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Effectively Teaching Social Skills in ABA


Social skills is a common area of focus that is often tackled within an ABA program. The question is, should we even be teaching social skills and if so, which ones and why?  Is ABA even the right approach when teaching social skills?

Before we answer whether ABA is the right approach to teach social skills, let’s define social skills.  Social skills, in this context, refers to how to be most successful in an environment in order to interact with people. Social skills is not trying to get kids to act the way we want them to act or socialize in a way that we define as “normal.” It’s really about helping our kids flourish in the environments that they want to be in by teaching them the skills they need to be in those environments.  So whether kids want to be able to make friends, or they want to be able to take the bus to go grocery shopping independently, ABA can teach those skills.  There is so much that can be defined as social skills.

The first step is asking a learner their goals, if appropriate, and trying to support them by teaching the social savvy skills that will help them get there.  This could be conversation skills, personal space, hygiene, life skills, or community-based skills. All of these things really fall into the general category of social skills.  I’ve taught lots of kids who’ve told me that they just want to make a friend. Other students have said that they don’t want to talk to anybody. They don’t even want to say, “How are you?” because they don’t want to have to respond when the person says, “How are you?” back. Fair enough. Really work with your learner to individualize a social skills program that is right for them.

Why is ABA the Right Approach to Teach Social Skills?

So how do we teach social skills in an ABA model? We use behavioral skills training (BST). BST is all about explaining why the skill is important – if a learner can understand that explanation – and then modelling the skill. First I do, then we do together, then you do, and I can give feedback.

In an ABA program, we use behavioral objectives that are:

  • Very specific in their content. For example, a goal might be “reciprocates greetings from peers” and not “greetings”
  • Observable and measurable. For example, “When greeted by a peer, the student will turn his body towards the peer, wave, and say hi”.  Each time this happens, we can see it and measure it.
  • Individualized. Not everyone has the same goals, skills vary and so should program goals.

Measurement of behavioral objectives help determine if change has occurred and whether or not what we are doing is effective. The only way to know if our teaching has been successful is if we collect specific data from before, during, and after the process.  If the target behavior increases or decreases as desired, we can attribute it to successful teaching (assuming that there are no other confounding variables).

How to Use Assessments When Teaching Social Skills

Pre-and post-assessments are an important indicator of progress and should be used to determine individualized goals. In order to conduct social skills assessments, the term “social skills” needs to be operationally defined in the context of what you are teaching. Behavior must be observable and measurable. Because social skills encompass such a wide range of skills from giving and receiving items, to conversational skills, to hygiene and more, your social skills assessment will need to be individualized to your learner.

Psychological tests address social skills, but few are comprehensive in scope. There are some evidenced-based assessments that exist within the field of ABA but many can be over-whelming. We incorporated ideas from these assessments into our own social skills assessment. This assessment can be tailored to each of our learners and helps us see what foundational skills each learner has and what still needs to be broken down further.

Download our social skills assessment for free below!

Pre-Requisite Skills Needed to Teach Social Skills

As with most things, there is a progression of skills within social skills. Sometimes we’ll have parents come to us when their child is seven or eight and hasn’t made a friend. But they’re also struggling with some other things. We might then have to go back and teach some earlier skills that are almost prerequisites to making a friend. It is really important to build up that progression of skills to ultimately be able to interact with peers successfully if that is what is desired.

Children should be able to:

  • Communicate needs and desires
  • Follow one-step instructions from adults
  • Imitate one-step actions of adults
  • Imitate one-step sequences with objects
  • Respond to delayed contingencies (i.e., reinforcement is delivered following a period of time, rather than immediately following the target behavior)
  • Wait quietly
  • Transition from one activity to another and from one area to another with minimal assistance
  • Keep disruptive behavior at a minimum in a controlled environment

Skills that you teach should be selected and adapted according to the individualized needs and wants of the learner. When you’ve determined that your student has all the necessary pre-requisite skills, you should use the social skills assessment to determine the skill level of your student and implement goals accordingly.

What Skills are Taught in Social Skills Programs?

Read on to learn what types of skills are taught in social skills programs in both one-to-one and group settings. Then use the social skills assessment to see which level is the best fit for your learners.

Beginner Social Skills:

  • Requests items from peers
  • Reciprocates greetings with peers
  • Gives and receives items from peers
  • Imitates simple and complex actions of peers (both from close up and from a distance)
  • Imitates peer play
  • Follows peers’ directions
  • Takes turns with toys and simple games
  • Allows toys to be shared

aba social skill pretend play

Intermediate Social Skills:

  • Requests assistance from peers
  • Requests attention from peers (e.g., “Look.” “Watch me.” “Check this out.” etc.)
  • Orients body towards peers
  • Interactive play (involving commenting to peers, etc.)
  • Shares toys and other items
  • Pretend play
  • Joins in play that is already in progress
  • Peer games (e.g., Musical Chairs, What Time Is It Mr. Wolf?, throw and catch, etc.)
  • Offers toy items to peers (e.g., “Which one do you want?” “Do you want this?” “Here you go!” etc.)
  • Initiates simple conversation (e.g., “Do you like this?” “What’s your favorite…?” “Guess what?” etc.)
  • School readiness skills (e.g., attending, waiting, transitioning, following group instructions, raising hand, etc.)

Advanced Social Skills:

  • Initiates and maintains a conversation
  • Stays on topic
  • Uses appropriate transition statements to change the topic
  • Talks about appropriate subject matter only
  • Interrupts appropriately
  • Role-plays social behavior in a variety of situations (e.g., at a restaurant, on public transportation, in a grocery store, etc.)
  • Initiates play (e.g., “That’s so cool, can I play?”, “Check this out”, “Can I see that?”, etc.)
  • Personal space
  • Co-operation skills (e.g., sharing ideas clearly, accepting/incorporating others’ ideas, commenting on others’ ideas, etc.)
  • Identifies teasing (and knows how to handle it)
  • Phone/Text skills
  • Perspective-taking (i.e., makes inferences about others’ likes and dislikes during conversation, shows empathy, etc.)
  • Watches and comments on a movie/YouTube and/or video game

For detailed program descriptions of any of the programs listed above (and more!), join our bx resource today!

aba social skills class


ABA social skills programs will break down specific complex social skills (such as: taking turns, conversation, sharing, joining a group, working with others towards a common goal, understanding facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.) into smaller components and then teach those components systematically. The benefit of teaching social skills in a small group program is that friendships can develop while the learners learn the skills necessary for inclusion in classrooms and communities.

A comprehensive curriculum based on key elements of teaching social skills to students with ASD includes:

  • Structure, routine, and predictability
  • Explicit and individualized instruction
  • Visual presentation of topics
  • Repetition of key concepts and vocabulary
  • Guided practice during the learning process
  • Role play and discussion
  • Contingent reinforcement
  • Ongoing assessments to analyze and adapt teaching and test for learning

Don’t forget we have a FREE social skills assessment available for you to download to help you determine where your learners’ social skills are and which group or one-to-one program will be the best fit for them!

For detailed program descriptions of any of the programs listed above (and more!), join our bx resource today!


  • Autism Ontario (2006). Living with ASD: Adolescence and Beyond. Toronto, ON.
  • Baker, J.E. (2004). Social Skills Training: For Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social-Communication Problems. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.
  • Cornish, L.K. (2005). How to Find Your Groove. Thousand Oaks, CA: Groovy Kids.
  • Gutstein, S.E. & Sheely, R.K. (2004). Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children: Social and Emotional Development Activities for Asperger Syndrome, Autism, PDD and NLD. New York, NY: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Huggins, P. (1997). Teaching Cooperation Skills. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
  • McConnell, K. & Ryser, G.R. (2005). Practical Ideas that Really Work for Students with Asperger Syndrome. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  • McKinnon, K. & Krempa, J. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-on Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism. New York, NY: DRL Books, Inc.
  • Partington, J.W. (2006). The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills: ABLLS-R Protocol.Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.
  • Quill, K.A. (2005). Do-Watch-Listen-Say: Social and Communication Intervention for Children with Autism. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Silver, K. (2005). Assessing and Developing Communication and Thinking Skills in People with Autism and Communication Difficulties: A Toolkit for Parents and Professionals. London, England: Autism Initiatives.
  • Taylor, B.A. & Jasper, S. (2001). Teaching Programs to Increase Peer Interaction. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & R.M. Foxx (Eds.), Making a Difference: Behavioral Intervention for Autism (pp. 97-162). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  • Weiss, M.J. & Harris, S.L. (2001). Reaching Out, Joining In: Teaching Social Skills to Young Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

8 thoughts on “Effectively Teaching Social Skills in ABA”

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  5. Can you please provide more details on how to enroll my child (11 years, 6th grade) into this program? Based on reading the description, it’s clear that my child needs ABA training, not specifically tested as we want to avoid labeling, but definitely want to enroll her into a “advanced” social skills program.

  6. I’m looking for a resource that explains how to measure and collect data on social skills. Do you have an article going over this?

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