• Dr. Brian Quinones LPC

Defining Social Competency

Updated: May 26


Full disclaimer – I do own copies of many of the games that I will be talking about, but I do not own any stock in their companies, did not create, or help create any of these games for profit. I will mention whenever I mod a game or change it from its original intent to fit my client’s needs. It is important to note that yes, I am a therapist, but this blog is not intended to be therapy. I will offer advice, tips, and other guidance on my blog with the intent to illustrate important life skills, provide entertainment, inform, and at times empower the reader. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness or are facing any kind of crisis seek local professional help, and/or contact authorities or emergency professionals for assistance.


When working in the fields of counseling, education, and social work it is easy to over generalize the skills a child or adolescent needs to improve. The goal of this blog post is to provide working definitions of social competency, social-emotional learning, and social skills. In this work the author provides not just his interpretation of these terms but also gives definitions provided by other professionals in the field. The author also briefly describes research that illustrates the different needs of based on their diagnosis and ability to communicate. After defining the various terms, this author also provides a list of common social skills to address while working in the field. Finally, the author ends his work with a summary and describing why providing appropriate definitions will prove important in future blog posts. During his conclusion this author illustrates the need for future blog posts to exemplify the direction G.A.T.E. LLC’s writing should go to continue to help provide information to those who need it.

Defining Social Competency

This week I wanted to look at defining social competency. The phrase social competency, social skills, and social emotional learning get a lot of use our field. At times I feel that those terms are nebulous without any firm definitions or examples used. Whereas this blog post will just be my interpretation of the literature available on the subject, it is my hope to demystify it a little. Especially since this topic is the backbone of my group referrals in our office. To help illustrate the examples I am giving this paper will drill down from social competency, to social-emotional learning, and lastly provide examples of social skills. At the end I will provide a summary of the topic discussed and my references.

Social Competency

Originally this writer made the decision to write from the bottom up. I would build from individual social skills, to social-emotional learning, and lastly to social competency. As the research and writing progress continued, I thought perhaps it would be best to start zoomed out and slowly provide increased detail. When looking at the progression of the phrase for social competence (SC) Greenspan in 1981 illustrated that there are three behavioral components to SC, that of the child’s character, temperament, and social awareness. Additionally, Greenspan stated that you could divide these components further through social sensitivity, insight, and communication. Creasey, Jarvis and Berk (1998) would state that social competency promotes play with a child’s parents, peers, and objects in their environment. Furthermore, that this level of play aids in the development and refinement of empathy, emotional regulation, social information processing, and conflict management, skilled social interactions, and the ability to take the perspective of others. There are several factors that contribute to one’s overall social competency, cognitive abilities, personal and cultural values to name a few (Orpinas, 2010). Moreover, to put it in a more concise way, social competence is the ability to handle social interactions effectively, to get along well with others, and to form and maintain close relationships. Within a general definition this author would suggest to think of social competency as the overall level of mastery of the above factors that lead to social-emotional learning and the development of social skills.

Social-Emotional Learning

As a mental health provider who is focusing on teaching social skills to clients the phrase social emotional learning has become more prevalent in my daily speech. Just last week the phrase came up in a presentation our office had with members of the Perth Amboy school district. We agreed that by itself the expression had little meaning to the families we worked with. McKown, et al. (2009) defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as a skill that includes the ability to interpret, encode, and reason about social and emotional data presented to an individual by others in their given environment. Furthermore, studies supported the notion that social-emotional learning includes a range of factors that includes: the ability to interpret social meaning through theory of the mind, pragmatic language, and empathy; awareness of nonverbal cues; and the ability to understand the nature of social problems. Along those lines, Weissberg, et al. (2015) states that interdisciplinary programs that want to encourage social-emotional learning would need to focus on approaches that promote positive climates and cultures, while enhancing a child’s interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive competencies. Additionally, they emphasize on the idea that a program for SEL would have to be effective and efficient in order to drive the field forward. Ashdown & Bernard (2012) gives an example of what that could look like and what areas of growth one would see through the appropriate use of SEL. In their article they stat that SEL helps raise persistence, confidence, organization, and emotional resilience. Using explicit, direct instruction not only did their study show an increase in positive behaviors but also a decrease in problem behaviors like hyperactivity and externalizing or internalizing problems unhealthily. As stated earlier this work aims to provide clearer examples of what professionals are talking about. In the case of SEL perhaps it is best to think of it as how we interpret the social meaning and emotions provided by those around us. In the following section we will give examples of individual skills that help form social-emotional learning and a list of examples.

Social Skills

When one works in the field of counseling, social work, and/or psychology the notion of developing one’s social skills will come up. Years ago, on the bachelors, or master’s level the term was not as relevant while working in the home. Often it was working with clients where the goal was to reduce their explosive anger or impulsive behaviors. At the time there was a lot of talk about the Wrap Around Approach, getting the client involved in the community, but looking at how those behaviors were affecting their social skills and thus their supports were not as prevalent. Since 2013 I have been working exclusively with the Autism population, and one of the main focuses has been on the development of social skills throughout the treatment process. Throughout that time this writer has also fallen into the trap of over generalizing what social skills are, or just taking a blanket line from a treatment planner to cover my documentation process and not gone into detail. This is a detriment to the client and family, and since then I try to be more specific about what social skills are, and how I am working on them in session.

Before providing a list of example social skills this writer wants to provide one more concept to be aware of. Within the field of counseling the term “Theory of the Mind” has come up frequently especially in regards to the autism population. It is like the above mentioned SEL but also takes into consideration the person’s understanding of their own thoughts and mental state as well as that of others. So, to say someone has a theory of the mind, they understand that not only they have thoughts, feelings, and actions associated with them, but so does others around them. Theory of the mind becomes more important when describing a person’s appropriate social skill level especially when the child is deaf or autistic. In 2016 Peterson, et al. studied the consequences of theory of the mind for the social lives of children. Where their study looked at typical development, deafness (both native and late signers) and autism, they presented that theory of the mind understanding was crucial to help predict a child’s ability to develop peer social skills. Additionally, the results differed between typical development and deaf children in comparison to those with autism. In the later group language ability played a stronger role in regards to peer competency. The point to drive home in this is, yes understanding how others think and feel is very important, but in some cases, it is more important to develop communication skills first, to foster appropriate peer interactions.

Giving Examples

To attempt to define social skills is to first illustrate it as an umbrella term, that focuses on a range of abilities that develop from simple to complex (Grant, 2017a). Furthermore, by their nature social skills are a list of specific behaviors that are interpersonal and gives the user the opportunity to interact with others in their environment. At times we may state that the person needs to develop skills that will enhance their ability to build interpersonal relationships socially, but that on its own is a long-term goal (Jongsma, 2006). Additionally, when you look at treatment planners where the therapist designs short-term goals that is aimed at building confidence and social skills through interpersonal interactions the tools given to the therapists are sparse. The example given is to provide instructions through modeling and role-playing that focuses on communication and general social skills. Since this tends to be an area where we as professionals over generalize, I thought it would be helpful to add some examples.

Source: Adapted from Berkenstock & Blakely (2019); Crenshaw & Steward (2015); Grant ( 2017a, 2017b); Jongsma, Peterson, et al. (2014); Oden & Asher (1977); Schaefer & Drewes (2013); Stone & Schaefer (2020)


In summary, professionals, parents, and clients often take for granted the mutual understanding of phrases like social competency, social-emotional learning, and social skills. It was the aim of this paper to present various forms of definitions and examples of those terms. This author hopes that by providing the above information it will be easier to explain not just what professionals are doing in session, but the specific skills they hope to teach those they intend on helping. While doing research for this paper I had to fight the urge to write more about theory of the mind and how it affects those who are deaf, and/or autistic. I believe future articles or blog posts could focus just on researching those topics alone. During the writing process I noticed that one could argue some of these definitions differently. It was my thinking to go with the common uses that I have seen while working with case managers, meeting within our office, in client’s homes, communities, or school systems. Throughout our panels and presentations this year I noticed we kept using generic phrases that I now feel we should define more before going forward on our blog posts. Especially as I begin to provide my interpretations of different games and what skills I feel they can develop. Going forward every reference from articles, books, or websites that we use in making our posts we intend to provide. Any questions regarding this topic or suggestions for future ones please post in the comments section on our website.

Dr. Brian C. Quinones

Gaming Approaches Towards Education, LLC


Ashdown, D. M., & Bernard, M.E. (2012). Can explicit instruction in social and emotional learning skills benefit the social-emotional development, well-being, and academic achievement of young children? Early childhood education journal 39, 397-405.

Berkenstock, J. & Blakley, B. (2019). Wizards, warriors & wellness the therapuetic application of role-playing games.

Clark McKown, Laura M. Gumbiner, Nicole M. Russo & Meryl Lipton (2009) Social-Emotional Learning Skill, Self-Regulation, and Social Competence in Typically Developing and Clinic-Referred Children, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 38:6, 858-871, DOI: 10.1080/15374410903258934

Creasey, G.L., Jarvis, P.A., & Berk, L.E. (1998). Play and social competence. In O. N. Saracho & B. Spodek (Eds.), SUNY series, early childhood education: Inquiries and insights. Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education, 116-143. State University of New York Press.

Crenshaw, D. A. & Stewart, A.L. (2015). Play therapy a comprehensive guide to theory and practice. New york, NY: The Guildord Press

Grant, R. J. (2017). Autplay therapy for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum a behavioral play-based approach. New York, NY: Routlledge

Grant, R. J. (2017). Play-based interventions for autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities. New York, NY: Routlledge

Greenspan, S. (1981). Defining childhood social competence: A proposed working model. Advances in Special Education, 3, 1-39.

Jongsma, A. E., Peterson, M. L., McInnis W.P., Bruce, T.J. (2014). The child psychotherapy treatmentplanner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Oden, S., & Asher, S.R. (1977). Coaching children in social skills for friendship making. Child Development, 48, 495-506

Orpinas, P. (2010). Social competence. The corsini encyclopedia of psychology, 1-2

Peterson, C., Slaughter, V., Moore, C., & Wellman, H.M. (2016). Peer social skills and theory of mind in children with autism, deafness, or typical development. Developmental Psychology, 52(1), 46-57.

Schaefer, C.E., & Drewes, A. A. (2013). The therapeutic powers of play: 20 core agents of change. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Stone, J. & Schaefer, C.E. (2020) Game play therapeutic use of games with children and adolescents. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Domitrovich, C.E., & Gullotta, T.P. (Eds.). (2015). Social and emotional learning: Past, present, and future. In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (p. 3-19). The Guilford Press.


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