The Fourth R
The three R’s - Reading, Writing and Arithmetic - reflect the traditional basic skills approach to education which focuses on academic benchmarks, measurable standards, and high-stakes testing. However, the school experience is about much more than mastering the three R’s. The ability to relate and interact with others is the foundation for successful human connection and adjustment to the social world. In fact, one of the best childhood predictors of adult adaptation and well-being is not IQ or school grades, but rather, the competence with which children relate to both peers and adults. Given the life-long consequences of poor social functioning, we should move beyond a focus on academic competencies to include Relationship and social learning as the fourth ‘R’ in our schools.
Social Relationship Skills
Although teaching the fourth R benefits all children, it has the greatest potential to help students with autism. Most autistic children are educated in general education classrooms, and even though many successfully master the 3 R’s, all experience varying degrees of social relationship problems. This includes difficulty communicating with others, establishing and maintaining reciprocal social relationships, taking another person’s perspective, and inferring the interests of others. Consequently, (social) relationship skills should be taught alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic. For children with social-communication challenges to learn relationship skills, we must teach them. Social relationship instruction commonly involves teaching specific skills (e.g., maintaining eye contact, listening, initiating conversation) through behavioral and social learning techniques. Instructional goals usually include skill acquisition, performance, generalization and maintenance of prosocial behaviors, and the reduction or elimination of competing behaviors.
The overarching goal of social skills instruction should be the development of social and communicative competency through direct teaching, modeling, coaching, and role-playing activities in real-world situations. Strategies designed to promote skill acquisition in building social relationships may include direct instruction, modeling, role-play, structured activities, social stories, incidental teaching, video role-play with feedback, communication scripts, formal social groups, pivotal response training, self-monitoring, and coaching. Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that will help children to be socially successful, the following are promising strategies for facilitating and reinforcing social-communication competency in the classroom.
Increase social motivation by encouraging self-awareness - Begin with simple, easily-learned skills and intersperse new skills with those previously mastered. Also, provide social skills training and practice opportunities in a number of settings to encourage students to apply new skills to multiple, real life situations.
Increase social initiations and improve age-appropriate social responding by making social rules clear and concrete - Teach simple social response scripts for common situations, and use natural reinforcers for social initiations and response attempts. In addition, utilize modeling and role-play to teach and reinforce prosocial skills, and build social activities around preferred activities/interests.
Promote skill generalization and coordinate peer involvement (e.g., prompting and initiating social interactions; maintaining physical proximity - Use several individuals with whom to practice skills, including parents, and provide opportunities to apply learned skills in safe, natural settings (e.g., field trips). Look for opportunities to teach and reinforce social skills as often as possible throughout the school day.
Teach effective social interaction and communication as replacements for challenging behavior - Model, demonstrate, coach, and/or role-play the appropriate interaction skills. Teach students to ask for help during difficult activities or to negotiate alternative times to finish work. Encourage positive social interactions such as conversational skills to help students with challenging behavior obtain positive peer attention.
Social relationship skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and to long-term outcomes for students. Teaching the fourth R can have both preventive and remedial effects that can help reduce the risk for negative outcomes not only for children with autism, but for all children.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is the author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
© Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD