Are Social Skills Groups Ableist?

Individuality is a key component to our identity. Something to be celebrated.

So if we, as educators, really value our students’ uniqueness why do we create groups that teach kids how to improve the way they socialize?

Isn't that part of an ableist system pathologizing neurodiversity?  

It depends. Do your social skills groups...

  • reinforce the idea that there is one standard for acceptable behavior?

  • teach kids to mask their differences?

  • lead to anxiety, self-doubt and self-consciousness?

  • train kids to be hypervigilant to others’ needs?

If so, the message is that student's natural way of being needs fixing. That they are not good enough as they are. It also seems to disregard the importance of the community being more accepting and puts all the responsibility on the learner.

What’s the goal of a social skills group?

Is the goal of social skills groups to get our students to fit in? To be socially acceptable? To create a social monoculture defined by neurotypical rules?


Is it to be able to connect with others in a mutually beneficial way? To build self-esteem, foster empathy and cultivate kindness?

The honest answer to that is revealed in how we conduct our groups

A social skills group that is based on scripts, rules to memorize or even correct responses is in fact, teaching that there is a set of norms that the student should adhere to to be accepted. It also teaches that being accepted is the holy grail of an effective social skills group.

On the other hand, a group based in game play, exploration of thoughts and ideas, group discussions and nonjudgemental feedback creates a safe space for students. It allows them to feel secure enough to speak their minds but not so guarded that they are not willing to listen to the needs of their peers. A group where no one’s needs are put above anyone else’s teaches both self-advocacy and compassion for others.

We have an obligation to teach our students the skills that help prepare them for life beyond school. Both in the workforce and their surrounding community. Soft skills are one of those skills.

They are important for everyone and all students can benefit from learning them in a supportive environment. So perhaps the issue is not with the existence of a group working on inter-personal skills, but with not including a wider variety of students in these groups. This may help one group from being identified as the "gold standard" and one being identified as "trying to catch up."

A well-designed social skills group is not an example of segregation or exclusion. It actually helps students connect with each other without the expense of self-esteem or individuality.

Categories: social emotional learning, social skills