The effects of social skills training on the peer interactions of a nonnative toddler.
Article Type:
Case study
Toddlers (Case studies)
Toddlers (Social aspects)
Children of minorities (Social aspects)
Children of minorities (Case studies)
Socialization (Case studies)
Socialization (Methods)
Children (Behavior)
Children (Case studies)
Children (Social aspects)
Wu, Cheng-Hsien
Hursh, Daniel E.
Walls, Richard T.
Stack, Samuel F., Jr.
Lin, I-An
Pub Date:
Name: Education & Treatment of Children Publisher: West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia ISSN: 0748-8491
Date: August, 2012 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 290 Public affairs Canadian Subject Form: Child behaviour; Child behaviour
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:

The purpose of the present study was to increase peer interactions of a toddler who is nonnative. A 30-month old boy evidenced social withdrawal when playing at playgrounds. Social skills training served as the intervention to increase social initiations by this participant. Targeted social skills included greeting peers, gesturing to peers, imitating peers, offering something to peers, and accepting something from peers. The training included instructions, models, and praise. A multiple baseline across skills design was applied in this study. Results demonstrated that the participant's social interactions with peers increased when the social skills training intervention was introduced across each of the five social skills and was maintained as the instructions, models, and praise was gradually decreased. These findings indicate that this type of social skills training can be an effective way to increase the appropriate peer interactions of a nonnative toddler.

The development of social competence is considered to be one of the milestones for toddlers. Some investigators of children's social development have suggested that the first three years of life are critical in the evolution of social abilities (Mueller & Vandell, 1979; White, 1975). The capacity to collaborate with others represents a rudimentary component of socially competent behavior (Ciairano, Visu-Petra, & Settanni, 2007; LaFreniere, 1996). Social competence is apparently intertwined with school readiness and academic success (Blair, 2002; Hecke et al., 2007; Raver, 2002). Children with social competence are in a good position for developing positive attitudes, adjusting to school, getting better grades, and achieving more (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999; Ladd, Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1996).

Toddler social skills incorporate prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior for the toddler includes joining other children in play (both initiating ideas and responding to others' ideas for play), following rules and turn taking in games, sharing toys, evidence of understanding others' feelings, empathy, and helpfulness (Hay, 1994; Hogan, Scott, & Bauer, 1992). From the perspective of social learning theory, the more positive experiences with playmates toddlers have, the more familiar and comfortable they will be with engaging in social interactions. Toddlers who do not achieve social competence may have ongoing difficulties if an effective intervention is not applied. Behavior problems during toddlerhood may persist through preschool, and preschoolers with behavior problems may continue to evidence them in grade school (Houck, 1999).

Social skills will facilitate children's interactions in natural social settings (Laushey & Heflin, 2000). Therefore, it is necessary for children to have some exposure to typical social skills. However, simply placing children who lack social interaction with peers in natural settings may not be sufficient for them to develop positive social skills (Laushey & Heflin, 2000). Without providing guidance some children will not develop social skills and will remain isolated even though they are within a rich social environment. To avoid such an outcome, two studies (Haper, Symon, & Frea, 2008; Pierce & Schreibman, 1997) have provided social skills training to teach the children how to initiate and engage in social interactions with their peers.

Once children establish social skills, they are able to generate, sustain, or enhance positive effects within peer relationships (Gresham, 1981). Social skills development will demonstrate an interrelated formation of knowledge and learning abilities in the field of communication (Bakx, Van Der Sanden, & Vermetten, 2006). As a result, it is vital for children to be taught the social skills related to social initiation to develop successful social friendships (Erwin, Kathryn, & Purves, 2004; Liber, Frea, & Symon, 2008). In addition, social skills training can help children promote abilities for transforming knowledge into skilled performance (Krame & Radey, 1997). According to the findings of recent studies, social skills training for children in toddlerhood is valuable in the development of social competence (Dereli, 2009; Dereli & An, 2009).

Social skills' training is often applied to children with autism. An array of studies shows that children with autism can learn important social skills and improve their peer interactions with effective social skills training (Bauminger, 2007; Ozonoff & Miller 1995; Strain & Kohler, 1998). These studies have implemented a number of techniques, including cognitive behavior therapy, video modeling, and peer modeling to teach a number of social cognitive and social interaction skills (Turner-Brown, Perry, Dichter, Bodfish, & Penn, 2008). The results of these studies can help to inform the provision of social skills training for all children who are not developing these skills with the environmental supports currently available.

The purpose of social skills training is to develop specific skills in an individual's repertoires, which partly result in more effective social interactions (McConnell, Sisson, Cort, & Strain, 1991). The goal of social skills training is to enable children to interact with their natural social contexts (Rogers, 2000). Procedures used to establish social-interaction skills for children have incorporated (a) educational programs conducted in simulated settings such as playgrounds and schools (e.g., Bornstein, Bellack, & Hersen, 1977); (b) verbal or physical prompts to engage in specific social skills implemented to increase peer interactions (e.g., Odom, Hoyson, Jamieson, & Strain, 1985; Strain, Shores, & Timm, 1977); and (c) positive reinforcement for particular skills (e.g., Walker, Greenwood, Hops, & Todd, 1979). These three procedures have been demonstrated to help to establish social interactions for children.

In addition, techniques based on modeling and reinforcement principles have been successful in promoting the play behavior of young children (Bandura, 1969). The delivery of social reinforcement, usually in the form of adult attention and praise, is carefully contrived to follow instances of proper play (Allen, Hart, Buell, Harris, & Wolf, 1964; Hart, Reynolds, Baer, Brawley, & Harris, 1968; Houck & LeCuyer-Maus, 2002; Wheatley et al., 2009). These procedures for play development have demonstrated that children benefit from them, especially children with severe learning and behavioral problems (Guralnick & Kravik, 1973; Whitman, Mercurio, & Caponigri, 1970). Therefore, with the use of positive reinforcement, children are encouraged to increase the desired behavior (Burden, 2003). Adult delivered positive reinforcement serves as a motivator for further instances of the desired social behavior whether the behavior is spontaneous or prompted with the long term result that the behavior is strengthened and maintained (Sigler & Aamidor, 2005).

The literature cited and described to this point has dealt with native children. Immigration from Asia to the United States has increased rapidly beginning in the mid-1970s because of the political changes in Southeast Asia (Morrow, 1989). Without proficient English ability, many immigrant children experience learning problems as well as cultural adjustment challenges. They are subject to distinct social standards, traditions, values, and manners that differ from those of their parents' native culture. The effects of being subjected to vastly different cultural expectations and practices may be fear, confusion, irritation, and indifference (Kim & Kunst, 1988). Without effective interventions, social isolation, developmental problems, and maladaptive adult behavior may develop over time (Liu, Baker, & Stanley, 1993). Consequently, school systems are challenged to acknowledge cultural pluralism and provide strategies for instructing students from diverse cultural contexts.

The foregoing literature suggests that developing successful peer interactions may (a) increase social competence and (b) reduce problem behavior. This literature includes many studies addressing various populations of participants. None of the populations addressed included nonnative children. The present study extends this literature to include a nonnative child. It investigated the impact of parent-implemented social skills training (including instructions, models, and praise) on developing appropriate peer interactions by a nonnative toddler from an Asian culture.



The participant was a 30-month-old boy who arrived in America with his parents from Taiwan 16 months before the intervention began. He had a shy temperament. He understood limited English vocabulary when it was spoken to him and had difficulty understanding the speech of children who played at the playground. At the playground, he usually played alone or watched children playing. Some children tried to invite him to play their games, but he seldom joined them and usually stayed beside his parents.


There were two settings in this study. One was the participant's home where some of the training took place. The living room was usually the place where the participant's parents trained social skills. The other setting was a fast food restaurant playground. This setting consisted of a room with play materials divided into three sections. The lower level included two sections: (1) an area beneath the slide with a magic mirror, a car with a steering wheel, a touchable button with animal sounds, a ball on an axel for spinning, and a matching wall with animal pictures on one side of tiles that rotated on axes and (2) a larger activity area designed for sifting, crawling, climbing, or jumping. The upper level included a slide, a helicopter, and a racecar. The three sides of the upper and lower levels were glass walls so that parents could supervise children directly from inside the restaurant or by observing through the glass walls from outside the restaurant. This playground was approximately 15.5 feet wide by 7 feet deep by 10 feet tall.


Five social skills were targeted for development. These included greeting peers, gesturing to peers, imitating peers, offering something to peers, and accepting something from peers. The detailed definitions of these skills are available from the first author.

Before the sessions began, two observers were trained. Both the participant's mother and the participant's father served as data collectors. Both of them became familiar with the definitions for scoring occurrences of the dependent variables by studying them. Data on the frequency of social interactions were collected using three separate five-minute periods across roughly 30-minute sessions. The three observation periods for a session were separated by a few minutes for some food or drink away from the playground. A session included five minutes for. Observation Period 1, a few minutes break, five minutes for Observation Period 2, a few minutes break, and five minutes for Observation Period 3. The participant usually played in the playground for five minutes during Observation Period 1 and then his parents called him back for a few minutes for some food or drink. Next he went back to the playground for Observation Period 2. Another few minutes break from playing then occurred followed by Observation Period 3.

To record peer interactions, the trainer (the participant's mother) and the second observer (the participant's father) sat separated from each other, faced the participant, and observed the peer play at the playground. The two observers recorded the number of peer interactions involving any of the five social skills during sessions across all phases of the study, i.e., (a) greeting, (b) gesturing, (c) imitating, (d) offering, or (e) accepting play objects or materials from peers. An occurrence of each of the social skills was recorded whenever one of the skills was observed and there had been no occurrence of the same skill for a minimum of five seconds. The occurrences of antecedents and consequences for each occurrence of each social skill were also noted with a tally mark and a brief description plus whether they came from one of the participant's parents or a peer.

A recording sheet for the skills was developed with places for each observer to (a) mark on the sheet the time at which an occurrence of social interactions occurred and (b) write a brief description of the interaction during each recording period. Subsequently, the trainer's scoring and the second observer's scoring were compared. Point-by-point agreement was then assessed by noting whether the times and types of each social interaction recorded were the same for both observers (a copy of the recording sheet is available from the first author). The number of agreements was then divided by the number of agreements plus disagreements and this result multiplied by 100 to calculate the percentage of inter observe agreement. Dividing the number of agreements by agreements plus disagreements and multiplying by 100 for each of the individual social skills within and across all sessions was done to calculate interobserver agreement. Inter observer agreement ranged from 80% to 100% with an average of 95%. Kappa was also calculated to indicate the level of inter observer agreement when adjusted for statistical chance agreement. These Kappa values ranged from 0.6 to 1.0 with an overall value of 0.81.

Keeping a tally of the other four social skills was ongoing when the intervention was applied for one social skill. During intervention, each time the trainer gave verbal or physical instructions or peers made social initiations, the observers marked this in the Parent or Peer column of the Antecedent section on the recording sheet. If the participant displayed this social behavior, whether it was appropriate or not, a mark was recorded in the Behavior column. When the parent praised or corrected, or peers responded to the participant's social behavior, observers marked these events in the Parent or Peer column of the Consequence section of the sheet. For example, one mark was recorded when the trainer told the participant to say hello to other children at the playground. Then, one mark was recorded under Behavior when the participant did what he was told. If the trainer gave him verbal praise at this time, and peers said hello back to the participant, these were marked in the parent and peer consequences columns, respectively. When the intervention was subsequently applied to each of the other social behaviors one at a time, the same procedures were utilized to record occurrences of social interactions among the trainer's instructions, peers' responses, and participant's social skills. The frequency data for the five social skills, the parent instructions, models, and praise, and the peer reactions to social skill demonstrations by the child are displayed in Figures 1, 2, and 3.


Baseline. Baseline sessions consisted of observing the participant's free play at the playground setting and recording the rates of social interactions with peers. The two observers did not interfere with the participant's social interactions. These sessions continued until it became clear that the levels of the social skills remained low with little variability and were not improving.

Intervention. The intervention for this participant was Social Skills Training (SST). This intervention included parental instructions, models, and praise and was designed to lead the child to learning the basic social skills listed above. These social skills were based on empirical analyses of toddler interactions (Greenwood, Walker, Todd, & Hops, 1979) and were sequenced based on a logical analysis of children's interactions and the design of effective instruction.

Instructional procedures were adapted from Eckerman, Whatley, and Kutz (1975), Lamb (1984), and Lewis, Young, Brooks, and Michalson (1975) to meet the needs of the participant in this study. For each skill, the parents introduced a behavior (e.g., greeting) at home, defined the behavior ("greeting means saying hello to someone") at home, and modeled the behavior (e.g., parents demonstrated this action to him) at home and at the playground. Modeling at home ensured that the participant had the basic concept of the desired social skill prior to going to the playground. The participant then reviewed with parents how to demonstrate the social skill to be applied at the playground, and practiced briefly (1-2min) the initiation of these skills at home.

At the beginning of the intervention, the trainer offered instructions, models, and praise to prompt the social skills. During the play period, if the participant didn't make a social initiation, an example of an instruction was: "Do you remember what we talked about? Do you want to join the children playing the game?" Instructions were delivered in a quiet voice, with the trainer standing beside the participant. Also, instructional corrections were offered if the participant improperly engaged in the behavior (e.g., "Don't scream, talk softly.").

Using modeling, the trainer might greet children at the playground to display the greeting behavior. Through modeling, the participant saw examples and began to imitate these social skills. Parents praised the participant each time he initiated a social interaction or responded to a peer initiation. Praise included a behavior-specific positive remark such as, "Well done, you waved back to that little girl!" or "You joined your friend in the tag game, that's great!"

Fading. After the occurrences of social skills remained high, the trainer gradually decreased the rates of instructions, models, and praise.


Figure 1 provides a visual display of the intervention effects across the baseline and intervention phases for each of the five social skills. According to the data, social skills training evoked more peer interactions by this participant. All five social skills showed increases from baseline to intervention. The mean of Greetings during baseline was 0.0 and was 6.8 across the intervention sessions. The mean of Gestures during baseline was 1.5 and was 7.8 across the intervention sessions. The mean of Imitations during baseline was 2.3 and was 6.7 across the intervention sessions. The mean of Offers during baseline was 2.8 and was 8.5 across the intervention sessions. The mean of Accepts during baseline was 0.7 and was 3.5 across the intervention sessions. Experimental control is demonstrated as clear improvements are seen for each skill only as the intervention was applied to that skill.

Figure 2 illustrates the frequencies of parental instructions, models, and praises across the baseline and intervention phases. There is an upward trend in the early sessions of each intervention across the five social behaviors. Then, the frequency of parental instructions, models, and praise decreased across all five social skills when the social skill was established by the middle of each intervention phase. The overall occurrences of the five social skills were still maintained at a high level even though he did not as frequently receive instructions, models, or praise.

Data on peer responses were collected as well. Figure 3 illustrates the numbers of peer responses to the five social skills demonstrated by the participant during baseline and intervention. The number of peer interactions increased from a mean of 0.87 during baseline to a mean of 5.1 during intervention across the five social skills. Moreover, there is an increasing trend in peer responses across these five social skills when the intervention was implemented. These results show that not only did the participant engage in social skills, the peers also positively responded to his behavior with these responses increasing across the intervention.


In a multiple baseline design across five social skills, parents' verbal instructions, models, and praise were utilized to help the participant initiate social interaction with peers on the playground. The social skills intervention successfully increased the participant's social initiations. When and only when the social skills training was provided did each of the five social skills increase. This demonstrated that the social skills training resulted in higher frequencies of positive social interactions. This outcome suggested that supportive training resulted in higher percentages of appropriate social interactions of one toddler with other toddlers. It also seems that this social skills training became more reinforcing for the participants as the study progressed. In baseline, little social interaction and almost no initiations occurred.

After intervention was terminated, the participant continued to play in the different playground settings two to three times per week. The parents didn't model the five social skills before going to the playgrounds. When the participant demonstrated these five social skills, parents neither used the verbal prompts nor praise in the following months. Parental observations indicate that the participant still maintains a high frequency of social skills during peer interactions even though the intervention was discontinued. When the intervention was faded, social skills continued, which indicates that the interactions may have been coming under the control of the natural interactions with peers rather than the extrinsic aspects of the intervention (Loftin, Odom, & Lantz, 2008)..

In many cases, behavior problems also may be related to insufficient social skills development (Licciardello, Harchik, & Luiselli, 2008). Therefore, children demonstrating behavior problems may need to be taught how to initiate peer interaction to help them succeed in the natural social context. With effective intervention, acquisition of social skills and desirable social interactions is useful for those who lack social skills. Instruction in specific social skills will contribute to an increase in social initiations (Loftin et al., 2008). In using this kind of social skills intervention, toddlers may be able to learn how to interact with others through parental modeling. For toddlers, this also may facilitate their social entry into play with a peer already engaged with others. Parental verbal prompts and modeling provide practical instruction in how to respond to others. With extensive turn-taking practice, children are more likely to engage in a social arena. This strategy may prove a more successful path for encouraging a toddler to engage in peer social initiatives than direct suggestions to a toddler that a peer be invited into play.

Social skills developed as a toddler and pre schooler are believed to be important in one's future life (Dereli & Ari, 2009). In this study, parental verbal prompts and modeling were easily used to evoke those social skills. Positive reinforcement was easily and quickly delivered first by the parents in the form of praise and then naturally as a consequence of the peer interactions. A phrase like "you did a good job of greeting the children" seemed to serve as a positive reinforcer, and in this way the desired behavior was encouraged and sustained by this form of pleasant motivation (Sigler & Aamidor, 2005). Moreover, the social skills were gradually integrated into his daily life being displayed in everyday situations even though parental prompting, modeling, and reinforcement was gradually reduced. Children are capable of generating, sustaining, or increasing constructive relationships with peers when they develop and establish social skills (Gresham, 1981). Social skills development exhibits an interconnected knowledge in learning and a basis for the development of positive social relationships (Bakx et al.,2006; Liber et al.,2008). From parental observations over time, the participant was able to naturally initiate interactions and to enjoy playing with peers when he was introduced to a new environment. One helpful addition to future such research is comparing the participant's levels of developed social skills with those exhibited by a range of American toddlers in similar situations to support the social validity of the results produced by the intervention.

This social skill intervention may be an efficient means to help toddlers whose languages are not English. The parents expressed their pleasure with the social skills training. They felt that their son benefited from this training. One parent shared her success with other parents who are also nonnative, and they expressed interest in trying this social skills training with their children.

With parents' use of verbal prompts, models, and praise, it is easy for them to shape their toddlers' social skills. When playing at the playground or any other situation with social interactions, toddlers can learn to employ basic social skills through parents' modeling and verbal prompts. With parents' encouragement, they can feel more confident in playing with peers, and it can help them to fit in with the different cultural environment. This intervention also can benefit the other peers who are playing at the playground where they may have social contacts with children from other cultures. Peers may be involved in a diverse playing environment and may learn to respect other cultures.

As reported by the parents, the study had the additional effect of enhancing the other social skills that were not included in this study. Informal observations showed that this boy conveys his empathy if a child is in need of help. For example, when a younger toddler was pushed to the ground, he stayed beside that child and said, "it is hurt" with an empathetic facial expression. Furthermore, the parents observed that the participant maintained his level of performance of these five social skills across different settings and situations. This anecdotal evidence suggests that he may have transferred those skills to new environments.

There are two issues that limit the interpretation of the results of this study. Because only one toddler from one other culture was involved in this study, replications of social skills training with children from a range of other cultures still needs to be conducted to determine if social skills training such as that used in this study can help toddlers from other cultures improve their social interactions with peers in the American culture. It is also the case that the American culture is quite diverse so replications in other American subcultures can also assess the generality of the impact of the social skills training procedures implemented in this study. Another concern for further research is whether the effects can be maintained under the kinds of everyday conditions most children experience wherein parents are less reliable when intervening than were the parents in this study.


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This research was conducted as part of the requirements for the first author's master's degree.

Correspondence to Cheng-Hsien Wu, e-mail:: 12

Cheng-Hsien Wu, Daniel E. Hursh, Richard T. Walls, Samuel F. Stack, Jr., and I-An Lin

West Virginia University
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