What Are Social Interaction Skills?

Well-developed social interaction skills are critical for developing positive self-esteem, building relationships, and ultimately for acceptance into society. To communicate effectively with others, establish friendships, positive social relationships, and be perceived as a likable human being, a person must demonstrate good social skills.

Inherent in social interaction are the verbal or signed expressive and receptive language skills required to carry on a conversation. Understanding and using nonverbal communication skills—the nuances of facial expressions and body language—are also critical social skills used to convey different emotions and feelings.

Social interaction skills are essential for engaging with others; yet, much of the content in this area is typically learned through casual observation of others. Because children who are blind or low vision are unable to casually observe how others interact and engage socially, they need systematic and purposeful instruction in order to learn social skills.

Why Teach Social Interaction Skills as a Specific Area?

Research has shown that youth with blindness or low vision are at risk in the area of social skills. They also tend to have smaller networks of friends and acquaintances.

Research also showed that there were significant relationships between youth who are blind or low vision engaging in social activities and being employed. The importance of children and adolescents with blindness or low vision participating in structured learning of social skills is supported in research, and these activities can and should be supported by families, the TVI, school staff, and service providers.

Infants and Toddlers

Humans begin to learn social skills in infancy. For young children, social development focuses on bonding and communicating effectively with parents, caregivers, and other significant people in the child’s life.

Infants and toddlers with blindness or low vision may give their caregivers different cues for attention than those given to parents by sighted children. For example, rather than making lots of noise when anticipating a parent’s approach, your child may become quiet as they listen for the parent to come to feed them, change their diapers, comfort them, or play. Parents who are sighted might mistake this quieting as an indication that the child wants to rest or that the infant is not bonding when in actuality, it may indicate just the opposite.

Primary caregivers of infants with blindness or low vision must learn a different “social dance” to ensure effective communication with the child. Instead of visual cues and eye-contact, these interactions use hearing, touch, smell, and taste to establish social connections. These children benefit from caregivers providing auditory descriptions and cues such as speaking to explain what’s happening before touching the baby or bringing food to the child’s mouth.

The parent may also want to hum, whistle, or make other pleasant noises when approaching the child’s room to let the child know someone’s coming.

Interactions with family members in the first three years of life set the course for a child’s social development. Therefore, early intervention is especially important as parents of newborns with visual impairments learn to cope with their feelings about having a child with a visual disability.

Understanding Behaviors

Teaching parents how to read their child’s behaviors can help prevent difficulties later. Parents may need to be encouraged to use touch as a substitute for the visual cues like smiling; for example, massage or cuddling while rocking and using a soothing voice may be more rewarding for the child than things they can’t see. The critical thing is for parents and other caregivers to bond with the child so that they feel safe and loved.

Elementary Age

As children mature, their siblings and other children will play an important role in their social development. For example, siblings and peers might teach children with blindness or low vision skills such as turn-taking and social interactions as they pretend play or play games: “Watch this,” and “Did you see that!?!”

For elementary-aged children, social skills development moves from building relationships within the family to developing relationships with others: classmates and friends as well as teachers or adults in schools and community settings.

Middle School and Beyond

By the time children have entered middle, junior high, and high school, the expectation is that they know the most common social rules for the community in which they live. This means that children and adolescents with blindness or low vision need to have learned most of the basic social skills that will enable them to achieve their social goals.

At this stage in their lives, they will be expected to recognize social challenges, problem solve, and resolve those difficulties. However, teachers and family members may need to provide verbal feedback about which social skills seem to be working well and what areas may need more practice. Students with blindness or low vision may miss cues from their sighted peers or others in the community; requiring input from fully sighted friends, family, and teachers to understand the impact of their behaviors on others.

How Do TVIs Approach Instruction of Social Skills?

As children grow up, the social skills they learn tend to build upon each other. Therefore, children who are blind or low vision need ongoing instruction in age- and culturally-appropriate social skills.

As students get older, they should be learning more advanced social skills and continue to practice those previously learned. For example, children with blindness or low vision learn many social behaviors that will be expected of them as they enter school and other social environments outside their homes.

  • Differences in how to properly greet and speak with adults versus greeting and speaking to other children (what you can say, what you cannot or should not say, when to speak up, and when to listen).
  • How to communicate effectively with teachers and aides in a classroom setting (raising one’s hand to be called upon, following the rules for when one’s allowed to talk and how loudly, when one is allowed to interrupt and how, etc.).
  • What activities and topics of conversation are of interest to peers on the playground, in the cafeteria, and during informal interaction opportunities such as when waiting for the school bus or parent after school.
  • How closely one is allowed to stand when in conversation.
  • When and where a person is allowed to touch another person.
  • The facial expressions and gestures peers use to convey nonverbal messages.
  • What social behaviors are expected in public: covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, saying excuse me if you bump someone or step on someone’s toes, saying please and thank-you when asking for or receiving something from someone, and so forth.
  • How to actively participate in social functions and extracurricular activities such as birthday parties, recreational or sporting events, and scouting.
  • How to work effectively with a team of students on group projects.

During middle and high school, youths with blindness or low vision may benefit from structured learning that focuses on problem-solving social dilemmas, such as what to do if someone is rude when the student asks for assistance.

Role Playing

The use of role playing and discussing scenarios may be especially helpful. Social skills can be refined by participating in activities such as drama, debate, and health classes.

Some youths may benefit from more targeted work in support groups or small-group counseling sessions. Adolescents with visual impairments need to feel comfortable discussing their disabilities with others: teachers, related service providers, friends, extended family, employers, and strangers. They must be able to determine who needs to know what about them and how to refuse unneeded or unwanted assistance.

In addition, youths with visual impairments need information about social conventions and popular culture in order to participate in social activities with peers. These activities may involve eating out, dating, or socializing with an individual friend or in groups. This information includes knowing about fashion trends, technology and gadgetry, popular music, sports, movies, and so forth.

Additional Social Skills

  • Developing assertive communication skills and comparing those skills with aggressive or passive communication.
  • Developing an awareness of how others feel when a person uses different types of communication skills.
  • Understanding how to express sexuality appropriately and what to do if others interact inappropriately (coping mechanisms).
  • Ensuring personal safety and well-being outside of the nuclear family (in preparation for living away from home)
  • Negotiating with others—how to reciprocate when necessary and clarifying what the student can and cannot do to contribute in group activities or partnerships.
  • How to set life/career goals and articulate those to others (family, friends, and service providers).
  • Maintaining individuality while being aware of popular culture, trends, and social pressures.

How Can We Support Instruction in Social Interaction Skills in Schools?

Social interaction skills are best facilitated by a fully qualified TVI who is aware of the social gaps of the student who is blind or low vision and the longer term impact this lack of access or understanding has on the student’s development.

In addition to providing direct instruction to help students develop social awareness and appropriate communication skills, TVI’s must work with the student’s entire IEP team and larger school community to help others effectively support the student’s development of social interaction skills.

Youth with blindness or low vision need multiple sources of support and feedback throughout their community. These include family members, siblings, neighbors, peers, classroom teachers, school counselors, and others the student might regularly encounter in the community.

Youth also benefit from talking with peers and working adults who are also blind or low vision. These mentors are rich sources of information about how they themselves navigate a variety of social interactions.

In addition, social interaction skills should be addressed in IEP goals. However, instruction in social skills is usually not a formal process. Therefore, by working collaboratively with the larger community, teachers of students with visual impairments empower everyone invested in the student’s welfare to seize on teachable moments.