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Critical social skills for adolescents with high incidence disabilities: parental perspectives.

Curricula for students with disabilities can be divided into academic and nonacademic areas. Social competence and social skills are considered within the nonacademic areas. Traditionally, the emphasis on social skills has been overshadowed by academics. However, many educators acknowledge the need for an increased emphasis on social skills development to promote greater social competence for students with high-incidence disabilities (Gresham, Sugai, & Horner, 2001; Ogilvy, 1994).

Social skills are often defined as a complex set of skills that include communication, problem-solving and decision making, assertion, peer and group interaction, and self-management (Haager & Vaughn, 1995; Sugai & Lewis, 1996). These skills are "competencies necessary for students to initiate and maintain positive social relationships with peers, teachers, family, and other community members" (Quinn, Jannasch-Pennell, & Rutherford, 1995, p. 27).

During adolescence, prosocial behaviors are being tested and refined based upon positive and negative social encounters students experience daily (Schloss, 1984). There is evidence that during this time of development, social skills' training has a profound impact in positively influencing an adolescent's behavior (Taylor & Larson, 1999). As such, it is appropriate to address social skill development during adolescence. However, current curricula related to social skills reveal little consensus on what content is critical to the success of the student.

There are multiple ways to identify potentially important social skills. One way is to solicit input from the adults in the lives of children. Parents and teachers are two such sources since they are influential in children's lives and are able to provide essential information about their children (Ruffalo & Elliott, 1997). Because parents observe children's social behavior in a variety of settings and situations, they can provide valuable information in reference to children's social skills (Ruffalo & Elliott). However, a review of existing literature reveals that although teachers' and students' perceptions are examined in various studies (Baumgart, Filler, & Askvig, 1991; Pray, Hall, & Markley, 1992; Sugai & Lewis, 1996), few studies have sought the direct input of parents in identifying critical social skills that should be included in school curriculum and programs (Haager & Vaughn, 1995). This is unfortunate because parents are essential participants in the educational success of their children (Pryor, 1995).

Research has also stressed the importance of parental participation in enhancing the acquisition, generalization, and maintenance of social skills (Haager & Vaughn, 1995; Schloss, 1984; Sugai & Lewis, 1996), and in planning social skills training for students (Schloss). However, the focus is usually on parents providing support to the designated program, not necessarily on the identification of skills or the development of programs that target specific social skills. There is a clear distinction between merely involving parents in the implementation of social skills training and direct parent participation in the origin and follow-up of the program.

Parental inclusion in all aspects of social skill programming may result in the identification of different skills or skill levels than those skills found in teacher-created programs. Teachers are concerned about appropriate classroom behavior and traditionally place greater emphasis in targeting prosocial skills that specifically address appropriate social behaviors needed in the classroom setting (Schloss, 1984). However, appropriate classroom behaviors are only a small reflection of the social skills needed to be socially competent. Thus, parental participation in the process of essential skill identification is an important consideration. This participation is not restricted to parents of a certain age group or level in school. In fact, parental involvement in the education of their children continues to be important throughout adolescence. Even though peer influence and approval have an increasingly important role for adolescents, parental influence still has a significant impact on students (Quinn et al., 1995; Ruffalo & Elliot, 1997). Adolescence is a time of great learning and growing for students.

This study refined our understanding of which social skills are critical to acquire during adolescence and maintain throughout adulthood. More specifically, this study focused on providing insight into parents' perspectives of the critical social skills needed by adolescents with high-incidence disabilities as they move through their adolescence and into adulthood. Therefore, the research questions addressed in this study were:

* What do parents think is the meaning of the term "social skills"?

* What do parents think are critical social skills that should and should not be included in their child's education to prepare students to successfully negotiate adolescence and adult life?



Qualitative research is a multimethod approach to studying phenomena in their natural settings. To do this, the qualitative researcher uses interpretive and naturalistic methods. The purpose of a qualitative study is to make sense of, or interpret, in terms of the meanings people bring to the phenomenon under study (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Qualitative methods were selected for use in this study because the first author was interested in discovering and describing parental meanings/perspectives of social skills for her adolescent children. Furthermore, because no existing theory of social skills accounted for parental views, we selected the grounded theory approach to qualitative research. According to Strauss and Corbin (1990), a researcher should use grounded theory when "you want to explain phenomena in light of a theoretical framework that evolves during the research itself [and not a] previously developed theory that may or may not apply" (pp. 49-50). Thus, we felt that grounded theory was uniquely suited to helping us answer the questions of this investigation.


The participants in this study were parents of students who received special education services in a small midwestern city school district. The sample of parents was drawn from the parents of children who attended the middle school in this district and who had high-incidence disabilities. Using convenience and purposeful sampling (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992), participants were selected from the larger population of parents represented at this school. The, sampling frame included only those parents of adolescents who had high-incidence disabilities.

All potential participants resided within the perimeters of Lake School District (pseudonym), located in a midwestern city of approximately 14,000 citizens. In this community, there is one public high school, one middle school, and seven elementary schools. The total student population in this district is approximately 3,400. The total number of students at the middle school is 739. Of the middle school population, the student population is 95% white, with 5% representing minority populations.

Potential participants were parents of students with high-incidence disabilities in grades 6 through 9 from the middle school. Students were identified as having a mild disability as indicated on their individualized education program (IEP). High-incidence disabilities include the labels of learning disabilities, mild cognitive disabilities (mental retardation), and emotional or behavioral disabilities. Table 1 displays the demographic data related to the primary disability labels of students enrolled in Lake Middle School.

Parents were contacted in writing or by telephone to request their participation in the interviews. A total of 11 parents returned consent forms indicating their decision to participate in this study. Although data collection began with those 11, we planned to solicit more participants as needed to obtain theoretical saturation. Because theoretical saturation was achieved before the completion of the 11 interviews, no additional parents were sought.


The 11 participants of this study were parents to 7 students. They included 3 married couples (6 participants representing 3 students), 1 divorced couple (2 participants representing 1 student), and 3 mothers (3 participants representing 3 other students). At the time of the study, these students ranged in age from 12 to 14 years; six had cognitive disabilities, three had learning disabilities, and two had emotional disabilities. Table 2 describes each participant in terms of name (by pseudonym); marital status; and the names, ages and primary disability label of their children.

Although the sample is representative of the community population, it is not representative of all parents of adolescents with disabilities. However, the intention of this study is to use this sample of convenience to begin investigating parent perceptions of social skills.


Data collection occurred during the 1998-1999 school year at Lake Middle School. Qualitative research is descriptive and typically nonnumeric (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). Therefore, data were collected in the form of in-depth semistructured interviews, interview transcripts, phone conversations, informal talks, and field notes (Bogdan & Biklen). Interviewing began the summer of 1998 and concluded the fall semester of 1999 when data saturation occurred.

The data collected for this study were collected through in-depth interviews (Taylor & Bogdan, 1984) with participating parents and field notes completed by the interviewer after each interview. The interviewer used an open-ended protocol to ensure complete coverage of the social skills topic (Taylor & Bogdan). The protocol used in this study covered the meaning of "social skills," potential and critical social skills identification, and parents' experiences and perceptions of necessary components of social skills training.

Interview Protocol. The interview protocol was developed prior to the beginning of data collection. A three-step process helped to identify and refine the content. First, the first author reviewed the existing social skills literature and commercially available social skills curricula. A tentative list of topics was developed and the initial protocol was written. This interview protocol was designed with open-ended questions to help elicit open responses from participants. Second, an expert panel consisting of three university researchers specializing in transition, qualitative research, and social skills reviewed the initial protocol to determine clarity and completeness. Third, to help ensure greater reliability of the interview questions, initial interviews were used to determine what adjustments were needed to ensure the clarity of the interview guide (Fowler, 1998). Additionally, the information obtained from each of the interviews helped to shape the questions used during that interview and in subsequent interviews.

Interviewing. The first author conducted all the interviews. Each interview occurred at a place and time convenient for each parent. Four interviews were conducted at parents' homes and six were conducted at the middle school. One interview was conducted at a parent's place of employment. A tape recorder was used during the interviews (all parents agreed to taping). The resulting audiotapes were transcribed verbatim by a professional transcription service in a different city.

Each interview began with a broad, open-ended question. The interviewer used the written protocol only when needed to guide the participants into talking about topics of interest to the researcher. The formal interviews typically lasted 1 hour. However, the interviewer also spent time before and after each interview informally talking with participants, both in person and on the telephone. The total formal and informal contact with each parent ranged from 3 to 4 hours Therefore, the total contact time spent with the participants was approximately 39 hours.

Field Notes. To ensure greater accuracy in recording and evaluating data from the interview, the interviewer wrote notes immediately after each interview to summarize key points (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Field notes were records of both significant reflective and descriptive notes and the amount of time spent with each participant (Bodgan & Biklen, 1992). The data collection tools of interviewing, transcript evaluation, and field notes were helpful in providing a comprehensive record of the inquiry.


Data analysis requires the systematic search and organization of data obtained from interviews and field notes to increase the researchers' understanding of the problem being explored (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). In a grounded theory approach, the process of reducing the data into manageable units and codes is an integral part of the analysis process (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Therefore, for the purposes of analysis, the processes of data reduction and coding were used to obtain a deeper understanding of the data collected throughout this study.

Data reduction is a form of analysis used to combine pieces of information into various categories (Miles & Huberman, 1984). We selected coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) as the analytic method we would use to reduce the data. Three levels of coding were applied: (a) open coding, (b) axial coding, and (c) selective coding (Strauss & Corbin).

During open coding, we examined the interview transcripts, highlighting skills, and subjects and concepts parents identified and developed initial codes. These codes were generated by examining and comparing the highlighted data to reflect broad categories (e.g., communication, self-concept, respect, friendship). In axial coding, data were sorted and reorganized inductively and deductively by chunking and clustering data into similar categories and then reorganizing data to identify any connections between or among categories and subcategories (e.g., self-awareness, problem-solving, managing emotions, and self-control). In the final stage of coding, selective coding, core categories were systematically selected and related to other categories in order to validate relationships and identify categories that needed more exploration (e.g., interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, habits of mind, moral development, and character). After applying these levels of analysis through the processes of integrating, weaving, and refining the major categories, the grounded theory of this study began to emerge (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Finally, as a member check, highlights of the final analysis draft were reviewed with the participants to ensure accuracy of responses and interpretation of perspectives (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). The selected highlights were the participants' original quotes organized into themes discovered through the process of coding.


Establishing accuracy, trustworthiness, and fidelity are major factors in reflecting the integrity of the research project (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992). These issues were addressed in both the design and implementation of the research. During implementation, we attended to interviewer rapport, complete and accurate record keeping, and completeness in data collection to increase credibility. We began by addressing the rapport between the interviewer and the informants. The interviewer used her previously established relationship with the participants and the additional time spent in the preinterview period to develop a rapport with each participant and to explain the intent of the study (Glesne & Peshkin).

Next, all interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). Additionally, we enhanced the confirmability of our interpretations by including the written field notes and a reflexive log. The reflexive log included the interviewer's feelings, concerns, and ideas related to the study. This log allowed us to identify her personal perspectives and to track her thinking as she tested ideas (Conrad, 1993). Eventually, the data collected from the interviews seem to become more integrated and redundant. Glesne and Peshkin (1992) identified this stage of data analysis as reaching theoretical saturation. Within the design, we included three specific procedures designed to assure fidelity of our interpretations: (a) triangulation, (b) member checks, and (c) peer debriefing (Glesne & Peshkin). Each of these is discussed in the following sections.


"Multiple sources of data may include various "copies" of one kind of source, such as multiple participants, and different sources of the same information" (Whitt & Kuh, 1993, p. 261). Multiple sources of data included in-depth interviews with 11 participants, field notes, telephone conversations, and other informal discussions with participants.


After extensive data analysis, postcards were mailed to participants thanking them for their participation and asking their permission to contact them for additional feedback on the data analysis. All participants received a draft of the preliminary analysis. One parent met with the first author to discuss these initial findings; another seven were contacted via telephone and asked if the initial analysis accurately reflected their ideas and feelings about critical social skills. This gave the participants an additional opportunity to comment and contribute to the data.


We used peer debriefing for two purposes. The first purpose was to review the interviewing process. Using a form that covered clarity of questions, effectiveness and accuracy of interviewing technique, and content Of the interviews, peer debriefers provided constructive comments and suggestions for change. In a second round of debriefing, peer debriefers served as accuracy checks for discussions of various conceptual themes that arose during data collection and analysis.


Although the research problem was used to help determine the study's design, some threats to validity of this qualitative model and method should be considered. These are the participant sample and the influence of the researcher as the instrument. The use of purposive or convenience sampling may produce a biased sample (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). The sample of participants in this study is only as diversified as the demographics of the community in which the sample represented. Because each community and family is unique, this convenience sample may not be representative of other parents who have children with high incidence disabilities.

The researcher as the instrument is also a possible threat to validity because each individual carries some form of bias. However, being aware of one's individual worldview and personal bias is an active step in removing oneself from influencing the study (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). During each interview, the interviewer took notes about impressions and interpretation of what was being discussed. Throughout data analysis, we referred to these notes and cross-referenced them with the actual transcript of the interview. This strategy, suggested by Bogdan and Biklen, helped inhibit the interjection of bias by examining subjective reflection on what was being perceived during the study. Another strategy we employed to help protect against individual bias was to have the analysis critiqued by other colleagues throughout the study (Bogdan & Biklen). During the data collection and coding processes, we scheduled conferences with various colleagues (i.e., special and general middle school educators; university professors, and special education doctoral students) to seek their feedback regarding the analytic techniques and the interpretation of data.


Social skills deficits are some of the major difficulties facing adolescents with disabilities (Hall, Schlesinger, & Dineen, 1997; Pray et al., 1992). For that reason, adolescence is an important time for social skills training and intervention (Ogilvy, 1994). Parents concur that this is an essential activity during this developmental period (Haager & Vaughn, 1995). Parents in this study contributed their thoughts and suggestions about what skills and methods they feel are critical to the social development of their adolescent sons and daughters. Specifically, they addressed the meaning of the term "social skills" and the identification of critical social skills. In addition to addressing the research questions, parents provided a significant amount of data for effectively teaching social skills.


Our first task in interviewing the parents was to determine how parents defined the term "social skills" and to verify a common understanding of what was being discussed throughout the interviews. There was a considerable amount of overlap in the terms parents generated and defined in this study. We found that they were indeed familiar with the term "social skills" and defined the phrase in two ways: (a) getting along with others, and (b) exhibiting traits of character.


A major emphasis in the parental definitions of social skills was the ability to get along with others, including the skills needed to develop relationships and friendships. In fact, over 70% of parents defined social skills in this manner. Each parent had a unique constellation of skills that accompanied his definition of social skills as getting along with others. For instance, whereas Sara described social skills as the "ability to get along with other kids [and] to be able to socialize," Carl included "cooperat[ing] with and interact[ing] with others." However, all seven parents who characterized social skills in this manner felt that the ability to interact positively with others summarized their meaning of the term social skills.

Nested within the category of "getting along with others" was peer relationships. Peer relationships posed special concerns for these parents. All of them agreed that it was critical for their adolescents to develop satisfying relationships. However, all were equally aware of the potential for rejection and accompanying emotional pain. Connie's comments were typical of the concerns these parent expressed when they talked about the need for their children to develop satisfying relationships. She spoke for many of the parents when she said:
 It's an area that she hasn't been ... [very successful]. I think she's been
 rejected and not a part of [peer social activities], and it hasn't been
 until this school year that anyone has even called her on the phone or that
 she has been invited over to a friend's house.... I think that's something
 kids need before this age. She's now 15, for her it's working: It will be
 ok.... I mean even though when we're not accepted, I think the kid still
 knows it. They'll feel it. (Connie)

Despite the risks involved, the parents reported that they wanted their children "to take risk[s] and ask someone to be [their] friend even though [they] might be rejected" (Connie). They were well aware that their children had failed to have some of the needed social competencies to initiate and maintain friendships. Thus, they felt that their children should learn the skills needed to establish these relationships and to have the confidence to take the risks to pursue friendships. Parents identified specific skills that they felt their children needed to develop successful relationships: (a) proficiency in the ability to discern the motives of others, (b) skills in communication, (c) empathy, and (d) skills in interpreting social cues.

Typically, the areas of empathy, discernment, and interpreting social cues are infrequently addressed in social skill training programs and curricula, not because writers do not feel that these skills are critical, but because these skills are often considered higher cognitive and affective skills. Therefore, some individuals may believe these skills are too abstract for students with disabilities to conceptualize and generalize (Arthur, Bochner, & Butterfield, 1999). Nonetheless, parents in this study unanimously agreed that students with disabilities need to develop the critical skills of intuition, discernment, and empathy. One father provided an example as to why it is important for his son to have the "ability to discern [the] motives of others" (Paul):
 Nathan does not assign negative motives to anybody. That has been a problem
 at school in the past where he would do something well-meaning but it
 [would] come back to hurt him. [Because] he has not the slightest
 indication of [the realities of] everyone else, he runs the risk of being
 hurt. (Paul)


A major emphasis of the participants' definition of social skills involved aspects of character. In this study, four parents directly connected their meaning of social skills with qualities of character. One of the parents discussed the components in the district's character education program: respect, responsibility, fairness, citizenship, trustworthiness, and making good decisions. Even though the remaining seven parents did not directly use the term "character," they referred to one or more of the above qualities of character. Jenny spoke for many of the parents when she explained how there was a connection between caring and respect. "If you care for other people, you care for their property; you care for the people for who they are and what they have to offer" (Jenny). Specifically, parents identified the character traits of respect, responsibility, and caring as critical social skills for adolescents. They stated that these character traits, along with skill in empathy and motivation, are as important in the definition of social skills as the ability to get along with others.

Parental definitions of social skills reflect some of the dimensions addressed within the theory of emotional intelligence described by Daniel Goleman (1995). Emotional intelligence is the ability to access and interpret a given situation accurately and then to manage oneself to relate effectively with others (Goleman; Pool, 1997). There are five dimensions of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, managing emotions or self-control, motivation, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships (Bellack, 1999; Goleman).

Although the work on emotional intelligence encompasses many of the areas the study participants identified, the results of this study do not exactly match Goleman's theory of emotional intelligence. The introduction of the term character and the importance of displaying aspects of good character extend Goleman's theory. However, Goleman's work does support the specific social skills parents identified as critical: self-awareness, empathy, self-motivation, self-control, and handling relationships.

Parental definitions of social skills also reflect similar dimensions addressed in self-determination skills. Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1998) listed eight components of self-determination. Study participants identified five of the eight (problem-solving, decision making, self-regulation, self-awareness and knowledge, and self-advocacy and leadership). They addressed these components specifically and generally within the context of their identification and discussion of three intra/interpersonal skills they thought were most critical to adult life: self-control and management, self-knowledge and awareness, and handling relationships and getting along. However, these matches were frequently not exact, with the social skills focusing more on emotions, character, and relationships. Self-determination diverges from these areas to include choice making, risk- taking and safety, and goal-setting and attainment (Browder, Wood, Test, Karvonen, & Algozzine, 2001; Wehmeyer & Schwartz) and focuses on the use of the "intersecting skills" in applications that extend beyond relationships. The skills identified by study participants also include two additional skills beyond those they have in common with self-determination: empathy and moral development (i.e., character, motivation, and self-efficacy). Thus, although both areas cover some similar skills, they diverge from each other to form their own constellations of skills.

The next section addresses the constellation of skills identified by parents in this study. These skills include those that intersect with emotional intelligence and self-determination and those that extend beyond these areas.


As parents provided their definitions of social skills, critical skill areas began to emerge. These skill areas fell into two broad categories: (a) interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and (b) moral development. Thus, these categories form the framework of this section.


Interpersonal skills involve the interpretation of social interactions with others. The combination of various skills such as listening, communicating, discerning, and interpreting, help individuals better relate and interact with other individuals (Goleman, 1995; Taylor & Larson, 1999). Intrapersonal skills primarily involve traits or states of individuals that help form his or her personality. Self-knowledge is a fundamental component in intrapersonal awareness that helps lead to greater knowledge of and access to personal feelings (Goleman; Taylor & Larson). The critical skills parents identified as major areas in the category of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are (a) self-awareness, (b) self-control or self-management of emotions, (c) empathy or recognizing emotions in others, and (d) handling relationships or getting along with others. Parents believed these skills are necessary for their children to develop stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal competency.

Self-Awareness. At an early age, children become more aware of their feelings (Vollmer, Drook, & Harned, 1999) and accurately interpreting these feelings is an initial step in learning to become emotionally intelligent (Goleman, 1995; Pool, 1997). Self-awareness, the ability to recognize personal emotions (Pool), is a reflexive process that incorporates personal self-efficacy, self-concept, and self-esteem.

Throughout the interviews, parents often mentioned the terms of self-esteem, self-worth, self-concept, and self-confidence. Although we did not seek specific definitions of these terms, the first author asked parents to provide examples of how these terms related to the social development of their children. Parents stated that children must develop a "realistic self-image" (Paul) and be aware of their own self-perceptions. Parents were concerned about the emotional and social development of their children and explained how important it was for their sons and daughters with high-incidence disabilities to have greater self-confidence as well as have positive feelings about themselves and their abilities.

In part, students learn self-awareness by understanding, controlling, and expressing their thoughts and feelings (Taylor & Larson, 1999). Although becoming more aware of one's self is more reflective of personal competence (Bellack, 1999), lessons can be taught to provide greater opportunities to examine inner thoughts and feelings (Taylor & Larson). Wendy shared how important it was for her son to "express his feelings [and] what he's thinking" so that he can better control his emotions. By becoming more aware of these emotions, Wendy's son and other students are then able to learn to better manage or regulate their own emotions.

Self-Control: Managing Emotions. The ability to manage one's emotions is directly connected to self-regulation (Bellack, 1999) and is the second dimension of emotional intelligence identified by Goleman (1995). The parents' comments reflect Goleman's ideas in this second dimension. They believe that if adolescents learn strategies for better self-control, they will be better able to interact positively with others and constructively resolve conflicts. Enhanced self-control would result in higher levels of emotional intelligence. Higher levels of emotional intelligence have been found to be related to better skills in coping with negative emotions and can readily generate positive emotions (Miller, 1997). Parents identified the six factors that they believe were needed to be effective in self-control: initiative, enthusiasm, optimism, accountability, commitment, and self-confidence. They felt that the development of these skills would enhance the social development of their children. These parental views are consistent with findings in other studies in which these elements were identified as skills that assist students with managing their emotions (Caldarella & Merrell, 1997; Goleman, 1995, Goleman, 1999; Haager & Vaughn, 1995; Sheridan, Dee, Morgan, McCormick, & Walker, 1996).

Parents also identified the importance of problem-solving and decision-making skills in effectively self-managing emotions. Their concerns are confirmed by research that identifies both problem-solving and decision-making skills as processes that facilitate self-management (Snyder & Bambara, 1997) and enhance self-efficacy (Scheier & Botvin, 1998). Problem-solving, often viewed as an interpersonal skill (Ogilvy, 1994; Quinn et al., 1995), involves five steps: (a) recognizing there is a problem, (b) identifying solutions, (c) selecting the best solution, (d) taking action on the decided selection, and (e) evaluating the outcome (Hall et al., 1997; Hepler, 1994; Korinek & Popp, 1997; Sheridan et al., 1996). When parent responses are considered within the context of these steps, parents verified the critical need for their children to develop skills in problem identification and generating solutions and outcomes. In summary, parents agreed that the skills of self-regulation and self-control, which incorporate the areas of problem-solving, decision making, and managing emotions should be addressed in social skills programs. Ironically, although parents were concerned that their children learn to deal with their own emotions, they were more concerned that their children understand the feelings and perspectives of their peers.

Empathy: Recognizing Emotions in Others. The third area of need identified by parents was another of Goleman's emotional intelligence dimensions, recognizing emotions in others. If their children are to have competence in this dimension, parents stated that their children must exercise skills in empathy, effective communication, and listening. Pam reflected parental emphasis on the need for empathy: "[he needs] to be able to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes. Empathy, I suppose, would be a way of expressing that, and it's just so very important when you're relating to people to be able to accommodate whomever you run across."

Parents further explained how empathy, the ability to interpret what and how another person feels, is a skill that allows students to relate and interact more effectively with their peers. Again, Pam captured their feelings by stating, "I would wish for him to be able to understand the world he lives in a little bit better, how these other kids [think]. What are their criteria? What are they looking for? What's going to be a negative to them and what's going to be a positive? And for him to be able to understand where that line is." Several studies (Bellack, 1999; Miller, 1997; Vollmer, Drook, & Harned, 1999) support the critical role of empathy in developing social competence.

Parents also indicated that they believed that their child's skills in empathy, intuition, and discernment were important in accurately interpreting nonverbal messages. Goleman (1995) suggested these parents felt that interpreting nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language were necessary skills to have when trying to recognize emotions in others. Furthermore, they believed that learning how to recognize the emotions of others is needed to respond appropriately in social situations and personal relationships.

Handling Relationships: Getting Along With Others. The final inter/intrapersonal skills identified by parent informants parallels Goleman's (1995) fifth dimension of emotional intelligence, handling relationships. This dimension is the area that Goleman specifically calls "social skills"; however, these parents and other researchers believe that social skills encompass more than handling relationships (Baumgart et al., 1991; Hall et al., 1997; Hepler, 1994). Social skills encompass areas such as interpersonal effectiveness (Goleman), establishing and maintaining relationships (Miller, 1997), and resolving conflict (Bellack, 1999) to help promote positive relations with others.

Parents specifically identified the ability to get along with others as a critical social skill. Three themes emerged from what parents felt were crucial skills to learn to aid in getting along with others: (a) students need to have improved social interaction skills, (b) students need to practice more self-assertion, and (c) students need better relationship and friendship skills.

Consistent with the findings of Sheridan et al. (1996), parents identified that improving social interaction skills are needed to help students interact more appropriately with others. Specifically, students need to be able to interpret the dynamics of social interactions to assist them in discerning the motives of others and to correctly understand nonverbal social cues. Similar to the parental responses, Harrington-Lueker (1997) found that promoting opportunities for positive peer interaction and social training experiences for adolescent students helps establish the foundation for improved social interaction throughout adolescence and beyond.

Assertion, a second area identified by these parents, is also an important social skill for students with high-incidence disabilities (Haager & Vaughn, 1995). Assertiveness is the ability to effectively meet one's need through expression while respecting the rights of others (Thompson, Bundy, & Broncheau, 1995). Behavioral aspects of assertion include initiating conversations, giving and receive compliments, and responding appropriately to comments (Hepler, 1994). Thompson et al. report that through social skills training adolescents can learn assertion skills.

Finally, all parents agreed that relationships are critical to the social and emotional development of adolescent students. In particular, parents reported the need to develop positive peer relations as significant in the social development of their adolescents. Parents want their children to have rewarding interpersonal relationships, and they realize that their students need training in making and maintaining friendships. The development of friendships is often difficult for students with disabilities; therefore, parents suggested that adolescents need specific social skills training in developing and maintaining friendships with peers. Martha explained how she felt all children would benefit from learning friendship skills and described the difficulties faced by many adolescents as they attempt to develop friendships: "He still tends to be somewhat of a loner. Then when he does have someone around him, he's just in seventh heaven and sometimes overreacts and acts kind of goofy."

Helping students become more adept at relationships requires the development of specific skills. To that end, parents suggested that social skills training include the interpersonal aspects of making friends and peer interaction skills such as sharing, listening, complimenting, helping, and encouraging their peers.


Moral development in this study included what is commonly referred to as dispositions or what Costa and Kallick (2000) describe as habits of mind: "characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions to which are not immediately apparent" (p. 21). During data analysis, three dispositions emerged as significant aspects of moral development: character, motivation, and self-efficacy.

Character. Parents asserted that the governing characteristics of determining appropriate social behavior are elements of character. Parents stated that the areas of character that socially affected their children with disabilities were exercising self-control, showing respect to others, taking responsibility for one's actions, and showing concern for others. Additionally, parental identification of the traits of character, specifically, respect, responsibility, and caring, is consistent with the core aspects noted in the research of Jones and Stoodley (1999). In this research, these same traits are identified as important components in character enhancement programs for students.

Schools that desire to teach elements of character often adopt a character education program that can be modified to address the core values that are agreed upon by the district and community. Adopting a character education program recognizes the school's commitment to develop the emotional intelligence of students (Harrington-Lueker, 1997). Like parents in other research (Harrington-Lueker; Vollmer et al., 1999), parents in this study stated how critical it is for students to learn skills in respecting others and taking responsibility. John summarized the feelings of many parents when he said this of responsibility:
 I think if a kid knows that he [has] something to do and he takes that
 responsibility, I believe that they're going to make it in the long run. I
 think that's a big part of undertaking something and doing a job well.
 Taking the job into his own hands and knowing what it's like to, you know
 if he does something wrong, he's got to come back and take the
 responsibility for it. (John)

Lastly, parents specifically identified caring as essential to effectively interacting socially with others. Sugai and Lewis (1996) classify skills such as empathy, sensitivity, and caring for others as at tributes of social competence that assist in social interpretation. Skills such as accurately interpreting social cues are necessary to help students determine the correct behavioral responses (Thompson et al., 1995) and minimize conflict. In this study, Tim explained how understanding the consequences of one's behavior is important in determining the impact on others: The "things that you do, can really have an effect on somebody else's well-being or life ... and that's something you want to be thinking about any time you do anything" (Tim).

The previous attributes of character identified by this study's parents have been cited as being helpful in aspects of conflict awareness (Vollmer et al., 1999). Furthermore, the parental feedback we received coincides with the research that identifies qualities of good character as contributing factors that assist in positive peer interactions (e.g., understanding the feelings and perspectives of peers) and in helping students become self-motivated learners and persons of good mental health that are content with themselves (Brogan & Brogan, 1999).

Motivation. Parents concurred with each other and with other researchers (e.g., Ballantine & Nunns, 1998; Elder, 1997) that student motivation is a contributing factor in their son's and daughter's obtaining academic and personal goals. Pam explained that her son "is a very enthusiastic person, but I do think that [it] is really important to have enthusiasm, [a] positive outlook on things ... that sort of momentum [is essential] to anything you do." Parents in this study wanted their children to have a repertoire of strategies to help them become more motivated to make positive changes in their lives. These parental concerns are validated in Elder's research, which explains how students need to effectively manage feelings and emotions to help elicit change in their lives. These changes may be noticed in the areas of motivation, perseverance and goal setting. Researchers have shown that there is a direct connection between the efforts an individual exerts and the occurrence of accomplishing tasks (Ballantine & Nunns; Cummings & Haggerty, 1997; Elder; Taylor & Larson, 1999).

Self-Efficacy. Self-efficacy is an important contributor to the development of motivation and perseverance. Furthermore, self-efficacy is a belief that one has the necessary skills to competently execute social interactions (Galanki & Kalantzi-Azizi, 1999; Thompson et al., 1995). Parents shared how they wanted their children to become more secure in their abilities and most agreed that this security depended on self-confidence and self-efficacy. Sara spoke for many parents when she described her desire for her daughter to become more self-efficacious: "I want my daughter to be able to not be afraid, to be confident in herself when it comes to other people." The importance of self-efficacy is underscored by the findings of research that concluded that children with low perceptions of efficacy failed to obtain their goals because they questioned their ability to perform (Ballantine & Nunns, 1998). Therefore, self-efficacy is critical to motivation (Bellack, 1999) and goal attainment (Thompson et al.).

Self-efficacy requires individuals to become self-aware, to develop accurate self-perception of personal abilities, and to apply these abilities. These skills enhance motivation (Ballantine & Nunns, 1998; Cummings & Haggerty, 1997). Other qualities that encourage motivation and goal attainment are positive thinking, optimism, enthusiasm, zeal, and self-confidence (Goleman, 1995). Students can learn strategies such as goal-setting and making good choices that help promote success (Cummings & Haggerty). Such strategies are employed to help students cope (Ballantine & Nunns) with obstacles that may lower their self-perception or prevent success (Miller, 1997). Additionally, studies indicate that there is a direct connection between self-efficacy and the ability to interact and relate with peers (Bandura, 1986; Galanaki & Kalantzi-Azizi, 1999). Clearly parental concerns about skills development in both these areas are well founded.


One of the more significant contributions of this study is the collection of parental perspectives regarding social skills that children need to learn. For too long parents have not been heard regarding the emphasis of what should and should not be addressed in the school settings. The participants shared how they were enthusiastic to contribute their thoughts and questioned why "others" didn't ask for their input before. Thus, it was clear that most of these parents wanted to work with educators in this area. A part of working with educators is to provide them with suggestions for effective practices and modifications.

The suggestions presented in this section are formed from the voices of the parents as they contributed to a greater pool of content knowledge. Although they were not asked to provide this information, parents interjected their thoughts about effective strategies and practices when teaching social skills to students with high-incidence disabilities. Parents identified the strategies of modeling (Sheridan et al., 1996), providing corrective feedback, and role-playing (Hall et al., 1997; Hepler, 1994; Sugai & Lewis, 1996) as effective methods to teach their children social skills. Furthermore, parents stated that: (a) addressing individual student needs through better communication, (b) modifying curriculum, and (c) involving parents as active participants are necessary components for teaching social skills.


In studies that have reviewed various IEPs, numerous goals disproportionately focus on academic goals rather than social and emotional goals for students with disabilities (Pray et al., 1992). To address the individual needs of students, parents in this study, as in other studies (Bowen, 1998; Gibb & Young, 1997; Love, 1996), identified the need for greater (a) parent and teacher communication, and (b) teacher and student communication.

Parents and teachers are valuable sources of information in assessing the social competence of children (Gibb & Young, 1997; Ruffalo & Elliott, 1997). Therefore, the need for ongoing communication is necessary to help identify the areas of social deficits. The perceptions of parents and teachers can vary when evaluating social competence (Ruffalo & Elliott). Therefore, increased communications between the parents and teachers are required when determining goals for a student's IEP.

Parent communication is also stressed in the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, which encourages educators to reach out to parents to seek their input and involvement in the social and emotional development of children (Love, 1996). Not only did parents in this study suggest the need for teachers to communicate more with them, but they also indicated that they felt teachers need to pursue more communication with their children.

Students with high-incidence disabilities often lack the necessary skills to know how to positively interact with their teachers (Bowen, 1998). Communication is an avenue that can help bridge a stronger connection between the students and teachers. Although the barriers that prevent more opportunities for communication may be the teacher's issues (Taylor & Larson, 1999), teachers and students need to become more comfortable with communicating and discussing their feelings (Goleman, 1999). By helping students communicate their feelings, educators and parents can begin to teach students how this awareness directly relates to the student's ability to interact appropriately with others and manage negative feelings (Miller, 1997).


Although parents stressed the importance of addressing individual student needs, they felt that all students would benefit from learning skills that promote positive relationships and friendships. All parents in this study wanted their sons and daughters to have healthy relationships and friendships and felt that their involvement is needed to help make positive changes in current educational practice.

The parental views presented in this study can be used to examine current practice in our schools or current beliefs about essential social skills. The views of the parents validate some of the social skills that are currently stressed in the literature and reflected in social skill programs and curricula to date. Thus, they substantiate some of what is currently being done in classrooms. However, they also offered new insights by collectively identifying some social skills as being more significant than others, especially the dimensions of character and emotional intelligence.

Parents also shared that schools currently are not teaching all the critical skills they identified in this study. These parents believed that some of these skills are being addressed but also indicated that they thought content decisions depended on the individual teacher and the amount of time allocated certain curricular topics. One such example is the conflict between teaching academic and nonacademic skills. Because of the increased pressure placed upon schools to meet the demand of high-stakes testing, parents provided the following solutions for schools:

* Incorporate social skill lessons and training through teacher modeling and teacher and student interactions,

* Use collaborative efforts and communication with parents to help reinforce and generalize social skills in the home and community environments.

* Weave valuable social skills content within each academic class and nonacademic activity.

It is clear that current educational practices and content of social curricula do not cover all the skills parents desire their children to learn. Therefore, school districts are encouraged to reexamine their curricula and make necessary modifications or additions to address the skills and moral development that parents identified as critical social skills for adolescents with high incidence disabilities.


Parents play a critical role in social skill development (Sheridan et al., 1996) and generalization of social skills (Arthur et al., 1999; Sheridan et al.; Sugar & Lewis, 1996). Therefore, all social and emotional development programs in schools would greatly benefit from parent involvement (Pool, 1997). The forming of parent-professional partnerships is an effective strategy often used to create an educational environment for parental involvement (O'Shea, O'Shea, Algozzine, & Hammite, 2001). In these partnerships, parents are actively involved in a transdisciplinary team approach where collaborative goal-setting, assessment, and planning occur with professionals to determine the educational priorities for their children. To create a school environment that encourages parental involvement, educators need to become aware of the family diversity within their school community by establishing informal and formal opportunities to communicate with parents. Collaborative practices such as parent volunteering programs, community-based school programs, parent's night out, and continual home-school communication are effective strategies for influencing greater parental involvement (O'Shea et al.). Parents in this study agreed with Jones and Stoodley (1999) that parental involvement in school and community activities provide greater opportunities for parents to assist their children in applying social skills to other settings. Likewise, the parental results of this study are consistent with the findings of Arthur et al. (1999), acknowledging that family members have a tremendous influence on the development of social competence in students with high-incidence disabilities.

Although the Taylor and Larson (1999) study confirmed positive outcomes of social skills training during adolescence, it is important to note that the findings from Kavale and Forness (1999) and Mathur, Kavale, Quinn, Forness, and Rutherford (1998) meta-analyses suggest that social skills interventions reflect a modest, if any, improvement in social competence of students with high-incidence disabilities. Inconsistency in assessment, population treatment, and generalization are listed as the possible factors inhibiting the overall effect of social skills training on social competence of children (Gresham et al., 2001). Similarly, Kavale and Forness noted that inconsistency in the amount of time and frequency of training, instruments to measure skill and performance effect, and research-developed social skills training packages with limited pilot testing and instructional rationale were identified as possible contributors for the lack of significant empirical support. Even though the research on social skills training or intervention currently has minimal empirical support, Kavale and Forness suggest it is still important to conduct future social skills research. They see this research as necessary for providing insight into critical content selection and methodical issues.


Over the years, researchers have identified various social skills that assist individuals with high-incidence disabilities in becoming more socially competent. A brief overview of these identified skills are survival skills (e.g., getting help, assertiveness training, and following directions), problem-solving and decision making skills (e.g., identifying problems, generating solutions, evaluating outcomes, and setting and accomplishing goals), and relationship skills (e.g., initiating and maintaining friendships, listening, and communicating; Korinek & Popp, 1997; Sugai & Lewis, 1996). These pieces are very important components in the social development of students and are currently addressed in most social skill programs (Erwin, 1994; Hepler, 1994). The parents of this study agreed that these skills are important for students to acquire, but they also identified skills they felt were equivalently critical. According to parents in this study, students who are truly successful during adolescence and adult life also have the critical skills of empathy, discernment, and intuition. These are the skills that parents felt are the most critical for students to negotiate adolescence and adulthood. Future research needs to identify the components of the skills of intuition, discernment, and empathy. Additionally, new research needs to examine how to teach these skills, when to teach these skills, and how these skills are related to each other and other identified skills.

Finally, it seems that the focus of education is constantly changing. New educational standards and academic skills assessments are the driving force in what is currently measuring the success of our students, teachers, and schools. Administrators and educators are feeling pressured to prove student progress by test scores and student performance. Moreover, communities are reactively responding to their local school district's test results. At the same time, new research on character education programs and emotional intelligence reveal the significance that social skills training has in ensuring student social competence and success in the job market. Many of the themes identified in this study directly correlate with the components emphasized in emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), presenting the need for greater social skills instruction in our schools. Thus, there appears to be a growing problem. When emphasis is placed on achieving academic standards and higher test scores, little time is left in the school day to address the nonacademic needs of our students.
Student Disability Demographics of Lake Middle School

Grade Learning Emotional Cognitive

6 32 3 2
7 24 6 4
8 16 8 1
Total 72 17 7
Percent of Population 9.7% 2.3% 0.9%
Total Student Population 739

Demographics of Participants

Parent's Parent's Child's Child's Child's Primary
Name Marital Status Name Age Disability Label

Tim Married to Tina Linda 14 Cognitive
Tina Married to Tim Linda 14 Cognitive
Pam Married to Paul Nathan 12 Cognitive
Paul Married to Pam Nathan 12 Cognitive
Sara Married Debbie 12 Learning
Martha Married Marty 14 Cognitive
John Married to Jenny Rick 13 Learning
Jenny Married to John Rick 13 Learning
Connie Divorced from Carl Ellen 15 Emotional
Carl Divorced from Connie Ellen 15 Emotional
Wendy Married Charlie 13 Cognitive


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SHARON M. KOLB (CEC #832), Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. CHERYL HANLEY-MAXWELL, Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Correspondence may be addressed to Sharon M. Kolb, Department of Special Education, Winther Hall, 4039, 800 W. Main Street, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, WI 53190-1790. Office: 262-472-4831, Fax: 262-472-2843, Email:

Manuscript received June 2001; accepted May 2002

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Author:Kolb, Sharon M.; Hanley-Maxwell, Cheryl
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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