Teaching Social Skills to Preschoolers with Special Needs

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Many preschool students with special needs require help learning to socialize properly with others. This lesson gives you some ideas for teaching social skills to preschool children with special needs.

Social Skills and Preschool

Emma is a preschool teacher in an inclusive educational setting. She works with three- and four-year-olds, and some of her students have special needs. These students often come to Emma with an individualized education plan (IEP) already in place, and many of them receive regular support from occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech and language pathologists.

Emma's students are happy in her class, but she notices that many of them struggle with social skills, or ways to interact appropriately with others. Emma knows that many special needs, including language struggles, developmental disorders, and motor challenges, can make socializing especially difficult. She decides to learn as much as she can about how to teach social skills to her preschoolers with special needs.

Explicit Instruction

One of the first things Emma learns is that some students require explicit instruction in social skills that come naturally for other students. For fifteen minutes every morning, Emma gathers a group of her students to teach them a social skill. She focuses on the same skill in different ways for at least one week and sometimes longer. After teaching the skill, Emma focuses on supporting her students to practice it as they play.

Some of the skills Emma teaches her students include:

  • Making eye contact with others
  • Smiling at others
  • Sharing toys and taking turns with materials
  • Listening when others are talking
  • Playing the same game as others

Emma remembers that her students are very young, and it is not necessary for them to learn complex or nuanced social skills yet. She focuses on the basics so that they have a solid starting point.

Practice with a Buddy

Another strategy Emma learns is to find buddies for each of her students with special needs. Once Emma gets to know her students well, she is able to find partners with shared interests, tastes and personalities. Emma encourages buddies to sit together at snack and lunch time and to be one another's partners during games and other structured play times.

Emma does not force buddies to play together at all times, but she notices that as students form close connections, they gravitate toward one another more often. Emma also encourages her students' parents to schedule play dates outside of school, to make sure all students are getting plenty of practice socializing.

Use of Scripts

Many of Emma's students struggle particularly with the aspects of social skills that are language-embedded, or require words. Many young children with special needs are slow to catch on to language, and this can make it hard for them to join in pretend play, to have conversations with other children, and to participate in games. They may even misunderstand rules and routines if they are only communicated in language.

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