Pragmatics: The Road to Social Competency

Peter S. Dobrowolski - Author

Social competency is determined by the degree to which individuals find acceptance from their peers during social interaction. McFall (1982) argued that social skills are behaviors exhibited in specific situations that result in judgments of an individual's social competence. Swanson and Malone point out that learning disabled youth are less accepted by their peers, are more withdrawn, display more inappropriate behaviors, and are deficient on a variety of skills deemed important to successful social interactions. Gresham notes that schools are one of the most important settings in which children acquire, develop, and refine the skills that are essential for establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Most learning disabled students lack the necessary social skills to achieve social competence. It is the contention of the author that social competence can be enhanced and improved through careful and systematic training; in order to experience social success, a child must accurately evaluate social situations and arrive at appropriate actions based on his or her perceptions (Semrud-Clikeman & Hynd, 1991). Further, the social climate in the school environment provides an optimal situation for social skill training programs.

Spafford and Grosser observe that "the perception or misperception of events in our world is ‘our’ reality." They suggest that self-concept is also intimately linked to social competency. When self-esteem is low, the individual is less inclined to utilize problem solving strategies. The learning disabled individual typically externalizes the responsibility for his or her failure typically blaming others. This learned helplessness leads to poor social relationships with peers and adults and perpetuates a cycle of interpersonal failure and lowered self-esteem. Further, social competency is inhibited by a complex series of factors which vary from individual to individual: these problems are characterized by a lack of linguistic sophistication, a lack of ability to accurately interpret nonverbal social cues such as body language, and the inability to understand jokes and sarcasm especially if slight vocal changes result in more than one meaning. Problems with auditory discrimination, attention, vocabulary, and language processing speed can also add to the learning disabled individual's frustration and misperception. These issues inextricably meld to create a situation where social failure is predictable, and social rejection and isolation are inevitable.

Among the first tasks in social skill training is to differentiate between issues of skill acquisition and skill performance. Social skill acquisition deficits refer to the absence of particular skills from a behavioral repertoire. Social performance deficits represent the presence of the social skills in a behavioral repertoire but the failure to perform these skills at acceptable levels in given situations (Gresham 1981). These issues must be differentiated and addressed in the development of a social skills curriculum. In the case of skill acquisition deficits, individual social skills must be taught and rehearsed before the individual can be expected to integrate a given skill into their social behavior. Alternately, performance deficits require close analysis of the factors which inhibit or prevent the implementation of an already developed skill. Each can be carefully integrated into classroom instruction and analyzed and practiced within a supportive group atmosphere. Further, through the process of analysis, problem solving strategies can be introduced and taught. The next challenge is to develop an individual's ability to generalize skills from one situation to another. To achieve success in this endeavor, the student must practice the desired skills in an environment which encourages and reinforces successive approximations. If the individual is not properly reinforced then performance deficits continue to occur. Social skill, social performance, and skill generalization are achievable goals that are particularly dependent on environmental and training factors. The literature in the field suggests that learning disabled individual learns social skills in a similar fashion to other skills. The efficacy of these training programs is related to the manner, method, and environment used to conduct training.

Peter S. Dobrowolski has worked in the field of Special Education for nearly twenty years. Currently, he is Dean of Students at North Middlesex Regional High School a comprehensive high school for approximately 1150 students in North Central Massachusetts. Mr. Dobrowolski is a doctoral in education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst working to complete a degree in educational policy, research and administration. Additionally, he is working as a consultant to the Hunter School located in Rumney New Hampshire. The Hunter School serves students with Attention Deficit Disorder. Mr. Dobrowolski can be reached at either ( or ( Address: P.O. Box 55 Hardwick, Massachusetts


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