Defining and Assessing Social Competence

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed.

Content of the Individualized Education Program (IEP)

 The IEP for each child with a disability shall include:

  1.  A statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance ... (34 CFR 300.320(a)(1))


When Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in 2004, it revised the IDEA 1997 requirement to include in each IEP a statement of the student's "present level of educational performance" (PLoP). IDEA 2004 clarifies the meaning of this component of the IEP and explicitly directs IEP teams to include in these statements summaries of both academic achievement and functional performance. However, Congress has not yet defined the meaning of the terms academic and functional. As a result, although IEP team members often share a common understanding of what is meant by academic achievement, confusion exists regarding the meaning of functional performance as it applies to all students with disabilities - not just those with significant disabilities.


The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE, 2009) provides additional guidance in understanding the scope of academic achievement and functional performance. In Virginia, academic achievement includes, but is not limited to, achievement in the skills of reading, written language, mathematics, history/social sciences, and science. Functional performance includes, but is not limited to, skills that promote self-determination, social competence, communication, behavior, and personal management (VDOE Sample IEP Document, 2009).

The component skills of self-determination, as well as suggestions for how to teach and encourage self-determined behavior at home and in school, have been addressed extensively in previous editions of the William and Mary T/TAC newsletter, Link Lines (see; The remainder of this and two additional articles, to appear in future issues of Link Lines, provide clarification of and suggestions for promoting social competence in students with disabilities of all ages.

Social competence is a broad area of skill development that impacts students' social effectiveness; that is, their ability "to establish and maintain high quality and mutually satisfying relationships and to avoid negative treatment or victimization from others" (Welsh & Bierman, 2001, ¶ 2). Social competence promotes successful adjustment to school, academic achievement, and eventual school completion. Conversely, lack of social competence has been found to contribute to juvenile delinquency, underemployment, adult criminal behavior, and mental health problems (Williamson & Dorman, 2002). Unfortunately, children with learning and developmental disabilities often demonstrate a lack of social competence and, therefore, are vulnerable to such outcomes.

Several factors, including social awareness, self-confidence, and social skills, contribute to children's attainment of social competence. Children who understand the social networks of their home, school, and community environments are considered to be socially aware. Children who believe in themselves and their abilities to interact appropriately in these environments are viewed as being self-confident. Children who use environmentally appropriate social behaviors to interact with others are seen as having acquired social skills (Welsh & Bierman, 2001).  Thus, "children who have a wide repertoire of social skills and who are socially aware and perceptive are likely to be socially competent" (Welsh & Bierman, 2001, ¶ 2)


Assessment of social competence is an individualized, purposeful process that includes consideration of the social and environmental contexts in which children live.  "The environmental context is critical in establishing the expectation for appropriate social behaviors, and the social context is the stage upon which life is played out.  Children must be able to subtly shift and adapt their behavior according to these varying contexts" (Williamson & Dorman, 2002, p. 4). A variety of formal and informal methods are appropriate for assessing social competence (Williamson & Dorman, 2002). 

Formal. Formal assessments refer to valid, reliable standardized measures that typically contain standardized procedures for administration, scoring, and interpretation, allowing scores to be compared across student populations (Clark, 2007). 

Among formal, standardized assessment instruments, rating scales are used to assess specific behaviors. These measures provide predetermined scales that quantify students' levels or degrees of social competence (Clark, 2007). Rating scales may be completed by parents, students, teachers, and school personnel who can provide information that describes students' social performance.  Examples of commercially available rating scales include the Social Skills Rating System (Gresham & Elliott, 1990), the Walker-McConnell Scale of Social Competence and School Adjustment (Walker & McConnell, 1995), and the Functional Assessment Intervention System: Improving Social Behavior (Stoiber, 2003).

Informal. A second type of assessment instrument, informal assessments are non-standardized measures that may be developed locally or purchased from published sources. They employ informal assessment procedures Typically less structured than standardized instruments, informal assessments often do not contain reliability and validity measures and, therefore, do not allow for score comparisons across student populations. Informal assessments include:

  • Oservation reports provided by various sources (such as, parents, teachers, employers);
  • Structured interviews with students, parents, teachers, and others;
  • Surveys or questionnaires (Clark, 2007); and
  • Problem-solving tasks (Williamson & Dorman, 2002).

Observations are one of the most commonly used methods to acquire assessment data. Structured observations must be purposeful, systematic, and documented (Clark, 2007).  Because students' levels of social competence may vary significantly among environments, it is important to assess social behaviors across environments (Williamson & Dorman, 2002).  "Observing a person in one or more environments over time to look at behavior and behavior patterns can be helpful in determining what that individual consistently does in various situations" (Clark, 2007, p. 43). 

Structured interviews are conducted in a purposeful manner using an interview protocol (Clark, 2007). Information related to social competence may be obtained and "clarified through a shared exchange" between interviewer and interviewee (Williamson & Dorman, 2002, p. 71). Interviews may be completed with parents, students, and school personnel.

Surveys or questionnaires contain structured, purposeful questions similar to those asked in an interview, but they are provided in written format.  One benefit of using surveys and questionnaires is that respondents have time to reflect and provide thoughtful responses to survey questions (Clark, 2007). 

Problem-solving tasks provide information about students' abilities to solve social problems.  This assessment method involves presenting students with social dilemmas in one of several formats (e.g., oral, written, pictorial) and asking students to identify solutions to the problems. Further questioning about how they arrived at particular solutions can provide information on the thinking processes students used to approach the scenarios (Williamson & Dorman, 2002).

Several informal assessments that are available as free, on-line resources are listed in the chart below.

Informal Assessments of Social Competence


Source Website Grade Level

 The Social Attributes Checklist


 Casey Life Skills Assessments


Social and Vocational Abilities Listing


Functional Skills Assessment


QuickBook of Transition Assessments
 (p. 49, 50)



Social competence assessment data, summarized in statements of students' present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, enable IEP teams to design specialized instruction, related services, supplementary aids and services, and transition services that increase students' social awareness, self-confidence, and social skills.

The November/ December issue of Link Lines will include an article that suggests specific strategies for teaching social skills. An article in the January/February issue will present prompting and reinforcement strategies to promote student use of social skills.


Clark, G. M. (2007). Assessment for transition planning (2nd ed.).  Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (1990).  Social Skills Rating System. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

Stoiber, K. C. (2003).  Functional Assessment and Intervention System: Improving social behavior. San Antonio, TX: Pearson.

Virginia Department of Education. (2009). Sample individualized education program. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from

Walker, H. M., & McConnell, S. R. (1995). Walker-McConnell Scale of Social Competence and School Adjustment.  San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group.

Welsh, J. A., & Bierman, K. L. (2001). Social competence.  Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from

Williamson, G. G., & Dorman, W. J. (2002).  Promoting social competence.  San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.