Effective Interventions for Social-Emotional Learning

Effective Interventions for Social-Emotional Learning

by Frank M. Gresham PhD


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462531998
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Pages: 246
Sales rank: 595,949
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Frank M. Gresham, PhD, is Professor in the Department of Psychology at Louisiana State University. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and of APA Divisions 16 (School Psychology), 5 (Quantitative and Qualitative Methods), and 53 (Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology). He is a recipient of the Lightner Witmer Award and the Senior Scientist Award from APA Division 16. Dr. Gresham is one of the few psychologists to be awarded Fellow status in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His research and more than 260 publications address topics including social skills assessment and intervention, response to intervention, and assessment and interventions for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. He is codeveloper of the Social Skills Improvement System--Rating Scales.

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Definitional and Conceptual Issues in Social–Emotional Learning

Comprehensive longitudinal studies, meta-analyses, and literature reviews have documented that poor peer relations in childhood are predictive of serious adjustment difficulties in adolescence and early adulthood (Cowen, Pedersen, Babigian, Izzo, & Trost, 1973; Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993a; Parker & Asher, 1987; Prinstein, Rancourt, Guerry, & Browne, 2009). These difficulties in social–behavioral competence and peer relations lead to short-term, intermediate, and long-term challenges in the educational, psychosocial, and vocational domains of functioning (Dodge, Dishion, & Lansford, 2006; Kupersmidt, Coie, & Dodge, 1990; Newcomb et al., 1993a). This line of research accumulated over the past 35 years has prompted an intense interest in the development of preventive interventions among researchers studying the deleterious effects of peer relationship difficulties. This logic was based on the notion that timely interventions focusing on improving childhood peer relations could reduce exposure to the risks associated with peer rejection and social isolation, promote healthy socialization, and foster long-term positive outcomes (Bierman, 2004; La Greca, 1993; Rubin, Bukowski, & Laursen, 2009).

A great deal of attention over the last 10 years has focused on children's social–emotional competence and includes assessment and intervention with social skills that contribute to the development of these social–emotional competencies. More recently, there has been a push by educators, policymakers, and researchers to focus on promoting the development of children's social–emotional competencies within the school context. This is evidenced by the recent inclusion of social–emotional learning (SEL) as distinct state learning standards in school districts across the country because these competencies are linked to positive academic and psychological outcomes (Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, & Gullotta, 2015). A large corpus of research involving over 500 evaluations from preschool to higher education has demonstrated the effectiveness of universal school-based SEL interventions (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2012).


The construct of social competence has been conceptualized and operationalized from many different perspectives and theoretical orientations across the various specialties within psychology, special education, and applied behavior analysis. An adequate conceptualization of social competence is important because it guides evidence-based assessment and intervention strategies. At least three general conceptualizations of the construct of social competence have been discussed in the research literature. Sociometric Conceptualization One conceptualization is termed the sociometric conceptualization of social competence. This approach primarily uses indices of sociometric status to operationalize social competence. As such, individuals who are rejected or neglected by peers are considered to be socially incompetent and individuals who are accepted or popular with peers are considered to be socially competent. An individual's sociometric status refers to how a person perceives others in terms of likes and dislikes and how other persons perceive the individual (Hartup, 2009). Sociometric status is based on a large amount of information including who wants to associate with whom, who wants to engage is certain social activities with others, and who likes or dislikes someone within a social network. Comprehensive sociometric assessments are typically based on indices of social preference and social impact (Peery, 1979) and derivations of these constructs have been used to classify individuals as rejected, neglected, controversial, and popular (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982).

Despite its relative objectivity, the major drawback of a sociometric conceptualization of social competence is that it often cannot identify the specific behaviors within specific situations that lead to peer acceptance or rejection. Some research does suggest that the behavioral correlates of various sociometric statuses are topographically different. For example, the behavioral correlates of peer rejection typically include behaviors such as aggressive behavior, impulsivity, and negative social interactions with peers (Coie, Dodge, & Kupersmidt, 1990). In contrast, the behavioral correlates of neglected sociometric status include behaviors such as anxiety, social withdrawal, depression, and low rates of positive social interaction (Newcomb et al., 1993a). These behavioral correlates, however, are relatively low in magnitude and most certainly do not entirely explain or account for an individual's particular sociometric status.

In addition, positive or negative sociometric status can occur for reasons that have nothing to do with social skills strengths or weaknesses. For example, it has been shown that physical, attractiveness/unattractiveness, positive/negative reputational biases, critical negative behavioral events, race/ethnicity, and cross-sex nominations are related to positive or negative sociometric status (Rubin et al., 2009).

Social Learning Theory

Other researchers and theorists have used a social learning conceptualization of the social skill construct (Elliott & Gresham, 2008; Gresham & Elliott, 2008). In this view, numerous variables account for an individual's deficiencies in prosocial behavior and excesses in competing problem behaviors. Figure 1.1 depicts a model that identifies five major reasons for deficient social skills functioning: (1) lack of knowledge, (2) lack of practice and/or feedback, (3) absence or inattention to social cues, (4) lack of reinforcement, and (5) presence of competing problem behaviors. This particular model uses three distinct theoretical learning theories to explain social skill deficiencies and excessive competing problem behaviors.

Social learning theory, based on the early work of Bandura (1977, 1986), utilizes the concept of vicarious learning and the role of cognitive–mediational processes to explain which environmental events are attended to, retained, and subsequently performed when a person is exposed to modeling stimuli. The concept of reciprocal determinism is a central feature of social learning theory, which describes the role an individual's behavior has on changing the environment and vice versa (Bandura, 1986).

Cognitive-behavioral theory is a second learning theory used to explain deficient social skills functioning. This approach is based on the assumption that an individual's behavior in response to environmental events is mediated by cognitions or thoughts (Mayer, Van Acker, Lochman, & Gresham, 2009). Interventions based on cognitive-behavioral theory present individuals with social situations in which a variety of internal and external social cues are present. These cues are made more or less salient to a person based on past learning history and current environmental circumstances.

The goal of cognitive-behavioral interventions is to change maladaptive self-statements, attributions, and perceptions to increase overt prosocial behavior and to decrease maladaptive social perceptions and attributions that lead to competing problem behaviors. Strategies such as self-monitoring, self-instruction, self-evaluation, and social problem solving are typically used in cognitive-behavioral approaches (Lochman & Gresham, 2009).

Applied behavior analysis is a third learning theory used to explain social skills deficits and competing problem behavior excesses. Applied behavior analysis is based on the work of Skinner (1953) in operant conditioning and is grounded in the concept of the three-term contingency that describes the relationships among antecedent events, behavior, and consequent events.

Applied behavior analysts identify the conditions that reinforce (positively or negatively) the occurrence of specific problem behaviors that need to be modified. Functional behavioral assessment is central to the identification of environmental conditions that are functionally related to the occurrence of problem behaviors (Gresham, Watson, & Skinner, 2001). In this approach to SEL intervention, applied behavior analysis is used to replace competing problem behaviors with prosocial behaviors that serve the same behavioral function. This process is known as positive replacement behavior training (Maag, 2005).

Social Validity Conceptualization

A final approach to conceptualizing social skills is based on the notion of social validity (Wolf, 1978). According to this conceptualization, social skills are those behaviors that, within a given situation, predict important social outcomes for children and youth. These important social outcomes might include peer acceptance, friendships, academic achievement, significant others' (teachers' and parents') judgments of social competence, consistent school attendance, and absence of school disciplinary referrals.

This conceptualization has the advantage of being able not only to specify behaviors in which an individual is deficient, but also to directly relate these social behaviors to socially important outcomes that society values.

The issues of social significance and social importance are most relevant to a social validity conceptualization of the social skills construct. The social significance of the goals specified by an SEL intervention is an important consideration. For example, a practitioner may want to increase the number of "thank you" verbalizations exhibited by a child. Although this would appear to be a socially significant goal, significant others (teachers and parents) may not consider it a socially significant goal. A broader goal, such as increases in all positive verbalizations, might be considered more socially significant, and hence more socially valid by significant others in the child's environment.

It is important to recognize that the social significance of behavioral goals in SEL interventions is based on subjective evaluation (Kazdin, 1977; Wolf, 1978). Subjective evaluations are judgments made by persons who interact with or who are in a special position to judge behavior. Parents, teachers, counselors, social workers, and other significant persons in an individual's environment are likely candidates for subjectively evaluating the goals of SEL interventions.

Evaluating the social importance of the effects produced by social–emotional interventions is crucial. The question here is: Does the quantity and quality of behavior change make a difference in terms of an individual's functioning in particular settings? In other words, do changes in targeted social skills predict an individual's standing on important social outcomes? In this conceptualization, the effects of SEL interventions can be classified based on a social validity criterion. In this classification system, these measures represent socially valid treatment goals because social systems (e.g., schools, mental health agencies) and significant others (teachers and parents) refer children and youth on the basis of these treatment goals. These measures are socially valid in the sense that they predict long-term outcomes that are important to society including events such as school dropout, delinquency, adult mental health difficulties, and arrest rates (Kupersmidt et al., 1990; Parker & Asher, 1987; Walker, Ramsay, & Gresham, 2004). More details on how one might quantify the social importance of the effects of social–emotional interventions are discussed in Chapter 3.


An important distinction in the theoretical conceptualization of social behavior is the distinction among the concepts of social skills, social tasks, and social competence. Social–emotional skills can be conceptualized as a specific class of behaviors that an individual exhibits in order to successfully complete a social task. Social skills are best thought of as a response class that is defined as an integrated group of behaviors that have varying topographies or forms of behavior that produce the same effect on the environment. Social tasks include such things as peer group entry, having a conversation, making friends, or playing a game with peers. Social tasks require different response classes to successfully complete that social task. Asher and McDonald (2009) suggest that a social-task perspective is based on the assumption that the various tasks have their own distinct challenges and require various social behaviors that are task-specific. Table 1.1 shows examples of various social tasks that might be required of children and youth.

Social competence, in contrast, is an evaluative term based on judgments (given certain criteria) that an individual has performed a social task adequately. Social agents make these judgments based on numerous social interactions with given individuals within natural environments (e.g., home, school, community). This conceptualization states that social skills are a specific class of behavior exhibited in specific situations that lead to judgments by significant others that these behaviors are competent or incompetent in accomplishing specific social tasks. It should be noted that judgments of social competence or incompetence differ across social agents making these judgments. As such, social behaviors judged to be competent by classroom teachers might not be judged as competent by a child's peers. In fact, researchers have made a distinction between teacher-preferred and peer-preferred social skills (Gresham & Elliott, 2008; Walker, Irvin, Noell, & Singer, 1992).

Teacher-preferred social–emotional skills are behaviors that facilitate the process of children and youth meeting the behavioral demands and expectations that the majority of teachers require in order to successfully manage instructional environments. Behaviors such as compliance with teacher directives, following classroom rules, working independently, and listening carefully to the teacher are examples of these teacher-preferred social skills. Peer-preferred social–emotional skills are behaviors that facilitate the accomplishment of satisfactory peer relationships, that develop friendships, and that support and maintain social networks.

During middle school, a third form of social adjustment termed selfrelated social–emotional skills assume increased importance. Self-related social skills include behaviors such as managing one's emotions, being organized, regulating one's behavior, asserting oneself, coping with relational aggression, and protecting one's reputation. These types of social skills are most relevant to adolescent social development (Walker et al., 2004).

If children and youth fail to satisfactorily negotiate teacher-related, peer-related, and self-related social skills, they are at increased risk for later school failure and vocational adjustment in early adulthood. Figure 1.2 presents a conceptual model of teacher-related, peer-related, and selfrelated social skills with associated long-term positive and negative outcomes.

Social Skills as Academic Enablers

Researchers have documented meaningful predictive relationships between children's social behaviors and their long-term academic achievement (DiPerma & Elliott, 2002; Malecki & Elliott, 2002; Wentzel, 2009). It has been documented that children who have positive interactions and relationships with their peers are academically engaged and have higher levels of academic achievement (see Wentzel, 2009, for a review). The notion of academic enablers evolved from the work of researchers who explored the relationship between students' nonacademic behaviors (social skills and motivation) and their academic achievement (Gresham & Elliott, 1990; Wentzel, 2005, 2009; Wentzel & Watkins, 2002).

Researchers make a distinction between academic skills and academic enablers. Academic skills are the basic and complex skills that are the primary focus of academic instruction. In contrast, academic enablers are the attitudes and behaviors that allow students to participate in and ultimately benefit from academic instruction in the classroom. Research using the Academic Competence Evaluation Scales (ACES; DiPerma & Elliott, 2000) showed that academic enablers were moderately correlated with students' academic achievement as measured by standardized achievement tests (median r = .50). In a major longitudinal study, Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, Bandura, and Zimbardo (2000) found that teacher ratings of prosocial behaviors in third grade were better predictors of eighth grade academic achievement than academic achievement in third grade.


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Table of Contents

1. Definitional and Conceptual Issues in Social–Emotional Learning
2. Evidence Base for Social–Emotional Learning Interventions
3. Assessment of Social–Emotional Learning Skills
4. Universal Social–Emotional Learning Interventions
5. Selected Social–Emotional Learning Interventions
6. Intensive Social–Emotional Learning Interventions
7. Social–Emotional Interventions for Special Populations, with Paula Rodriguez
8. Practical Considerations in Social–Emotional Learning Assessment and Intervention
9. Summary, Conclusions, and Future Directions in Social–Emotional Learning
10. Case Studies in Social–Emotional Learning Assessment and Intervention, Rachel M. Olinger Steeves, Kelsey Hartman, and Sarah Metallo


School psychologists, behavioral specialists, child clinical psychologists, and school social workers working with children ages 5-17 (grades K-12), who will use the book in collaboration with teachers and special educators; also of interest to school administrators. May serve as a supplemental text in graduate-level courses.

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