Social Skills Development

Brain Injury Blog by Jessica Felix Jager, MSW

August 3, 2011

Social Skills Development

The recent economic status of our country has brought the need to acquire or attain skills to the forefront of people’s minds. With the competitive job market, the more one has to offer, the greater are their chances to succeed. It has become evident that skills are needed in all aspects of life. Life skills are needed to live independently; specific work skills are needed to do a specific type of job (i.e., a carpenter is needed to build), social skills are needed to interact in society; relational skills are needed to maintain healthy and meaningful relationships and so on. Napoleon Dynamite even noted the need for skills when he stated, “You know, like nun chuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills…girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.” The reality is that skills are needed in all aspects of life, but not all skills are needed as much as others. Social skills for example, are not only needed, but one must really work to attain so that they can continue to reach new levels in their life.

According to the Social Work Dictionary social functioning is defined as living up to the expectations that are made of an individual by that person’s own self, by the immediate social environment, and by society at large. These expectations, or functions, include meeting one’s own basic needs and the needs of one’s dependents and making positive contributions to society (Barker, 2003). Everyone on some level attempts to live up to the expectations that family, our society, and we set upon us. This attempt can be summed up as “social functioning.” To be able to live up to these expectations placed, a certain skill set is needed to produce optimal results and this skill set is known as social skills. Social skills as defined by the Social Work Dictionary are the ability to relate to and work with others in achieving specific social goals. Examples include speaking understandably, writing clearly, managing time and finances adequately, and empathizing with and influencing people (Barker, 2003).

Families according to Joyce Olson author of Effective Social Skill Instruction: Putting Research into Practice, provide the first and most lasting influence on social skill development (2007). Children pick up on what they see and they mimic what they observe. Before a child enters a school setting, the home environment is where the child receives predominately all of its major influence and thus, a child learns how to interact with others, how to communicate effectively with others, and how to be considerate all stem from the initial in-home up bringing years. Likewise, this principle can be applied to one that has survived a traumatic brain injury. The family and home environment is the key place to re-introduce the needed social skills to interact with society. According to Olson, executive functions regulate deliberate, non-automatic, non-routine behavior and are the cognitive processes required to carry out social problem solving. They include processes such as setting goals, planning and organizing behavior, monitoring and evaluating performance, revising a plan, solving problems and regulating behavior (2007). These executive functions go along with and contribute to social skills: speaking understandably, writing clearly, managing time and finances adequately, and empathizing with and influencing people. When one endures a TBI (traumatic brain injury), the use of executive functions, depending on the nature of the injury is compromised and therefore, re-establishing social skills becomes a main focus for a TBI survivor.

So how can the family contribute in social skills development? There are practical and creative ways that the family can work together to re-develop social skills in a loved one:

To help build self-regulation skills and social skills, plan a Monthly Game Night. This will cause interactions and require each family member (TBI Survivor included) to function within the boundaries of rules.

  • Pick a game or puzzle for the family to do together (work your way up to more strategic/ problem-solving games).
  • Make it a dedicated time that each family member works into their schedule with no interruptions.
  • Focus on fellowship and fun, not competition.

To further develop problem-solving skills and the ability to empathize with others plan a Monthly or Bi-monthly Movie Night.

    • Pick an inspirational movie where the main character has to overcome an obstacle.
    • After the movie have a discussion on:
      • The feelings and emotions portrayed in the movie
      • The obstacle faced and how it was overcome
      • Other ways to problem solve and overcome the same obstacle
    • Prior to watching the movie designate a different family each time to pick a movie snack to make with the TBI Survivor. Together they will find the recipe, make a list of items needed, purchase together and make together for the family to share. Each movie night can have a different special snack allowing for more opportunities to plan and follow through with a plan.

To promote repetition for skill building, apply daily implications. Some Daily Implications include, but are not limited to:

    • Depending on the level of functioning, have TBI Survivor read or read to him or her a book filled with short stories with a clearly defined obstacle that is overcome and then discuss. One short story per day would provide the needed repetition to build the problem-solving skill and the empathy skill.
    • Eat meals together as a family several times a week. Demonstrate table manners (how to pass the salt, what utensils to use and what is appropriate dinner conversation, etc.)
    • Invite friends over to do a specific activity such as make crafts, play video games, cook out etc.
    • Plan special events together such as birthdays and holidays and give the TBI survivor specific responsibilities in the event planning to carry out.
    • Participate in social gatherings as a family such as going to church, community events, fair, and so on regularly so that social interactions can be observed and practiced.

There are many more ways social skills can be developed, incorporated and implemented in the home-environment and these are just some ways to do so. Just like every traumatic brain injury is unique and not one is like another, so is the family unit. How your family will carry out the practical implications of social skill development will be unique to your own family. The key is not in what or how the skills are implemented, but that they are implemented. Studies have shown that the much needed social skills are rooted in the home, so to help your loved one reach a new level in their recovery, create a home environment that will take every family activity or function and turn it into a creative skill development opportunity!


Barker, R.L. (2003). The Social Work Dictionary (5th ed). Baltimore, MD: Port City


Olson, J. (2007) Effective social skill instruction: Putting research into practice. Retrieved August 27, 2010 from

More information on handling fearful emotions can be found in Stress and Anxiety.

6 responses to “Social Skills Development”

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  4. Ginger I am so glad that you enjoyed the article and found the tips to be interesting and helpful. Feel free to let me know how they work out for you and your husband and if there is anything further I can assist you with in terms of tips and strategies. You can visit the website and find my email address there and keep me posted. Blessings!

  5. Ginger says:

    Thank you for this informative article. We have been working on self-esteem issues and my husband with TBI is really struggling with that at this point. He feels he has made no progress in almost 6 years of therapy. With short term memory we have relearning daily. These skills are interesting and fun for all of us involved in his care.

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