Measuring Social Skills Goals

I am a parent of a 7-year-old with autism who has responded well to her early intervention program based on ABA. I would like her educational program to address social skills more extensively. My child’s school-based team has informed me that they are seeking to improve the quantity and quality of her interactions with classmates, but they have been reluctant to include social skill goals on the IEP given the challenges associated with measurement. Do you have any suggestions?

Answered by Lara Delmolino, PhD, BCBA
Associate Director, Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center Clinical
Associate Professor, Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Given what we know about the core deficits of autism, it is very important that educational teams target deficits associated with social relatedness, conversation skills, play skills, etc. Your situation is fairly common. In contrast to social skills, academic skills lend themselves more easily to precise quantification, definition and measurement. Clinicians, educators and researchers who are addressing social behavior can all relate to the challenge of clearly defining and measuring this critical area of skill.

A first step in developing social objectives and articulating the methods for measuring and evaluating progress toward those goals is to continually ask the question, “How will we know when…?” Clear outcomes which include observable behavior should guide the wording of the objective. For example, for an objective to improve conversational reciprocity, the focus should be on identifying “How will we know when her reciprocal conversation skills have improved?” Precise behaviors related to this outcome can then be observed and measured in naturally occurring and contrived situations. For example, outcomes associated with this objective for a particular learner may be: 1) an increased number of conversational exchanges; 2) an increased number of questions directed to the conversational partner; and 3) an increase in the demonstration of eye contact linked with verbal statements.

For skills like this it helpful to use probe data for measurement. Probe data refers to the use of occasional samples of data (in contrast to continuous data collection) to check for the presence, absence, or performance level of a skill . Probe data can be collected during a random time sample or during more structured opportunities since monitoring each occurrence of such interactions while the child is busy at school or at play may not always be feasible, particularly in a public school setting.

A number of variables can be measured, including; number of conversational turns, number of times a child addresses a question to a classmate or other conversational partner, occurrences of spontaneously offering information, time intervals or percentage of statements/exchanges with appropriate eye contact or physical proximity, etc. (depending on those skills that have been targeted for improvement). For students learning more basic social skills, data can be collected regarding the percent of opportunities or intervals in which the student played in proximity or in parallel to peers, responded to greetings, approached other students, etc. If the conversation or play skill is being targeted in a more restricted setting (e.g., in the resource room or as part of a SLP led language group), it would also be important to measure whether the skill is occurring in more natural settings (such as with classmates).

In summary, two things may help when addressing this challenge.

  1. Focus on an observable outcome. The fact that social skills need to be addressed is related to something observable. In other words, “How do we know she needs improvement in (specific social skill)?” There must be something observable that supports this objective. For instance, “We know she needs improvement in engaging in social conversation with peers because she rarely if ever has such conversations.” Taking this information and turning it into an observable outcome is essential. That is, “We will know when (specific social skill) has improved when we see that she (observable behaviors).”
  2. The use of sampling procedures, contrived opportunities and data collection from permanent products (such as videotape) can provide a means for measuring progress toward a given objective, even when teaching occurs in many other circumstances. In other words, the data need not be generated during each teaching interaction. Teaching these objectives can occur in role-play situations or group social skills groups. Furthermore, teaching efforts can utilize individual reinforcement systems, with data focusing on application of skills in regularly planned social opportunities.