Supporting Social Skills in Primary School

by Care Speech 
13 May 2022

Children with social skill difficulties may require extra support to make friends, navigate interactions and make sense of the social world around them.

One-on-one Speech Pathology intervention for these children typically involves the explicit teaching of age-appropriate social skills, beginning with the areas that are of most concern for the child and progressing to other domains once the child has demonstrated real-life improvement.

To get the most out of your child’s social communication intervention, it is important to ensure that these same skills are also being supported in the school environment.

What social skills typically emerge in primary school?

In early primary school, a child’s coordinated pretend play grows in complexity and rule-based competitive games are introduced. At this age, children should start to develop a knowledge of “fair play” and turn taking. Empathy and negotiation skills also begin to emerge.

In upper primary school, children start to make social comparisons and begin to consider social values. “Best friendships” emerge, and conversational skills become more important to peer relationships. Children at this age start to recognise that another’s perspective may be different from their own and are able to solve problems and resolve conflicts with less adult intervention. This is also the age where social exclusion and bullying can start to emerge.

How do I support social skill development with my whole class?

  1. Establish Clear Routines
    Students who have difficulties with social skills will benefit from clear routines in the classroom to reduce how much they need to read the cues of other students and interpret what is happening around them. Consider using the following strategies in the classroom:

    • Provide students with a weekly agenda or timetable and encourage them to refer to it regularly, just like in high school.
    • Consider writing a daily schedule on the whiteboard each morning that all students can attend to.
    • Provide individuals students with graphic organisers, checklists, subtitles, outlines, etc, that provide clear scaffolding and expectations for written work and assignments.
    • Model the steps or sequences of a process to show students what the finished product should look like.
    • Give students as much warning as possible before making any changes in routine – this may be verbally, visually or both. Students with social skill difficulties may otherwise struggle to cope with last-minute changes.
  2. Teach asking for help
    Talk to the whole class about the importance of asking for and seeking help. Learning to ask for help in the early years prepares students to self-advocate as they get older, and not to rely on others to anticipate their needs. Asking for help is also an important part of building workable and meaningful relationships with peers.

    • Develop routines when asking for help, such as having students raise their hand.
    • ‘Ask three then me’ – have students ask 3 of their peers for support before seeking support from the teacher. This encourages positive student interaction, self-advocacy and independence.
  3. Give specific praise
    Give specific verbal praise to students when they demonstrate positive social skills in the classroom (e.g., “John, thank you for waiting patiently with your hand up!” or “John, that was really kind of you to let Jane go first”).Classroom Layout
    Consider your position in the classroom in relation to students who may need extra support. If possible, place those students needing help near the front of the room or towards your desk so that they can easily access support if they need to.
  4. Stop, Think, Do
    Consider implementing a framework such as, “Stop, Think, Do”. This framework allows students to work on different skills at each stage:
    -STOP (improve self-control, perceptual awareness and emotional regulation)
    -THINK (improve perspective-taking, empathy and overall cognitive problem-solving)
    -DO (improve behaviour and positive reinforcement through positive outcomes)
  5. Teach being assertive
    For students with social skill difficulties, a lack of assertiveness can unfortunately lead to increased risk of peer pressure and victimisation or bullying by other students. Support students to be independent decision makers by encouraging them to use the language of assertiveness. Use "I feel" messages such as “I think...”, “I feel...” and “I want...”.

How do I support social skill development 1:1 or in small groups?

  1. Direct teaching
    Direct teaching is one of the most commonly used forms of social skills training and is as effective form of intervention for school-aged children (Lynch & Simpson, 2010). Direct teaching or explicit instruction simply means working with an individual or small groups of students to directly target a specific skill or strategy (e.g., “Today we are going to talk about understanding other people’s feelings”).
  2. Social Scripts
    Social scripts are ‘scripts’ that a child learns to navigate a social interaction (e.g., “Hi, how was your weekend?”). They are particularly useful in encouraging students to initiate interactions and establish peer relationships. When implementing a social script, it may be useful to consider:

    • What is your target activity and learning objective?
    • Would you like the student to be able to start a conversation with their peers during lunch time?
    • Or interact with others during a game?

    The student will need multiple opportunities to use the script during the target activity. Scripts may be written or pictured on cards or on paper to help cue the student to use each phrase.

  3. Social Stories
    Social stories are another way in which a student’s social skills can be directly targeted. A social story is a short story written to meaningfully support students’ understanding of a situation, skill or concept (Reynhout & Carter, 2006). Social stories are often written in the first person (e.g., “When I arrive at school I say hello to my friends”) and they aim to describe, rather than direct, a student’s behaviour by using positive and reassuring language.
  4. Peer Mediated Intervention
    Peer mediated intervention is a treatment approach in which peers directly support a student’s social skill development (Chang & Locke, 2016). Roles played by peers may include modelling appropriate behaviour, implementing prompting procedures and reinforcing target behaviours. One way in which peer modelling can be used is in supporting the development of reciprocal friendships. For example, a student with well-developed social skills may be encouraged to initiate conversations and facilitate inclusion for another student in the class who is still developing these skills.

At Care Speech Pathology, we provide one-on-one support for social skill development as well as education and training for parents, teachers and carers. Contact us today on 1300 086 280 or [email protected] to find out more.


Chang, Y. & Locke, J. (2016). A Systematic Review of Peer-Mediated Interventions for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 27, 1-10.

Lynch, S. & Simpson, C. (2010). Social Skills: Laying the Foundation for Success. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 38 (2), 3-12.

Reynhout, G. & Carter, M. (2006). Social Stories for Children with Disabilities. Journal for Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 445-469.

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