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Teaching Children Interpersonal, Problem-Solving, and Conflict Resolution Skills - May 2007

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Teaching Children Interpersonal, Problem-Solving, and Conflict Resolution

By: Howard M. Knoff, PhD
Director, Project Achieve, Director Arkansas State Improvement Grant
Arkansas Department of Education, Special Education Unit
Little Rock, Arkansas

There have been many changes in our society in recent years. The results of these changes include those that affect the children in our schools. The impact of television, significantly less adult supervision and feedback, increases in poverty, and changes in the family "unit" have all contributed to children coming to school less prepared to actively engage the schooling process. As a result, teachers are experiencing more discipline problems in their classrooms, they are having to teach children who do not have some of the basic skills necessary to learn (listening, following directions, etc.), and the entire, already-challenging process is becoming increasingly frustrating. In addition, more students are more frequently expressing their own home and school frustrations in angry and aggressive ways. And, some of these emotions have resulted in outright violence and student fatalities-even on campus.

In years past, schools have relied on families to teach their children positive interpersonal skills and non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. In recent years, however, this task has fallen on the schools. And although many educators feel that this is still the family's responsibility, they have no recourse but to address these issues because (a) more and more children are coming to school without these essential skills, and (b) these skills are prerequisites to learning and academic progress.

Teaching Students Prosocial Skills: The Stop & Think Social Skills Approach

Teachers and other educators, then, need to have the skills to teach their students effective prosocial interpersonal, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills. Social skills are behaviors that students learn-just like they learn academic skills. While we often focus on what we don't want our students to do ("don't fight," "don't talk back," "don't interrupt," "don't bother your brother"), social skills focus on the behaviors that we want our students to do. Significantly, when students perform the behaviors that we want, they rarely do the things that we don't want at the same time.

While there are hundreds of important social skills that we want our students to learn, social skills can be organized (loosely) into four skills areas: Survival skills (e.g., Listening, Following Directions, Ignoring Distractions, Using Nice or Brave Talk, Rewarding Yourself); interpersonal skills (e.g., Sharing, Asking for Permission, Joining an Activity, Waiting for your Turn); problem-solving skills (e.g., Asking for Help, Apologizing, Accepting Consequences, Deciding What to Do); and conflict resolution skills (e.g., Dealing with Teasing, Losing, Accusations, Being Left Out, Peer Pressure).

Beyond these four skills areas, it is important to recognize that we are constantly repeating and reteaching many of the social skills above across the elementary to middle school to high school age span. In fact, while the "names" of many of these social skills do not change over time, the expectations for students' performance of them does change. This is because (a) students are able to handle increased behavioral expectations due to their development and maturation over time, (b) they are experiencing or confronting more complex, challenging, and variable situations as they get older; and because © we need to slowly help (i.e., teach) our students to advance to the "next behavioral level" every day, month, and year-- thereby increasing their knowledge and skill levels over time.

More concretely, we need to recognize that the expectations for any social skill differ for a five-year-old than for a ten-year-old than for a fifteen-year-old. As students get older, it is expected that they will be able to perform certain social skills more often, more quickly, for a longer period of time, more independently, and/or with a more appropriate level of self-control.

Relative to teaching, all effective social skills programs are comprised of two essential elements: (a) a core language or set of steps that can facilitate the conditioning of new behavior, and (b) a teaching process that uses a behavioral/social learning approach.

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program, a National Model Prevention Program as designated by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Service's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, uses a five- step language that is used when teaching, reinforcing, or using any social skill. The five steps are:
  • Stop and Think!
  • Are you going to make a Good Choice or Bad Choice?
  • What are your Choices or Steps?
  • Just Do It!
  • Good Job!

The Stop and Think! step is designed to condition students to take the time necessary to calm down and think about how they want to handle a situation.

The Good Choice or Bad Choice? step gives students the opportunity to decide what kind of choice they want to make. Typically, teachers tell their students what positive outcome or reinforcement will result when they make a Good Choice. Conversely, teachers tell their students what negative outcome or consequence will occur if they make a Bad Choice.

The What are your Choices or Steps? step helps students to develop a specific plan or approach before implementing a social skill. It is important to note that, in order to be implemented successfully, some social skills (e.g., Listening, Following Directions) require a very specific sequence of steps (these are called "Step Skills"). Other social skills (e.g., Dealing with Teasing) have a number of good choice possibilities that help students to be successful (these are called "Choice Skills"). Regardless, this third step prompts students to think about the good choices that could possibly resolve a current or existing situation or the sequence of steps needed to exhibit a particular social skill. This third step also is the place where teachers teach a particular social skill's specific steps or choices during a social skills training lesson.

Once students have identified the good choices or steps needed for a particular situation, and they are prepared to implement a specific social skill, the next step naturally follows.

Accordingly, the Just Do It! step occurs when students actually carry out their plan, implement the social skill chosen, and evaluate whether or not it has worked. With younger elementary school-aged students, teachers may need to repeat the skill steps as their students follow them, and they might even need to physically guide students through some skills. However, even with older students who are first practicing a new skill, it often helps when teachers repeat the skill steps out loud as they follow them. Over time, students repeat the Stop & Think steps silently inside their heads and perform the skills more independently and automatically.

If the Just Do It! step works, students then are ready to go on to the last step. If a Step Skill doesn't work, students simply need to go back over the skill steps and practice them more carefully. If a Choice Skill doesn't work, students should be prompted to identify another possible social skill or to move to another good choice option. For example, if Ignoring does not stop a peer's distractions, then a student might decide to directly ask him or her to stop the distraction or to tell him or her how the distraction is making him feel. Once successful, it's on to the last step.

The Good Job! step prompts students to reinforce themselves for successfully using a social skill and successfully responding to a situation or request. This step is important because students do not always reinforce each other for making good choices and doing a good job, and thus, they need to learn how to self-reinforce. Indeed, over time, students need to learn how to recognize when they are successful and how to reinforce themselves for a job well done.

Relative to its teaching process, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program uses a behavioral/social learning process that involves the following five components:
  • Teaching the steps of the desired social skill
  • Modeling the steps and the social skills language (or script)
  • Roleplaying the steps and the script with your students
  • Providing Performance Feedback to your students relative to how accurately they are verbalizing the skill script and how successfully they are behaviorally demonstrating the new skill
  • Applying the skill and its steps as much as possible during the day to reinforce the teaching over time, in different settings, with different people, and in different situations

When Teaching the steps of a desired social skill, effective teachers use the core language of the particular social skills process being used. Given the example above, teachers would consistently use the five-steps already discussed:
  • Stop and Think!
  • Are you going to make a Good Choice or Bad Choice?
  • What are your Choices or Steps?
  • Just Do It!
  • Good Job!

However, when they get to the third step, they teach their students the specific choices or steps for the skill they are focusing on.

When Modeling a social skill, teachers need to clearly verbalize the steps to a particular social skill while showing their students how to perform the actual behavior. Typically, this is done by having teachers re-create an actual classroom or school situation where the particular social skill is needed and can be demonstrated. For example, in modeling the Dealing with Teasing social skill, a teacher would have a student in front of the class who is "teasing" the teacher. The teacher would then "talk through" the steps of the Dealing with Teasing social skill while performing the appropriate behavior. Thus, during the teaching process, teachers tell their students how to perform a social skill behavior. During modeling, teachers show how to implement it in a simulated situation verbally and behaviorally.

After a teacher models a specific social skill, the students then are given opportunities to Roleplay or act out the social skill again re-creating situations that are both relevant to the classroom and to the social skill. The roleplays may be done with students in front of the class or in a group setting. Regardless, student roleplays again focus on them verbalizing the steps to the social skill being taught and behaviorally performing the corresponding behavior.

While students are roleplaying the new skill, teachers give them Performance Feedback. This feedback positively reinforces the students when they correctly (a) verbalize the social skills steps, (b) demonstrate the appropriate skill or behavior, and © review their performance after the roleplay or practice session is over. This feedback also occurs when student roleplays are getting "off track" so that students only roleplay the correct steps to a particular social skill and demonstrate only the prosocial behavior.

After modeling and having students roleplay a new social skill with performance feedback, teachers then provide as many additional opportunities in the classroom for students to transfer the training of the skill and practice it to mastery. This occurs as teachers set up situations within which to practice the social skill, eventually using real situations that occur in the classroom to actually apply the skill. Immediately after teaching, modeling, and roleplaying a new social skill, teachers need to use the social skills that have been taught as much as possible from day-to-day, hour-tohour, and minute-to-minute in the classroom. This means that they are alert to "teachable moments" when students can practice the social skill meaningfully and successfully. Over time, all of this teaching, practice, and application (transfer) helps students to understand the importance of using specific social skills, and helps them to master and use their prosocial skills more quickly and independently.

This Month's Featured Program: The Stop & Think Social Skills Program

Special Thanks to Howard Knoff, PhD and Project Acheive for providing an article for this issue's Therapy Corner.

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program has been designated as an evidence-based model prevention program through the U. S. Department of Health & Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and it has been used in over 1,500 schools or school districts across the country over the past fifteen years. Part of the comprehensive school-wide Positive Behavioral Support System of Project ACHIEVE-an evidence- based school improvement program that has also been implemented nationwide, this social skills program has consistently demonstrated its ability to help schools decrease student discipline referrals to the principal's office and school suspensions and expulsions; improve positive school climates and students' prosocial interactions; and increase students' ability to stay on task and improve their academic performance. The Stop & Think Program also has a Stop & Think Parent Program with a 75- minute instructional DVD that actually shows parents how to implement this process at home with children at different age levels.

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program for schools (Knoff, 2001) is published by Sopris West Publishers (Phone: 1-800-547-6747; Web site: and consists of four levels: preschool to Grade 1, Grades 2 and 3, Grades 4 and 5, and Grades 6 through 8). A classroom package includes everything that is needed for classroom and building implementation: the Stop & Think Social Skills Teachers Manual, a Stop & Think book of reproducible forms with copies of the teaching steps for each social skill taught in the curriculum, the five Stop & Think posters, a large and small Stop & Think stop signs, and a deck of Stop & Think Cue Cards for each student in a classroom. The Stop & Think Parenting Program is available from the author at 501-312-1484 or via email at:

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