Interpersonal Skills Training

The Intervention

Interpersonal skills training is a program to help students improve their social skills by helping a student understand how their behaviors are perceived by others while allowing them to have autonomy over how they want to be viewed by others. Once they know how they wish to be considered by others, they work to align their behaviors to promote that perception. During interpersonal skills training, students also learn how to adjust their behavior in various settings to be consistent with their goals in that setting. It is typically easiest to begin with their peer context – in other words how they wish to be perceived by other students their age. Other contexts are added later and include interactions with teachers in the classroom and interactions with caregivers at home.

Interpersonal skills training was designed for middle and high school students and is different from traditional social skills training in several ways. First, it focuses on the core concepts of real self (how you are currently seen by others) and ideal self (how you want to be seen by others). Second, the process is designed to help students set individual goals for personal growth. Third, the mechanisms of change include (a) high rates of practice and repetition in a peer setting for skill development, coupled with (b) feedback and discussion from a coach to facilitate student perspective taking and changes in behavior, and (c) a structured process for generalizing skills practice and skills development to new contexts.

Interpersonal skills training can be conducted in a group setting, individual sessions, or via a combination of group and individual sessions depending on the situation at your school and the needs of the student. Interpersonal skills training is conducted in three different phases.

  1. Explain that the goal of the program is to help students improve their ability to get along with others.
  2. Discuss how interpersonal relationships can be tricky and hard to navigate. There are a lot of complexities in social interactions.
  3. Students may push back on this and say that they are already good at getting along with others. You can acknowledge and validate that feeling and let them know that these meetings may feel very easy to them. Ask the student to discuss what they do in order to be successful in their social relationships and if they can think of any barriers to success (you do not have to push them to come up with any if they cannot think of barriers).
  4. Introduce and discuss the concept of the “ideal self” – how you want others to perceive you (see ISG Discussion Guide). It can be helpful to have a list of terms for them to consider such as: hard worker, funny, helpful, smart, kind and others (see downloadable ISG form). Ideal self means how you want others to think about you which is not always the same as how they do think about you.

    • Have your student define the “ideal self” in their own words. They may do this out loud or write it on a notecard.

  5. Introduce and discuss the concept of the “real self” – what people really think about you. This can be a list of words and phrases that someone else would use to describe the student. Explain to them that the ideal self and the real self are often different for people. How you want others to see you is not always the same as how they really do see you. Give some examples to help normalize this discrepancy.

    • Have your student define the “real self” in their own words. They may do this out loud or write it on a notecard.

  6. Create “ideal self” goals.

    • The student should generate 3 or 4 ideal self goals. Some students may be able to think of these easily, but this can be hard for some students. If it is difficult, then consider the following steps.

      • Have the student name a person they really admire or respect. This can be a real or fictional person.]
      • Ask your student why they admire that person. Have them provide adjectives to describe this person. They may go through this process with multiple people they admire.
      • Review the list of terms for other people and discuss whether the student would like others to view them this way.

    • Once the student has 3 or 4 ideal self goals, the next step is to identify a few behaviors for each ideal self goal that cause people to think of others that way. For example, if someone has an ideal self goal of being helpful, then make a list of behaviors that lead people to think of them as helpful (e.g., helps others with their homework, picks something up that someone drops on the floor, carries something for someone). You can ask the student what the person they admire does that made you think of them this way. See the downloadable ISG form for additional examples.

  7. It is important to note that these conversations may take some time. Your student may get stuck at various parts. It is crucial to be patient and not get ahead of your student and move through this process with them at their pace. It is also acceptable to initially allow them to make a goal that you don’t think perfectly hits the mark. As they complete Phase 2, students often refine their goals based on the practice and feedback. The students are often more receptive to your guidance in shaping goals in Phase 2 than in Phase 1.
  8. Some students struggle with the goal setting step in Phase 1 (#6). If you observe this, consider having an individual follow up session with the student to give them more time to process and identify their goals and the behaviors that align with that goal.

  1. These activities are designed to be completed in group meetings. Groups operate best when there are at least 3 or 4 students, but they can work with as few as 2 students. The majority of the time in the group sessions is spent in a social activity such as playing a game, trying to solve a puzzle, collaborating by making a drawing, or completing a group craft activity. These activities can be almost anything; however, they must involve students cooperating and communicating with each other and may even involve competition. Activities such as video games, spending time on their phones, or reading are not appropriate as the interactions between the students are minimal in these activities.
  2. In some situations, group meetings like this are not feasible and in those situations these activities may be skipped. Although they are very valuable activities for helping students improve, benefit can be achieved without them if necessary.
  3. Create an Ideal Self Goals Rating Sheet by writing or typing the student’s ideal self goal on the top of a sheet of paper (see ISG downloadable form for examples and a blank form).
  4. After explaining the group activity to the students, but prior to starting the group activity, each student identifies behaviors that they will try to exhibit that are consistent with their ideal self goals. These should be specific and tailored to the activity (see examples on downloadable ISG form). Discussion identifying these behaviors can be with the entire group or done individually with each student. These discussions should be very brief and the identified behaviors listed on their Ideal Self Goals Sheet. Once established, the students should begin the activity. Group leaders should observe each student’s behavior and note the extent to which each exhibits the behavior(s) identified for the activity.
  5. After 5 to 10 minutes of the activity, each student should receive feedback on the extent to which they are exhibiting their behaviors. This can be done with individual discussions or in one group discussion. If there are a large number of students in the group, it may be most efficient to pull one student at a time and let the group activity continue. The feedback conversations should include the following steps:

    • Students (first) and the SMHP (second) rate the student’s social performance (for the previous observation period), indexed by the relative degree to which the student made progress toward their Ideal Self Goal(s). Ratings are made on -3 to +3 scale; the numbers represent the degree to which the student’s behaviors were consistent with their Ideal Self Goal(s). These ratings are recorded on the Ideal Self Goal Rating sheet.
    • Have a brief discussion with your student about these ratings and address any disagreements. Have the student explain why they chose that rating and have them cite specific examples from their behavior during the activity.
    • Note how behaviors may have been perceived by peers in the group.
    • Have a short discussion about how to improve their ratings for the next observation period.

  6. These activities should be unstructured recreational activities that model real world peer situations. Adults should not interfere with the activities even if students are not participating as they should. This is a time to see to what extent the students can manage their own activity.
  7. Ideally, the activity should occur long enough that each student has the chance to rate their behavior and receive feedback on their behavior 2 to 3 times during the activity. This repetition is important, and you’ll likely see change in student perceptions and behaviors throughout the activity and across the three ratings

  1. Phase 3 involves conducting individual sessions with each student.
  2. This phase emphasizes the generalization of the skills learned in the first two phases.
  3. Discuss the fact that how they wish to be perceived by parents may be different than how they wish to be perceived by peers or teachers. Thus, ideal self goals can change depending on the setting. Brainstorm ideal self goals with the student that may pertain to a variety of situations (e.g., meeting with the principal due to misbehavior, meeting friends after school, first day of art class at school).
  4. Identify a social interaction that the student experienced that occurred during the past week and involved some emotional reaction and/or was significant in terms of the students’ relationship with others. The SMHP and student review this event and identify appropriate ideal self goals for the situation. These goals may or may not coincide with the student’s Ideal Self Goal from the first two phases. Once the goals have been identified, the SMHP and student discuss the behavioral definitions of the goals and the SMHP asks the student to estimate how the SMHP would have rated her in relation to the goals in that situation. The SMHP asks the student about the types of direct and indirect feedback she received from others in the interaction. This discussion should proceed like a feedback session is phase two, but without the opportunity to observe the social event.
  5. Finally, the SMHP and the student make plans for how to better achieve ideal self goals in subsequent social interactions within a similar context (i.e., same people, similar event). If there are other important interpersonal events coming in the next few days, discuss goals and behaviors as well as behaviors of the other people to monitor for feedback. In addition, the SMHP and student may discuss strategies for modifying goals or behaviors based on the behaviors of the other individuals.

  1. As students progress through the activities described above, some may be ready to consider “Expected Self”. Expected self is how others would like us to behave. So just like ideal and real self, expected self is a list of adjectives and phrases that describes how others (e.g., parents, teachers, peers) would like us to be and includes goals they have for us.

    • Have the student define this in their own words and write it on a notecard.

  2. Have your student pick one class that they are in and using the Classroom Goals List (see resources) make a brief list of the expected self that the teacher has for students. How do they expect students to behave? Next, make a list of ideal self goals for that classroom and the behaviors aligned with those goals. Discuss how the expected and ideal self are the same and how they are different. If the student achieves their ideal self goals, how will the teacher likely react? Are there situations where the student’s ideal self goals are more important than the teacher’s expected self goals? Are there situations where the expected self goals are the most important?

Classroom practice is an activity that helps students learn how well teachers believe that they are achieving their ideal self goals and the teacher’s expected self goals. Practice with this activity can help the student make adjustments to their classroom behavior if they wish. Time should be spent discussing teacher ratings that indicate incongruence with the student’s perspectives of that classrooms. This discussion can help the student learn where the ideal, real, and expected selves may converge or where there are differences that the student wishes to preserve.

  1. Explain to the student that you are going to collect teacher ratings of how the teacher thinks the student behaves in their classrooms. The items on this rating should be a combination of the student’s ideal self goals and the teacher’s expected self goals (see example in downloadable form). The student will be asked to complete the ratings for the class to indicate how they think the teacher thinks they act (i.e., real self according to teacher). The SMHP and student will discuss similarities and differences in ratings and attempt to determine reasons for differences in ideal, real, and expected self according to teacher based on their expectations for the student.
  2. Collect teacher ratings from the student’s selected classroom teacher.
  3. Without seeing the teacher’s ratings, the student completes the same rating scale for the classroom of the teacher who completed the rating.
  4. Once completed, the ratings reflect how the student believes the teacher perceives their (real self) on the behaviors that comprise the expected self.
  5. The SMHP shares the teacher ratings and discusses similarities and differences with the student.
  6. This should be similar to a feedback session in the Group Practice Activities section with the SMHP asking about feedback the teacher gives to the student during class and the student’s perception of their own behavior.
  7. If difficulties arise following attempts to reconcile ratings, the SMHP may offer to talk to the teacher to gather information or offer to arrange a meeting between the student, teacher and SMHP. The point of any conversations with the teacher is not to demonstrate that they are right or wrong, but to understand their perspective and use it to help the student understand how their real self is being shaped by their behavior in the classroom.
  8. Goals for the student modifying their own behavior should be considered if warranted.

  • Interpersonal skills training may be conducted individually or in a group setting. The goal setting and evaluation sessions are likely easier to conduct in individual meetings, but the practice and implementation of interpersonal skills training is more conducive to a group setting as it allows for live practice and the opportunity for in the moment feedback from the school mental health professional.
  • Some students struggle with the goal setting step in Phase 1 (#6). If you observe this, consider having an individual follow up session with the student to give them more time to process and identify their goals and the behaviors that align with that goal.


Intervention Scorecard

This intervention is recommended for the following presenting problems.

Select an age group:


Other suitable presenting problems