations as needed.
  • Offer ways for students to give feedback regarding their experience at school, and show them that their input is taken seriously.
  • Make a point of connecting informally, on a daily basis if needed, with individual students who are having difficulties. This establishes a relationship that helps the student feel noticed and cared for, and will be helpful if the student's situation requires a more formal intervention at another time.

To be effective and worthwhile, social skills training must result in skills that (a) are socially relevant in the individual's life, (b) are used in a variety of situations, and (c) are maintained over time (Hansen, Nangle, & Meyer, 1998). Such skills will be most consistently employed in a setting that is supportive and respectful of each person's individuality.


The transition IEP can be a powerful framework for identifying activities and services that will help the student learn and practice skills for the adult world and learn new ways to connect to their community. Through activities such as exploring postsecondary employment and training, job shadowing, joining community groups, and practicing independent living skills, youth can have many opportunities for social skills development. Creative and thoughtful IEP teams will identify these opportunities and provide a plan that designates related activities to support the student's goals. In addition, a positive school climate supports social learning by providing an environment in which all students are valued and respected.


  • Black, R. S., & Langone, J. (1997). Social awareness and transition to employment for adolescents with mental retardation. Remedial and Special Education, 18(5), 214–222.
  • Curtis, D. (2003). 10 tips for creating a caring school. Retrieved from
  • Hansen, D. J., Nangle, D. W., & Meyer, K. A. (1998). Enhancing the effectiveness of social skills interventions with adolescents. Education and Treatment of Children, 21(4), 489–513.
  • Holmes, J., & Fillary, R. (2000). Handling small talk at work: Challenges for workers with intellectual disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 47(3), 273–291.
  • Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Learning together and alone: Cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability. (2010). Helping youth develop soft skills for job success: Tips for parents and families. Retrieved from