In most schools, our school system does a lot to assess student progress in academics such as reading, writing, and mathematics. However, little assessment is done to build an accurate picture of a child’s knowledge in the various extracurricular realms to evaluateif a student is making adequate social progress.

To understand why a new method of assessing a child’s social skills is needed, we must first define the extracurricular realm and its vast range of activities.  Some of these activities include sports like basketball, soccer, tennis, and kickball, performing arts activities like drama and music, many types of clubs ranging from art club to science club, and a whole host of other activities like school spirit activities, prom, and even interacting and making friends in the halls and cafeterias.

To break this down further, each activity in question requires a different skill set of knowledge to perform.  For example, the skills to learn how to act on a stage for a drama show (voice, learning lines, tone, character, story, singing, etc.) can be very different than those needed for playing basketball (dribbling, passing, shooting, rules of the sport, good sportsmanship, etc.).   Overall, the skill set of knowledge needed for the social realm of school is very vast, and covers many dominionsof knowledge such as recreation, leisure, visual and performing arts, school spirit activities, communication, conversations, banter, humor, joke and slang words, manners, etiquette, friendships, and relationships. When a person reaches the teenage to adult level, you start adding dating, romance, intimacy, and sexuality skills to this list of knowledge required to be socially successful in the hidden curriculum.

Someof the biggest problems with the current types of assessments like the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Social Skills Rating System,and similar types of assessments are that they are quantitative, indirect (given to the parent and teacher, and often not the student),have a poor methodology,and a vague scoring system to try to assess an accurate picture of a child or teenager’s social performance.  Many of the scoring methods for these assessments result in either a grade or an age-equivalency score relative to a very small set of knowledge, which is extremely vague.   Some of them ask ‘how often does a child do task X, Y, or Z’, which is not an indicator of whether the child knows the steps to do the task correctly or not.

Next, many of these assessments address communication skills, behavior management skills and some non-verbal language.   While this may give a basic picture of the child’s performance quantitatively in the form of a score relative to a few tasks, there can be significant information lacking in this picture, such as a child’s knowledge of the extracurricular activities themselves.   Speaking from experience, I did not understand what prom, twin day, three-legged race, and a pep rally even were when I heard them on the school announcements!

The next biggest flaw with the current assessment methodology is that the hands-on realms of socialization (such as recreation, leisure, sport, and visual & performing arts) cannot be assessed by simply asking “yes/no” or “how often does” type paper and pencil questions accurately.   To assess an accurate picture of a child’s knowledge in these realms, one needs to observe a child’s progress in many settings such as the playground, gymnasium, theater, lunchroom, home, friend’s houses, and various community environments.   In addition, one should be asking a child his/her knowledge of how to participate or play in specific games, activities, and the steps to execute them, or have the child demonstrate them to the person doing the assessment.

The next biggest piece of social skills to assess is a child’s knowledge of manners and etiquette for the environments a child of his/her age would commonly encounter.   This is also activity specific based.   Again, what is socially acceptable in one setting may be rude in another, so it is important not to generalize here.   For example, in a stadium it is acceptable to yell out cheer phrases and be loud at appropriate times. The same behavior that is acceptable in a stadium would not be acceptable in a classroom or a restaurant.   To properly assess a child’s knowledge of their etiquette skills, one should be checking a child or teen’s knowledge in several different settings.   Common social environments to assess a student’s knowledge of the etiquette rules may include the school’s hallways, cafeteria, playground, gymnasium, ball fields, classrooms, auditorium, as well as common community settings like friends’ houses, parties, parks, stores, recreation centers, arcades, amusement parks, swimming pools, and skating rinks.

The next area you will want to assess is whether the child knows how to make friends and how to be a friend, and the social protocols for doing so.   For example, does a child know whom to talk to in a group, how to invite someone to his/her house, how to entertain them and be a good host when it comes to a play date, party, or sleepover, etc.  In addition, a child should be assessed on his/her knowledge of social conversation topics (which are going to be very different than professional to child conversation), how not to bore someone, how to find out their interests and hobbies, and background, etc.   There is both body and conversational language to this and using modeling might be a good way to assess, in addition to observation.

When one transitions from teenager to adult, you should start assessing their teenager or young adult’s knowledge of crushes, dating, intimacy, and sexuality.  Assessing this might include if the teen or adult knows what dating is, how to recognize a crush, how to date someone, how to ask someone out, and how to consent to being one’s boyfriend or girlfriend.  While those with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual violence, it is still important to discuss this topic with them and assess where their knowledge may be lacking in the intimacy realm.

Lastly, parents, teachers, and therapists should learn how recognize when a child has the symptoms of a social skills deficit or what I often call “hidden curriculum failure.”  Some of the symptoms include a child not fitting in with other children at school, being bullied, lack of participation in extracurricular activities, being alone at a lunch and recess, or a lack of friends.

Hidden Curriculum Skills by Grade Level:

For pre-K and early childhood, the skills to focus on include child’s knowledge of common recreational games, the toys found in playrooms and day care rooms, basic manners, conversation and teasing.

For elementary school age students, the focus should be on playground and park games, basic visual and performing arts skills, friendship building, common school spirit activities, how to be a guest and host, and some common childhood community settings like a park or a store.

When a child gets to middle school, start assessing a child’s knowledge of friendships, game nights, dancing skills, school spirit activities, sports, acting on stage, and hanging out in the community, what the different clubs are, the functions of student government, audience interaction skills, and how to host a sleep over.

When a child enters high school, it is best to start assessing a child’s knowledge of crushes, interscholastic athletic rivalry, deeper friendships, dating, going places in the community on their own, greater autonomy, different types of dances, and more.   With each activity, one must also access a child’s knowledge of the etiquette skills associated with it.

To properly score the results of such an assessment, it is best to not try to generalize it.   Instead, work with what the child or teenager knows and doesn’t know and help them get the knowledge they need to improve in the areas of socialization they want to explore.  For example, if a child does not understand how to be a friend, it may be best to model the protocol for extending friendship and the common actions friends do when being a guest and a host.    If on the other hand, the child does not understand a specific game or how to do a specific activity, the solution might be to teach them how to play it in a real setting.

After all, there is a lot of knowledge needed to be social and it is important to see the big picture when assessing one’s knowledge of it, and learning it is a lifelong adventure that happens a little at a time.   However, to get the real picture of one’s social knowledge requires zooming in more than zooming out and is one where the details, not generalizations are the big picture, not the other way around.  The real score of such a qualitative assessment approach to social skills comes in the form of a list of things where the student may want to improve their recreational and etiquette skills in specific activities and settings and environments.



Stephen Hinkle is a Chapman Ph.D. student, self-advocate, international speaker, and a person on the autism spectrum.