Social Skills Interventions for Individuals with Learning Disabilities

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 67 describes the following:

Title | Social Skills Interventions for Individuals with Learning Disabilities

Authors | Kavale, K. A., & Mostert, M.P.

SourceLearning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 27(1), 31-43.

Year Published | 2004

Social skill deficits* have become a defining characteristic of students with specific learning disability (SLD). Attempts have been made to enhance social functioning through structured training approaches. The effectiveness of these efforts was evaluated in a quantitative research synthesis (meta-analysis), which revealed a “small” effect with very few differences among teachers, peers, or students with SLD themselves who judged the efficacy of training. The relatively modest effects are discussed in relation to a number of theoretical psychometric and design issues that might account for the limited treatment outcomes.

Many children with learning disabilities (SLD) have social skills deficits.  Some researchers have proposed that social skills deficits can be broken down into three general types:

  • Skill deficit | refers to those instances when a child has never learned the required social or cognitive skill to use in a particular social situation.
  • Performance deficit |  refers to those instances when a child has learned a social skill* but fails to perform in the appropriate situation.
  • Self-control deficit | refers to those instances when a child’s lack of self-control results in negative behaviors, which interfere with both acquiring and performing appropriate social skills.

Children with learning disabilities may struggle with any combination of these areas.

The measurement of social skills deficits in children with LD is sometimes difficult because there is such an array of skills required for social competence and a particular child may struggle with any combination of those skills.  Social skills deficits may appear in areas of classroom behavior, interpersonal skills, anxiety, self-concept, social adjustment, ability to build and maintain relationships, social problem solving, conversation and communication skills, and peer status.

Social skills training often uses methods such as modeling the skills to be learned, shaping or approximating the skills through reinforcement, and rehearsal and practice.  This meta-analysis* examined how effective social skills training is at increasing the social competence of students with LD.

Research Questions

  1. Is social skills training an effective way of improving the social functioning of students with LD?
  2. Is the impact of social skills training perceived differently by students with LD, their teachers, and/or their peers?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 53
  • Number of Subjects | 2,113
  • Years Spanned | Not reported

Research Subjects

  • 74% of the participants were male
  • Average age = 11.5 years old
  • Average IQ = 96

Age/Grade of Subjects
The average age = 11.5 years.

Specified Disability
Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)

Subjects participated in social skills training covering a variety skills such as social problem solving, conversation, friendship, and handling feelings. Methods used in social skills training include direct instruction, prompting, modeling, rehearsal, coaching, shaping, and reinforcement.

Duration of Intervention
The average intervention provided 3 hours of training a week and lasted for 10 weeks.


  1. Students with SLD who receive social skills training make small improvements in their social skills abilities.
  2. Approximately 65% of students with SLD believed that their social status had improved as a result of participating in social skills training.  More than 6 out of 10 students with SLD also perceived social skills training as having benefited their self-concept, social problem solving, and social competence.
  3. Peers of students with SLD did not perceive that the social status of students with SLD changed after social skills training.
  4. Teachers reported that more than 6 out of 10 students were better adjusted and less dependent after social skills training, but they did not report that students with SLD interacted more socially.

Combined Effects Size

  1. The average effect size* for social skills training was 0.211 which is considered a small effect size.
  2. Effect sizes did not differ significantly when subjects were grouped by age or by amount of training received.

Kavale and Mostert propose several explanations for why social skills training shows such small rates of effectiveness, including:

  1. Most researchers design their own social skills program based on techniques described in the literature but with few or no pilot studies and often unclear rationale behind them.  It is possible that if researchers used established research-based social skills programs instead of programs of their own devising the results would be more positive.
  2. The majority of interventions consisted of 3 hours a week or less of social skills training for under 10 weeks.  It might be overly optimistic to assume that students with LD who have struggled with social skills for most of their lives will learn the nuances of social skills and how to use them in such a short time period.
  3. Since the effectiveness of social skills training was often judged by teachers, peers, or the students with LD themselves the question also arises of whether everyone was judging the same concept of social skills.  When they are asked to judge someone’s social skills, many people do not judge the discreet social skills which may have been taught in a social skills class, such as greeting someone or taking turns in conversation.  Instead they judge the person’s social competence by their level of peer acceptance, ability to cope in social situations, and maintain positive relationships, which require a lot more than a few individual social skills.


* Terms Defined

Effect size (ES or d) | A statistical calculation, often represented as ES or d, that measures the impact of an intervention. An effect size below d = 0.20 suggests that a treatment did not have a significant effect. An effect size of d = 0.20 is considered small or low; an effect size of d = 0.50 is considered moderate; an effect size of d = 0.80 or above is large.

Meta-analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

Social skills | Valued or positive social actions used to interact or communicate with others within the existing social system.