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Extending Social Skills Training for Children through Interactive Technology

SBIR phase I

Project Info

Project Description

ID: 1R43MH081385-01
TERM: 09/07 – 08/08

Decades of research indicate that social-behavioral deficits negatively affect adjustment and place children at increased risk for a myriad of later negative outcomes including depression, substance abuse, and delinquency. Without intervention, social-behavioral problems tend to persist and escalate over time which, in turn, may have a tremendous impact on mental health. Social skills training (SST) is supported as an efficacious method for significantly improving children’s peer relations, social behavior, and emotional adjustment and reducing risk of developmental psychopathology. Further, the efficacy of SST interventions is enhanced when training extends outside a treatment setting with practice opportunities.

The goal of this SBIR Phase I project was to extend an existing evidence-based small group SST program for children (S.S.GRIN) into the home environment through a computer-based interactive social tutoring system (ISTS). Developed through a unique multi-disciplinary collaboration between computer science and psychology, the ISTS offers tailored interactive social problem-solving exercises that parallel S.S.GRIN’s in-person intervention. For Phase I, the software user-interface, including graphic design, as well as modes of user interaction, story plot and sequence, and hierarchy of causal relations were developed. Development was built on 3-C ISD’s existing work on pedagogical agents in social stories and animation for SST. Via the ISTS, children actively solve plot-based social problems by interacting with pedagogical agents. The interactivity of ISTS is a significant technological advancement over current SST software as it allows story events to be scaffolded based on a child’s actions and goals. In addition, the ISTS reporting feature provides intervention providers with feedback regarding children’s performance to inform their in-person SST efforts. An initial feasibility test was conducted with school- and community-based child mental health professionals and with children ages 8-12 and their parents. Results indicated children’s performance on social problem solving tasks was related to their behavior and social skills as assessed through an independent standardized instrument and inter-relations were meaningfully linked to the intended task content. Parent ratings of the ISTS were positive (e.g., high quality, easy to use, positive learning experience, effective for teaching social skills). Similarly children rated the ISTS positively and stated they would like to do more of it.

Phase I findings provided the foundation for the development and testing of the complete S.S.GRIN-ISTS product during Phase II. Funding will be sought to finalize the ISTS and conduct a scientific evaluation to examine whether inclusion of the ISTS results in enhanced treatment benefits for children’s social skills, behavior, and mental health, greater generalization of skill acquisition, and higher engagement in treatment compared withS.S.GRIN alone.