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The Building Blocks to Social Skills

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Written by:

Brittany Mays, RBT

Nola George, RBT

Ineca Elliot, RBT

Lisa Pavlik, MA, BCBA, LBA


Social skills allow young children to explore, communicate, and connect with other people. These are essential, long-life skills that guide children’s relationships with others within the community, school, home, and other environments. There are 7 foundational blocks of social skills: joint attending, social play, self-regulation, social/emotional, social language, classroom/group behavior, and nonverbal social language.

Joint Attending

Joint attention is defined as two or more people using gestures and eye gaze to share a reciprocal interest in the same thing. It is an essential part of daily living because it allows children to become aware of their surroundings with others. Joint attention helps early learners initiate and respond to social interactions with others, so that they can learn more about their environment (Jones & Carr, 2004). Previous studies have also shown that joint attention reflects mental and behavioral processes that facilitate human learning and development (Mundy & Newell, 2007). Joint attention promotes the development of language, social skills and the ability to process and retain information (Mundy & Newell, 2007).

Naturally reinforcing opportunities: An adult may have a reinforcing item, such as a ball. The adult should be at the child’s eye-level to promote that initial attention with the reinforcing item in the adult’s hand. The adult will then praise the child for engaging in joint attention when the child has looked at the item in the adult’s hand. The adult will gradually increase the distance between the preferred item and adult, so that the child is able to demonstrate this skill across multiple distances. This also creates opportunities for the child to work harder to gain the adult’s attention through naturally reinforcing consequences (Warren et al. 1993; Yoder & Warren, 1999).

Attending through Play: Coordinate reciprocal attention to objects or events within their environment (Dawson et al., 2004). Early learners benefit from learning in a more naturalistic environment and benefit from play interactions with others (Schertz & Robb, 2006). There are various strategies that caregivers can implement through play interactions in order to promote joint attention.

1. Use gestures when talking – this may be contrived across multiple activities. A fun way may be prompting gestures when reading books. Children may be encouraged to look, point to pictures, and talk about what happened in books.

2. Do activities that require turn taking – this will encourage your child to shift their attention during the activity. Turn-taking is also a skill that your child will utilize every day when they engage and play with other children.

3. Establish eye contact before play– if a child is looking at an activity that is not related to the play activity, then attempt to shift their attention. You may move the toy directly in front of them (e.g., an animal toy jumping on their shoulders, head, and then 1 foot in front of their view). Once this is established, then you may engage the child in the play activity.

Commenting: Commenting may also be used in addition to what was mentioned above. Commenting is an important part of verbal language skills and joint attending. “Commenting by your child can be begun at the very earliest stages by encouraging him to show an object of interest. Shape his hand into a point when something is, for example, funny (say ‘Funny!’ as you point or ‘scary,’ or ‘big,’ ‘broken,’ and so on)” (Rappaport, 1996, p. 309).

Social Play

Social play is play that involves the interaction between peers. The activity of play allows children to navigate the world around them and learn ways to interact with it. Play has been found to enhance language development, “social skills and the cognitive development of children” ( Boutot, 2017). When children engage in social play they create opportunities to share experiences, thoughts and feelings. According to Krier & Lambros social play is a primary source of interaction and communication among children (2020). There are strategies that caregivers can use to improve these deficits and ensure that they will not miss out on the natural opportunities that social play provides.

Practice Play: Practice play involves acting out scenes or showing your child how to play with a toy functionally. For example, while playing with stuffed animals, you can pretend that they are having a tea party by giving each doll some tea while making the slurping sound. Encourage them to do the same and give them praise for engaging in the behavior “ i love how you’re giving them tea!” You can also practice social skills within the play such as turn taking. Take turns using a toy kettle to fill up the tea cup, for example. Other opportunities include games such as pop up pirate and candy land where turn taking and patience are also enhanced.

Role Play: Role playing is a great strategy to utilize before events such as birthday parties or the first day of school. You can role play on how to ask a peer if they can join in a game or if they would like to play with a preferred item with them.


Self-regulation is the ability to, “regulate thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions,” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). Self-regulation is important as it is used to identify the thoughts of feelings of oneself and others, finding solutions to problems, and empathy. For toddlers and preschoolers diagnosed with autism, self-regulation can be more difficult to obtain due to language delays and difficulties regulating emotions (Nuske et al. 2020). However, there are strategies to obtain, enhance, and maintain self-regulation skills that can be implemented by family members, caregivers, and therapists.

Emotional Visual Support: By using an emotional level chart, the child can reference a visual aid to determine current emotions and assign emotions for certain situations. An emotional level chart can also be used for discussing specific emotions that are appropriate for certain situations (OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, 2021).

Source: OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

Modeling Coping Strategies: Coping strategies are tools that can be used when a child is currently upset or that can be used to roleplay scenarios in which the child could become upset and/or angry (OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, 2021). It is important to remember to avoid reinforcing challenging behaviors (i.e., screaming, yelling, aggression, etc.) and to only reinforce the child when they are engaged in appropriate coping strategies (Chicago ABA Therapy, 2021) when using this tool.

Source: Chicago ABA Therapy, 2021


Social and emotional skills are defined as being able to identify and appropriately respond to different emotions in oneself and others and to use that information to determine one’s responding actions (Social Savvy: An assessment and Curriculum Guide for Young Children, 2015; Trevisan et al., 2021). Having a strong social emotional skill set is imperative for engaging in teamwork, empathy, education, and overall well-being (as cited in Trevisan et al. 2021).

Social Emotional Learning: A research study conducted by Trevisan et al. (2021) determined several evidenced-based interventions for developing and shaping social emotional behaviors, including, but not limited to social emotional learning (SEL). SEL is a broad practice that has been supported by evidence that includes various interventions and is typically implemented within the school setting (Trevisan et al. 2021). SEL can also be implemented in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy by targeting specific social behaviors for either increase or decrease and through the implementation of social skills groups (The Seed Center, n.d.). The subskills that are learned through SEL include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness (CASEL, 2021).


ABA Learning Lab (2018) has suggested techniques that parents can implement at home to help nurture these skills, which include, but are not limited to:

Self Awareness

Take the time to talk about feelings each day

Self Management

Teach what is and what is not acceptable behavior

Social Awareness

Read books and point out how characters are feeling

Relationship Skills

Model healthy relationships with other adults

Responsible Decision Making

Allow your child to make choices

Social Language

When we verbally and/or nonverbally communicate with others, we are using social language. Social language includes, but not limited to, maintaining eye contact, giving compliments, listening to others, selecting topics that not only interest you but others as well, staying on topic , answering and asking questions and “interpreting non-literal language”( Afirm, 2015). Social language is important because it forms and sustains relationships as well as enabling “ us to function happily and successfully in everyday life” (Owens et al. 2008). Interventions and strategies have been proven to be effective in building social language in individuals with ASD. Two that you can utilize are Video Modeling and Social Stories.

Video Modeling: Two or more individuals ( other than the learner) are recorded modeling out the target skill while engaging in everyday social activities( playing, meal times, etc) that he/she engages in. Right afterwards, the learner watches the video and performs the skill. Studies have shown that video modeling has improved social communication skills where reciprocation between peers and family members were observed. Ezzeddine et al. (2019), conducted a study and found that 3 of their 6 participants( between 5 and 9 years old) increased their use of scripted statements during interactions between peers. Other studies have shown that video modeling also increased their usage of “conversational speech, giving compliments, and perspective taking (Ezzeddine et al., 2019).

Social Stories: A form of social narrative that is composed of short stories and graphics that are individualized to the learner ( Afirm, 2015). Social stories can cover a range of topics from maintaining eye contact to the importance of understanding the thoughts and feelings of others who are part of the conversation. Samuel & Stansfied mentioned that “ social stories can improve the ability of a person to see things from another’s perspective and help integrate information into a more meaningful form”( 2012). Stories can be created using apps such as Social Story Creator & library, and i Create...Social Skill stories.

Classroom/Group Behavior

Another important social skill is having appropriate classroom (i.e., group) behavior. The Social Savvy Checklist (Social Savvy: An assessment and Curriculum Guide for Young Children, 2015) defines classroom or group behavior as, “skills related to following the rules and meeting expectations put in place by adults or that are necessary for group activities.” Disruptive, maladaptive, and/or unknown but needed behaviors for a classroom can increase stress to learners and the teacher (Parsonson, 2012) and decrease learning opportunities. Engaging in appropriate and functional behaviors, such as asking permission to use/see others’ possessions, sitting quietly in a group, and following directions can ultimately lead to decreased stress and an increase in learning opportunities. Some learners may already have acquired these skills at home or a 1:1 clinical setting, but have difficulty implementing these skills in a classroom setting. This may be due to ineffective classroom management.

Nonverbal Social Language

Nonverbal language is a precursor to speech. Nonverbal social language might be demonstrating an appropriate level of affection based on personal history. For example, a child may wave to a friend or hug grandparents. Nonverbal social language may also be initiating and reciprocating interactions with adults or peers.

Model the Behavior: Exaggerate and be silly with your gestures to encourage your child to imitate you. If your child requests for an item, then a parent may shake their head “yes” in an exaggerated way. The parent would then follow the gesture by vocalizing “yes” and giving the requested item (6 strategies for encouraging a non-verbal child to communicate 2021).

Contrive the Opportunities: Contrive multiple opportunities to work on nonverbal social language. You may have your child reach for a hug or reach to grab their preferred items within close proximity and gradually move it further and further away. Praise the desired behavior with specific praise. For example, “great job reaching for the apple juice” (Nonverbal communication 2020).

Helpful Tips/Notes:

  1. Be patient. Social skills are always developing for children and adults.

  2. Generalize! Contrive multiple opportunities to practice across different settings, people, and activities.

  3. Praise the attempts! If your child is trying, then praise it! The target response will come along with a little encouragement.

  4. Check in with your child’s teachers, ABA staff, and other service providers on ways that you can encourage your child’s social skills.

  5. Autism Works has several social stories on various topics that you may download for free. Copy and paste the link and take a look:



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CASEL (2021). Fundamentals of SEL. CASEL.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 29). Diagnostic criteria. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Dawson G, Toth K, Abbott R, et al. Early Social Attention Impairments in Autism: Social Orienting, Joint Attention, and Attention to Distress. Developmental Psychology. 2004

Ezzeddine, E. W., DeBar, R. M., Reeve, S. A., & Townsend, D. B. (2019). Using video modeling to teach play comments to dyads with asd. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Ellis, J.T. and Almeida, C. (2015). Social Savvy: An Assessment and Curriculum Guide for Young Children. DRL Books.

Jones, E. A., & Carr, E. G. (2004). Joint attention in children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19(1), 13–26.

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Krier, J., & Lambros, K. M. (2020). Increasing joint attention and social play through peer‐mediated intervention: A single case design. Psychology in the Schools, 58(3), 494–514.

Mundy P, Newell L. Attention, Joint Attention, and Social Cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2007

Nelson, A. (2018, June 20). Stepping up the social game: how parents can boost social and emotional learning at home. ABA Learning Lab.

Nuske, H.J., Pellecchia, M., Kane, C., Seidman, M., Maddox, B.B., MacMullen Freeman, L., Rump, K., Reisinger, E.M., Xie, M., & Mandell, D.S. (2020). Self-regulation is bi-direcctionally associated with cognitive development in children with autism. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 68. Retrieved from

OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online Master of Science in Behavioral Psychology program from Pepperdine University (2021). How to Improve Emotional

Rappaport, M. (1996). Strategies for pro- moting language acquisition in children with autism. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & S. C. Luce (Eds.), Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals (pp. 307–319). Austin: PRO-ED.

Self-Regulation Among Children with Autism and Attention Disorders. Retrieved from

Owens, G., Granader, Y., Humphrey, A. et al. LEGO® Therapy and the Social Use of Language Programme: An Evaluation of Two Social Skills Interventions for Children with High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome. J Autism Dev Disord 38, 1944 (2008).

Parsonson, Barry S. (2021). Evidence-based classroom behaviour management strategies. ERIC, 13(1), 16-23.

Samuels, R., & Stansfield, J. (2011). The effectiveness of Social Stories™ to develop social interactions with adults with characteristics of autism spectrum disorder. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(4), 272–285.

​​Schertz H, Robb M. (2006). Interventions for Toddlers with Autism: Building on the Parent-Child Relationship to Promote Joint Attention.Young Exceptional Children.

Trevisan, D.A., Abel, E.A., Brackett, M.A., & McPartland (2021). Considerations about how emotional intelligence can be enhanced in children with autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Education. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.639736

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation. (2021). Self-regulation and toxic stress series. Retrieved from opre/project/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-series

Warren, S. F., Yoder, P. J., Gazdag, G. E., Kim, K., & Jones, H. A. (1993). Facilitat- ing prelinguistic communication skills in young children with developmental delay. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 36, 83–97.

Yoder, P. J., & Warren, S. F. (1999). Self- initiated proto-declaratives and proto- imperatives can be facilitated in prelinguis- tic children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Early Intervention, 22, 337–354.

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