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Expanding Social Skills Part I: How to Initiate Conversation

TIPS by ABA Works

Conversational skills are something many of us take for granted every day. We often don’t have to remind ourselves to have eye contact and appropriate body language, to focus on what the other person is saying to create a related response or to seamlessly use smooth transitions. But for individuals with communication or social deficits, keeping up with all these rules can be overwhelming. For expats and their children, who move from place to place, these communication challenges can be even more extreme.

Although individuals may appear as though they are not interested in socialization, often they are just lacking the skill set to do so.

So, how can parents help their children increase their social skills, meet new friends on the playground or at school? Or how can parents and individuals help themselves? Follow our 3-part series on how to use effective strategies to teach your child social skills that can benefit them in their new home or school.

Part I: How to Initiate Conversations

  • Pick conversation topics that are interesting to your child (or yourself): If your child has an affinity or fascination with a certain book, fictional character, animal, or any other interest, use this to guide and choose conversation topics. Your child’s motivation to socialize will greatly increase if the topic is something of relevance to them.
  • Use conversation prompt cards: With your child (or for yourself: with a partner/friend), create several conversation topic cards that can be used to practice conversation, and eventually to help build a foundation of some possible questions to ask new people. Use relevant topics as previously suggested, and also help your child come up with other conversational topics like, “do you like ____?” or “what’s your favorite _____?” Write each topic on a card and put all on a key ring to easily keep with you for practice. Sample cards here.
  • Use social stories to explain social rules: Social stories are a great way to visually and verbally teach the rules and structure of a conversation, social expectations, and body language. Here are examples of social stories that explain an overview of conversation structure:

Social stories can also be used to teach specific skills, like understanding personal space, or how to ask someone to play:

  • Model and role play: Depending on your child’s learning abilities, they may benefit from either watching two people (i.e. two parents, one parent/one sibling) model initiating a conversation or your child may benefit more from engaging in role play. Once you have together created some sample conversation topics, explained the structure and expectations of initiating a conversation, now it is time to practice!
  • Starting a real conversation: After having some practice with initiating generic conversations and understanding related social rules, children and adults should try out their new skills in real life settings.
    • First, start with someone you already know. This should help the conversation feel more comfortable and natural.
    • Use information you already know about that individual (from previous conversation or observation). For example, “Hey, I saw you reading a book about Minecraft, that’s also my favorite game! Which character do you like?”
    • Try starting with open-ended questions to allow for follow up questions. For example, “Hey (name), I saw you’re on the school’s martial arts team, how do you like it?”
  • Positive Reinforcement: It is crucial that you include reinforcement in your child’s learning process. Not only does reinforcement allow your child to understand that they are engaging in the correct behavior, it also encourages them to continue with that behavior. You can provide an immediate reward after a successful role play, or provide tokens throughout the teaching process that your child can “cash in” for a reward once the token board is full.

Follow our social skills series next week when we will offer tips on how to sustain a conversation!

Interested in receiving professional, customized ABA services for your family in the home, after-school program or at school? Our BCBA and staff will help with behavior challenges, developmental delays, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Disorders, ADHD or related disorders. Contact ABA Works at

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