The Social Skills Playbook for Inclusive Classrooms

A group of attentive students in a classroom focusing on a teacher who is giving a lecture near the whiteboard.

Incorporating the intentional teaching of social skills is a cornerstone in inclusive classrooms. If you’ve read my other social skills blogs, you’re familiar with how our well-intentioned efforts to support neurodivergent students and those with disabilities can negatively impact them socially. You also know how to implement the factors that encourage positive interactions.

In this blog, we’ll get down to specifics by uncovering three goals behind facilitating social interactions and exploring real-life examples of how to develop social skills, specifically during some of the more challenging and unstructured parts of the day. 

3 Goals of Facilitating Social Interactions

#1 Friendships

Our first goal when facilitating social interactions is for our students to form friendships. Think about how you developed relationships with your own friends. Chances are it involved meaningful conversations, learning about each other, and discovering common interests.

It’s the same for all students. By seeking opportunities for students to get to know each other and find things in common, we’re setting the stage for friendships to form.

For example, let’s say the class is in the library, and your assigned student has picked a book about dogs. Then, you notice another student choosing a book about dogs as well. This is a perfect time to point out the common interest to the two students and see if you can get a conversation going. You could even encourage them to sit and read together. 

Another great way for students to get to know each other is to make “All About Me” presentations or posters. This is particularly effective because it allows students to tell their stories to their teachers and peers instead of having an adult speak for them. 

My favorite experience with All About Me presentations was with a 4th-grade boy named Rio. The first slide of his presentation was a picture of him making the same face as Albert Einstein did in that iconic photo with his tongue sticking out. He loved knowing that our beloved Albert may have had autism just like he did. 

Rio not only sent the slides to his new 4th-grade teachers but also wanted to present the slideshow to his whole class. His explanation of some of the things he had to do to make himself feel comfortable was a real eye-opener for me and his peers.

He told them that sometimes the classroom gets too loud, and that’s why he puts on headphones and retreats to the corner. He asked them if someone could put their hands on his shoulders and press down a bit if they noticed his body getting agitated. 

Rio, in essence, told his peers what he needed, which is not a skill every student naturally comes by. This brings us to our second goal: self-advocacy. 

#2 Self-Advocacy

The second goal while facilitating social interactions is for our students to learn to advocate for themselves. This not only means learning how to ask for help from teachers but also how to communicate needs and wants to peers, just as Rio did. Our younger students might need help learning how to ask a friend to play. Older students might need guidance on how to ask someone if they want to sit together at lunch. In either scenario, we are teaching them the skills they need to successfully interact with their peers in a way that’s comfortable and positive for everyone.

Social stories and role-playing are great ways to teach self-advocacy skills. You could ask questions such as, “Who would you like to play with?” or “Who would you like to eat lunch with?” Then, think through the words they can use to make the request. If a student struggles to remember the words, you can write them down or draw pictures on a notecard to remind them. These strategies are all about preparing them ahead of time to avoid needing to jump in while interactions are happening.

Remember to give your student as much control as possible by allowing them to make decisions and communicate what they want. Most importantly, avoid speaking on their behalf. Doing so removes learning opportunities for the student and prevents them from becoming more independent in requesting social interaction in the future.

#3. Autonomy

The last goal is more about what you’re not doing. When you see social interactions happening, try not to intervene. Take a few steps away and act like you’re busy doing something. Keep your eyes off the students and take in the artwork on the wall, read the paper you’re holding, or tie your shoelaces — anything to make the students feel like they aren’t being watched and can have a natural conversation. 

You will hear inappropriate conversations, but this happens all the time when teachers can’t hear what’s being said. We can’t expect our students to always be perfect. You may wish they wouldn’t talk about a certain movie or a fighting video game, but this is a typical conversation, and we need to allow space for that.

We want every student to feel like they are part of the classroom community and included in all parts of the school day. Giving them autonomy over their interactions with peers will boost their confidence, help them learn important skills, and encourage them to become more independent. 

Building Social Skills in Unstructured Settings 

Certain times of the school day, like lunch or recess, can challenge any student’s social skills. For neurodivergent students, these unstructured times are especially hard. The good news is that with challenges come great learning opportunities. Even though you might need to give your assigned student some guidance and extra practice, it’s important to let these scenarios be as natural as possible and allow your student to have experiences similar to those of their peers. Here are specific scenarios and ideas about how to help your student navigate through them.  

Taking Breaks

Students are often pulled out of the classroom when they need a break, but in some cases, you might be able to turn breaks into opportunities for social interaction. Have them choose a partner and play a quick game, art activity, or puzzle. Along with meeting students’ needs, you’ll also help them build camaraderie and find common interests. 

Classroom Jobs

Classroom jobs can easily be done in pairs, making this a great social opportunity. Have two students work together to pass out papers, deliver the lunches to the cafeteria, or clean the marker board at the end of the day. This way, all students can be involved and feel a sense of belonging, and we can send the message that we all have shared responsibilities in the classroom. 

During Work Time

Many students instinctively come to the teacher for help as they’re working independently. Instead, encourage them to ask for help from each other first. An expert wall is a powerful tool that highlights students’ strengths and helps them quickly find a peer to assist. Students list all their strengths on the wall and are then considered the “expert” in that subject. Then, if someone is struggling with a multiplication problem, for example, they can look at the expert wall and find a classmate who is an expert on multiplication to help.  


In the Hallway

Hallways are sometimes loud and chaotic, and walking down them can be stressful and overwhelming. Still, they are a part of life (just like stores and airports!), and your students will need to learn how to navigate these situations. Try creating an activity that encourages them to focus their attention on something other than the chaos. For example, have them choose a topic to discuss with a partner as they walk, like their favorite animal, vacation destination, or what they learned in science. Consider giving them something specific to observe and report on, like how many blue shirts they see, how many steps they took, or the names of three people they walked past. 

At Lunchtime

The dreaded walk around the lunchroom trying to find a place to sit is a stressful memory for many. One idea to make sure all students feel included and welcome is to create interest tables by placing printed cards with topics such as TikTok, football, chess, or music. This way, students can sit where they have a common interest with others so they know what the topic of conversation will be.

Choosing Partners & Groups

When you partner or group students, the goal is to eliminate the possibility of anyone getting left out. The most important factor here is that a TA should not stand in to be a partner with the student they are supporting. That will only create an embarrassing situation for your student and reinforce that they are not fully included in the classroom.

Here are some strategies to group students without creating hurtful situations:

  • Predetermine groups based on academic ability, collaboration skills, interests, or social-emotional goals.

  • Pass out matching cards for students to find partners. These could be playing cards, colors, numbers, or even Pokémon cards!

  • Have students make “clock partners” where they write each other’s names on each number of a clock printout. Then say, “Go to your ___ o-clock partner.” 

  • Number students and group them by a certain set, like all numbers divisible by 3, all even numbers, etc.

Teaching social skills is an ongoing process that gets folded into almost every part of the school day. It can be challenging, but the invaluable reward is confident, independent students who feel welcomed and accepted.

For more information or help incorporating these strategies at your school, contact me.