Is virtual reality (VR) a better way to teach social skills?

Improving social skills is a difficult task for educators and clinicians. It’s difficult to transfer the trained skills to the real world. Traditional methods of teaching social skills involve modeling, directed training, role playing, and social skills groups. While there are many opportunities to practice social skills in a real-world environment in the school setting, teachers aren’t always able to provide the one-on-one attention that targets the skills children need to learn. A child who struggles to initiate conversations with others, for example, has many chances to do so in the classroom, but it isn’t always possible for a teacher to recognize or take the time to capitalize on these opportunities.


Conversely, in the clinical setting therapists have the training and luxury of time to identify weaknesses in a child’s social skills and personalize the training. Therapists can work one-on-one with a child, focusing on the social skills that need improvement in a controlled setting. However, practice and application of the skills may be limited to role plays, guided conversation, social stories, and practicing scripts with a therapist. These strategies often feel staged, and the child may not get the necessary exposure to the anxiety and uncertainty that are encountered in real-world situations.

There are a wealth of apps and games that practice specific social skills. Many apps are helpful for developing facial-recognition and socialization skills. Apps such as Choiceworks practice self-regulation skills, while Go Noodle practices flexibility. But playing with apps in isolation rarely produces major improvement in real-world social skills.

The most important component of a perfect, or at least best, approach for teaching social skills to children might include real-world opportunities for practice and feedback. It would also be important to provide a variety of settings, environments, and other people for rehearsing the social skills. Maximizing the generalization and transfer of skills and individualized training, immediate feedback, and opportunities to practice limited skills would be essential.

VR provides a new way to improve the generalization and transfer of social skills from one setting to another. It can be individualized to a child’s needs and modified so that social skills  can be practiced across many settings, presenting children with far more realistic opportunities for practicing these skills than in the clinicians office. VR can also be designed to provide immediate and specific feedback to help in modifying skills. Immersive VR  can create the sensation that individuals are present in the place they see themselves, referred to as the Place Illusion. Place Illusion allows VR to be more realistic and leads to the capacity to try new situations and therapeutic strategies.

The scope and breadth of tools for teaching social skills via VR is also far wider. VR can provide many variations in presentation, so it offers more opportunities to learn to read facial expressions, determine strategies for recognizing daily challenges that involve social relationships, and practice social-reasoning skills. Because virtual reality is typically experienced as a safer opportunity than practicing with students in the classroom or even in a social skills group, it can be an excellent precursor for teaching these skills. It is so much more realistic than traditional role play therapy and also allows for changing identities of people and a variety of scenarios for practicing skills.

There are many reasons that traditional methods of social skills training are still valuable. After all, nothing is better than the real thing, and practicing social skills in a natural environment with accurate feedback and ongoing opportunities for teaching is optimal. But these opportunities may be limited to the rare social skills groups conducted by school psychologists or those available in a residential hospital setting. Therapists can provide insight and instruction on an individual basis that can also be valuable, but it may also be costly and not available to many children. While still in the developmental phase, VR used as a tool for improving social skills offers great promise, and recent innovations offer a chance to improve the helpfulness and generalization of social skills training.

Here is an example of an innovative VR training program that is designed to enhance social skills:

Charisma: Youth Social Cognition Training From the University of Texas. Charisma: A game-based learning environment formerly known as Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training. New social situations can be intimidating. Students use avatars to practice scenarios in a virtual world and gain expert advice that can be applied in the real world.

Hopefully, we will begin to see many more VR programs designed to improve social skills. They offer an opportunity for more effective transfer and generalization of social skills from practice to the real world.


Featured image: Flickr user aaron_anderer

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