About social functioning

Socialising with others requires many skills. These include being able to express thoughts or ideas, listen and understand what others say, show an interest in others, and share or take turns. Non-verbal behaviours are also important for socialising. These include using and understanding gestures, reading facial expressions, and knowing how close to stand to others and whether it is okay to touch someone.

Many things impact the way we interact with others. This includes personality traits (e.g. shy and quiet versus outgoing and energetic), mental health (e.g. feeling sad or low, compared with feeling happy and energised), ability to manage emotions (e.g. coping with frustration), and cognitive and communication skills (e.g. talking; using and understanding gestures; maintaining attention during a conversation, reading facial expressions; controlling impulses).

All students will take time to learn and acquire social skills, but some students process and understand social situations differently to others, and so may experience difficulties in making and keeping friends. Explicit teaching of social rules and skills, with lots of opportunities to practice, can help these students to acquire the skills they need to navigate social situations. It’s important to remember that when a student is not able to fully participate, it is usually because of the systems and structures in place, and a lack of understanding, not because of their abilities. This is why in addition to helping a specific student acquire social skills, approaches like peer mediation, in which peers are supported to acquire the skills they need to fully include another student, and supporting peers to understand different disabilities, can also help break down barriers to social participation. Some students with disabilities may have strong social skills, but experience exclusion by peers. When this is the case, consider using peer mediation and other approaches to exclusion and bullying, rather than targeting social skills.

While most of the social skills strategies to follow will be beneficial for all students, they may be particularly relevant for some specific groups of students. Use the tabs below to explore when and why evidence-based positive behaviour supports may be particularly helpful for some students.

Children can vary in the ways they process, respond and initiate both verbal and non-verbal communication, which can impact their understanding of, and interactions within, social settings. Children who may not identify and correctly interpret non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, may misunderstand the meaning or context of verbal communication. Children who are blind or low vision for example, may need to rely on tone of voice only, and children with autism, intellectual disability, or other non-verbal learning disabilities may find it difficult to interpret these cues. Similarly, children with communication and language disorders or who are non-verbal, and children who are Deaf/deaf and hard of hearing, may rely on alternative modes of communication, which (in the absence of inclusive practices to facilitate full social participation) can limit opportunities to develop social skills. Peer mediation, and the below strategies, have been found to help.
Challenges with self-regulation in a number of areas can impact a child’s ability to make and keep friends. Some students may be impulsive or hyperactive, and may interrupt conversations or engage in behaviours that upsets others or draws unwanted attention. Children who experience difficulties in regulating their emotions may express these emotions in ways that cause peers to withdraw (e.g. emotional meltdowns). Similarly, peers may withdraw from children who experience difficulties in regulating their behaviour (e.g. who engage in defiant/hostile behaviour). Supporting peers to understand different disabilities may help peers be more understanding of a child’s behaviour, in addition to the strategies below .
Some children may ‘zone out’ during conversations if their attention wonders, while others may find it hard to maintain concentration or follow fast/rapid conversations. Some children, such as children with learning disabilities or autism, may find conversations involving abstract concepts challenging, or may misunderstand jokes. Peer mediation, and the below strategies, can help.
Social rules or norms can be hard for some children to understand and learn. They are not written down and not always explicitly taught. As a result, some children, such as children with autism or intellectual disability, may misinterpret social situations or engage in behaviours that don’t comply with these ‘rules’. All of the strategies presented below are relevant, particularly explicit teaching, modelling and providing opportunities to practice social skills.

Evidence-based strategies

  • To teach a child a social skill, explain exactly what they should do. For example, if they are learning to meet someone teach them what to say and do (e.g. ‘Hello, my name is James’). Instructions that are not concrete and specific may be difficult for a child to follow (e.g. 'be nice'). Some children may pick up these social skills when instructions are directed to a group (e.g. “When we want to have a turn, we ask ‘Can I please have a turn?’”), while others may need individualised and explicit prompts (e.g. “Look at Ruan, and ask him ‘Can I please have a turn?’”). Where possible, look for opportunities to provide these prompts discreetly (i.e. without drawing the attention of other students).
  • Consider demonstrating social skills that are important at school, or have another child demonstrate. It may be helpful to watch videos that show a social skill, and to point out the skill to the child. Another option is giving a child a picture card showing a social skill just before an opportunity to use that skill. This strategy may be particularly important for children who are having difficulties interpreting or understanding social situations, or who learn best with additional supports.
  • Children may respond well to praise or encouragement when practising or using a good social skill.
  • It can be helpful to create opportunities for children to work together and practise social skills. Be deliberate. For example organise games in which children need to co-operate. Have children act out short dramas about social situations. Ask children to practise a specific social situation or skill during playtime. Encourage a child to copy other children’s social behaviour. Multiple opportunities to practise in different settings may be particularly important for children with autism or intellectual disability.
  • Children who struggle with social skills may be left out by other children. Clear rules for the class about how to treat each other may help. Consider establishing a clear system to manage any exclusion, teasing or bullying.
  • Pointing out common interests among children can encourage friendships. For example, suggest students talk about soccer or music at recess time.
  • It may help to read stories that show or talk about how to act in different social situations. This may be particularly useful for helping a student acquire an understanding of social rules or norms. Access AllPlay Learn’s stories.
  • Best practice tips

  • Come up with activities that get everyone involved. For example, avoid games where children get eliminated. Similarly, consider picking teams or partners so children aren’t picked last.
  • A child might not be able to join in with the class straight away, particularly if they feel anxious or unsettled in social settings. They may need to join the group in their own time or you might need to find a way to ease them into the group.
  • Other considerations

  • Some children may not understand social norms about personal space without clear instruction. Consider teaching all children about boundaries. Be specific. For example, talk about how close to stand to others and whether (and where) it is ok to touch someone.
  • Students with social challenges may also experience autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, blind or low vision, d/Deaf and hard of hearing, or anxiety.
  • Refer to information about these areas to help support the child.
  • Relevant resources

    Visit our resources page for a range of resources that can help to create inclusive education environments for children with disabilities and developmental challenges. Some particularly relevant resources for children with social issues include our stories, and:

    Strengths and abilities communication checklist
    Emotion cards
    Problem solving guide

    Download this page as a PDF