Teaching Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Self-Management Skills to All Students: The Cognitive-Behavioral Science Underlying the Success of "The Stop & Think Social Skills Program"

Don’t We Really Just Want Students to “Stop & Think”? [Part II of III]

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction: Mindfulness (and Part I of this Series) Revisited

In Part I of this three-part series, we discussed the past and current research, efficacy, and realities of Mindfulness programs in schools across the country, and the $1.1 billion industry-fed “bandwagon” that many districts have “jumped on” over the past few years.


Initially, Part I described two recent Scientific American articles that were published just last month:

  1. “Where’s the Proof that Mindfulness Meditation Works?”


2. “Mindfulness Training for Teens Fails Important Test”


The first article reviewed some of the past research with Mindfulness programs, and cited 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists who cautioned that “despite its popularity and supposed benefits, scientific data on mindfulness is woefully lacking. Many of the studies on mindfulness and meditation are poorly designed- - compromised by inconsistent definitions of what mindfulness actually is, and often void of a control group to rule out the placebo effect.”

The second article noted that—with most of the Mindfulness research focused on adults with clinically-significant mental health problems—once again, “the adult literature on mindfulness identifies a number of weaknesses in the extant research, including a lack of randomized control groups, small sample sizes, large attrition rates, and inconsistent definitions of mindfulness.”

This article went on to describe a large-scale study with 308 middle and high school students who were randomly assigned to a Mindfulness training or Control group (published in Behavior Research and Therapy in 2016) where:

“. . . there was no evidence of any benefit for the mindfulness group at either the immediate post-test or the follow up. In fact, anxiety was higher at the follow up for males in the mindfulness group relative to males in the control group. The same was true for participants with low baseline depression and low baseline weight concerns; mindfulness training led to an increase in anxiety in these individuals over time.”

Toward the end of Part I, the research supporting the use of social skills training and cognitive-behavioral approaches in schools was discussed. This section concluded:

Indeed, if the primary goal of a Mindfulness program is to help students to be more aware and in control of their emotions, thoughts, and behavior, why would we not focus on the same goals—but use a research-based approach that has a 30-year track record of success?

Overall, the research cited in Part I made the following points:

  • Most of the Mindfulness program research has either not been methodologically sound, or it has not produced objective and demonstrable success.
  • The few studies that have shown “good evidence” have focused on adults with clinically significant mental health issues (anxiety, depression, and pain), not on school-aged students.
  • Rather than use the few studies that have shown “good evidence” to rationalize the use of Mindfulness in schools (or worse, someone’s subjective, personal pronouncements), educators need to look at the substantial body of research that dissuades the use of Mindfulness programs in schools.
  • Sound research has not definitively demonstrated that Mindfulness programs are successful at the preventative (e.g., Tier 1) level in schools. In fact, the Behavior Research and Therapy study cited in Part I indicates the opposite.
  • There are a significant number of large school districts and other schools (covered by the popular press) that are wasting precious professional development and classroom time and money on this fad.
  • Students who need evidence-based approaches to address their social, emotional, and behavioral needs—but are receiving Mindfulness training instead—are potentially being harmed because more effective services are being delayed.
  • Students would be far better served if their districts and schools were providing multi-tiered social skills training and cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches—given their long histories of demonstrated efficacy in hundreds of studies with school-aged students.

Introducing Part II of this Series: Defining Student Self-Management

In this second part of this three-part series, we will use the evidence-based Stop & Think Social Skills Program as an exemplar of a social skills approach to teaching students social, emotional, and behavioral self-management.

In doing this, we will detail half (Principles 1 through 4) of the scientific foundations of a sound social skills program—using the Stop & Think Program to provide examples of how that science is translated into practice. These Principles are important—especially when used to identify the science-to-practice gaps that might be undermining the success of other social skills programs.

In Part III, we will discuss the other half of these Principles, and describe the typical outcomes of the Stop & Think Social Skills Program in thousands of schools across the country.

But before beginning, it is crucial to first define self-management:

Significantly, students’ social, emotional, and behavioral competence and self-management skills mature and become more sophisticated as students get older—largely due to genetic, biological, cognitive-developmental, environmental, and experiential factors.

Nonetheless, the synthesis of competence and self-management are collectively defined as a child or adolescent’s ability:

  • To be socially, emotionally, and behaviorally aware of themselves and others;
  • To effectively control their emotions, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and attributions; and
  • To demonstrate successful interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills.

On a social level, children and adolescents need to progressively learn the self-management skills that contribute to effective: (a) listening, engagement, and responding; (b) communication and collaboration; (c) social problem-solving and group interactions; and (d) (once again) conflict prevention and resolution.

On an emotional level, they need to learn the self-management skills that result in: (a) the awareness of their own and others’ feelings; (b) the ability to manage or control their feelings and emotions; (c) the ability to cope with the emotional effects of current situations; and (d) the ability to demonstrate appropriate behavior even under conditions of emotionality.

Finally and additionally, on a behavioral level, children and adolescents need to learn the self-management skills that help them to be actively engaged in and responsible for their own learning (individually, and in small and large groups), and to demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom and across the common areas of the school.

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program

As noted throughout this series, when students are explicitly taught, and they learn, master, and apply needed interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills, they actually accomplish the intended goals and outcomes expected by those who are attracted to the unproven Mindfulness approaches.

This instruction, however, needs to be done in developmentally sensitive ways for all students from preschool through high school.

While there are a small number of well-researched and effective social, emotional, and behavioral skills programs and curricula, there are literally hundreds that are hawked and marketed—and that have not independently and objectively demonstrated their sustained efficacy across time, settings, student age and developmental conditions, and implementation situations.

And so, in order to evaluate the programs that are “on the market,” educators need to begin with programs that have been identified as evidence-based, and that are listed on one or more of the federally-designated behavioral or mental health registries.

Critically. . . by definition:

Evidenced-based programs have had their implementation data and results independently evaluated by national experts in the field who have objectively determined that the program is responsible for the student outcomes that the programs respectively proclaim.

One such registry is the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Describing the Stop & Think Program

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program consists of a series of separate, but linked, manuals written at the preschool to Grade 1, Grades 2 to 3, Grades 4 to 5, and Grades 6 to 8 levels. The manuals are organized for the grade levels above to ensure that the program is taught in age-appropriate and developmentally-sensitive ways. The manuals are also written for classroom teachers, as students learn these skills best when they are embedded in a classroom’s behavior management system, and when they are taught, used, and reinforced—over time, situations, and circumstances—by students’ classroom teachers.

While most-often used as a primary prevention (Tier I) curriculum, the Program has been implemented strategically in pull-out (Tier II) counseling and therapy groups, in day treatment and residential (Tier III) programs for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and in alternative and juvenile justice facilities with students who are 18 years old and beyond. There also is a preschool through early adolescence Stop & Think Program for parents—to help guide them on how to teach and reinforce prosocial skills at home.

The Stop & Think Program’s Evidence-based Status

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program was designated an evidence-based and national model prevention program by SAMHSA in 2000, and it was listed at that time on the NREPP registry. It was also identified as a “Promising Program” by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 2003. Finally, among other accolades, it was designated a “Select” program by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in 2002. The Stop & Think Program is now an embedded component of Project ACHIEVE, which continues to be listed on the updated NREPP website by SAMHSA.

The Stop & Think Program’s Research Foundations

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program is based on:

  • The ecological work of Bronfenbrenner (1977)
  • The strategic planning approaches of Cook (1990), Valentine (1991), and Knoff (2007)
  • he cognitive and social learning theory research of Meichenbaum (1977) and Bandura (1977)
  • The social skills research of Goldstein (1988) and Cartledge and Milburn (1995)

Consistent with Bronfenbrenner and Valentine, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program is implemented in a systemic way—as part of a comprehensive school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management approach. In this context, the Program is the anchor of Project ACHIEVE’s Positive Behavioral Support System, which has been implemented in thousands of schools nationwide since 1989.

How Social Skills Training Facilitates Student Self-Management: Science-to-Practice

From a science-to-practice perspective, there are eight interdependent Principles that establish the foundation of social skills instruction, mastery, and implementation. These Principles represent the most effective and efficient path to students’ learning and independent use of the different social skills taught—whether the instruction is based on a formal, published curriculum, or a “home-grown,” locally-customized curriculum.

While social skills instruction may “look” different from skill to skill, teacher to teacher, and setting to setting, this is not problematic so long as the eight underlying Principles are embedded and present (even if not immediately apparent).

Said a different way: Social skills instruction should be relevant, fun, and practical. It should be tailored to students’ backgrounds, social settings, and needs. Teachers are encouraged to use instructional creative, originality, and flexibility to meet these criteria. In these contexts, the process will succeed—so long as the underlying Principles are not ignored or violated.

Principle 1.

Social skills programs teach sensible and pragmatic classroom-centered skills that are needed by today's students and that can be applied, on a daily basis, by preschool through high school students. These skills are essential to academic engagement, learning, and academic achievement. They help students to be successful in a preventative sense, as well as to successfully avoid or respond to challenging situations.


Social skills are behaviors that students learn—just like they learn academic skills. While we often focus on what we don't want students to do ("don't fight," "don't talk back," "don't interrupt," "don't tease or taunt other students"), social skills focus on the desired, prosocial behaviors that we want students to do. Significantly, when students perform desired behaviors, they rarely do inappropriate behaviors at the same time.

As introduced above, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program is organized in four age- and developmentally-sensitive levels: Preschool through Grade 1, Grades 2 and 3, Grades 4 and 5, and Middle School/Grades 6 to 8 (which is often adapted upwards to the high school level). As part of a school-wide Positive Behavioral Support System (PBSS) approach, Stop & Think social skills are designed to be taught to all students, in all general education classrooms, by all general education teachers. For students with greater need and more challenging behaviors, the social skills are also taught in more targeted social skills training groups by special education, related services, and/or mental health support professionals.

The Stop & Think Social Skills Program teaches specific, observable and measurable behaviors. At each school-aged level, the Stop & Think process focuses on ten Core and ten Advanced skills.

Examples of the Core and Advanced Stop & Think social skills (some of these skills are taught at the different grade levels) include:

Sample Core Skills:

  • Listening
  • Waiting for an Adult’s Attention
  • Following Directions
  • Contributing to Discussions
  • Answering Classroom Questions
  • How to Interrupt
  • Asking for Help
  • Ignoring Distractions
  • Responding to Teasing
  • Apologizing
  • Accepting Consequences
  • Dealing with Losing

Sample Advanced Skills:

  • Deciding What to Do
  • Asking for Permission
  • Joining an Activity
  • Giving/Accepting a Compliment
  • Understanding Your/Others’ Feelings
  • Dealing with Anger
  • Dealing with Being Rejected or Left Out
  • Dealing with Accusations
  • Avoiding Trouble or Conflict Situations
  • Dealing with Peer Pressure
Principle 2.

Social skills programs also teach sensible and pragmatic routines that help students to successfully navigate within the classroom, as well as across the common areas of their school. These skills increase their self-sufficiency and academic independence within the classroom, along with their interpersonal success and safety outside of the classroom. Once again, this instruction assists them in a preventative sense, while also helping them to successfully avoid or respond to challenging situations.

Sample Classroom and Building Routine Clusters

Classroom Routines—Instructional

  • Working in a Cooperative Group
  • Completing Seatwork or Independent Work Assignments
  • What to Do When You Finish a Classroom Paper or Assignment
  • Taking Timed Tests

Classroom Routines—Procedural

  • Entering a Classroom
  • Hanging Coats and Backpacks
  • Bringing and Organizing Materials for Class
  • Classroom Routines—Situational
  • When Your Teacher Gives You Feedback (or a Consequence)
  • When the Teacher is Absent, and You have a Substitute
  • When Visitors Come into Your Classroom

Building Routines—Procedural

  • Walking in Line in the Building/Hallway Walking
  • Entering, Getting Food, Eating, and Exiting the Cafeteria
  • Keeping the School Clean
  • Entering, Waiting, Using, and Exiting the Bathroom
  • Entering/Exiting the Auditorium/Audience Behavior
  • Entering, Playing, Using Equipment, and Exiting the Playground
  • Entering, Riding, and Exiting the School Bus
  • Special Situation Routines
  • Reporting a Safety Issue, Accident, or a Dangerous Situation
  • Walking Away from a Fight/Conflict
  • The Fire Drill
  • School Lock-down
  • Weather-/Crisis-related Procedures
Principle 3.

Social skills programs teach their skills in an organized and progressive, yet flexible, “scope and sequence” of social skills that recognizes that some prerequisite skills must be mastered before other, more complex skills are taught. Instruction utilizes effective, established, and research-based pedagogical practices that include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral instruction, practice, conditioning, and mastery;
  • External prompts and (eventually) self-prompts that facilitate the transfer of training and application of specific skills to different times, settings, situations, and circumstances;
  • The strategic use of external feedback with positive reinforcement and correction (when needed), and the attainment of self-monitoring, self-reinforcement, and self-correction (when needed); all resulting in
  • Social and emotional self-management, and behavioral “automaticity.”

All four levels of the Stop & Think Social Skills Program have a field-tested, validated, and preferred sequence for the ten Core Skills and ten Advanced Skills that are included. The sequence was generated by classroom teachers nationwide—some of whom had used the Stop & Think Program for almost a decade (from 1990 to 2000—before the curriculum was formally published.

While the scope and sequences are preferred, they are not absolute. Indeed, teachers can re-sequence skills to respond to specific behavioral goals, challenging classroom problems, or desired curricular units or themes as long as they (a) do this as a grade-level team, and (b) are mindful that some social skills have prerequisite social skills that must be taught first. In addition, teachers are encouraged to “make up” their own social skills if a needed skill is not reflected in the curriculum.

Beyond this, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program teaches all of its skills using the established, research-based cognitive-behavioral social learning theory approach that consists of:

  • Teaching the Social Skills Scripts simultaneously with the Associated Behavior;
  • Teacher or Adult Skill Script and Behavioral Modeling;
  • Student Roleplay/Practice with Positive Reinforcement or Corrective Performance Feedback; and
  • The Transfer of the Social Skills Training.

Relative to the Transfer of Training, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program then uses a “Teach-Apply-Infuse” pedagogy of instruction that involves teaching students each social skill in a (prototypical) “Two-Week Rotation.”

The Program then addressed the goals of behavioral self-management, automaticity, and independence (a) by organizing the weekly, year-long Social Skills Calendar to include opportunities for “massed” and “distributed practice;” and (b) by revisiting many skills from year-to-year.

Relative to this latter point, many skills are taught every year from preschool to high school. As this is done, students not only “solidify” their performance of these specific skills, but they also learn how to execute these skills at the more sophisticated, socially-demanding, and interpersonally complex levels needed as they grow and mature.

NOTE: A number of the instructional points above will be described in greater detail in the remaining Principles below.

Principle 4.

Social skills programs use a universal language that is easy for students to learn, guides cognitive scripting and mediation, and facilitates the conditioning, reconditioning, or motivation of students’ prosocial behaviors and choices.


Social skills in the Stop & Think Social Skills Program are taught (as noted in Principle 3 above) by teaching social skills scripts that are simultaneously connected to the associated or related behaviors. This occurs through the use of (a) a Universal Language that facilitates the emotional, cognitive, and motivational facets of a specific behavior; and (b) the Skill Script that guides the step-by-step execution of the behavior.

Relative to the first area, the Stop & Think Social Skills Program uses a universal five-step language whenever a social skill is taught, reinforced, or implemented. This language becomes internalized by students, and—just like an academic script or algorithm (e.g., for regrouping or doing long division in math)—it implicitly organizes and activates a student’s prosocial behavior.

The five Stop & Think Universal steps are:

  • Stop and Think!
  • Are you going to make a Good Choice or Bad Choice?

[You Need to Make a Good Choice.]

  • What are your Choices or Steps?
  • Do It!
  • Tell Yourself that You Did a “Good Job!”

The Stop and Think! step is a self-control, impulse-control, and self-management step designed to classically condition students (a la Pavlov) to take the time needed to calm down, focus, and think about how they want to handle a specific situation.

The Good Choice or Bad Choice? step is an operant conditioning step (a la Skinner) that motivates students toward choosing the prosocial skill that they are being taught.

Here, teachers may prompt students (so that they eventually self-prompt) to think about the positive results or incentives for making a “Good Choice,” and the potential negative outcomes or Consequences if they make a “Bad Choice.”

Students do not “leave” this step without a teacher (or self-) prompt to “Make a Good Choice.” This statement establishes a prosocial expectation or cognitive attribution that increases the probability that students—in the next step of the language—will think about “Good Choices” and “Good Steps.”

The What are your Choices or Steps? step uses cognitive-behavioral psychology and mediational learning strategies to help organize, prepare, and guide students through the step-by-step cognitive and behavioral execution of the specific social skill. This is where teachers teach the specific “Skills Scripts” for each Stop & Think skill so that students learn and eventually demonstrate (in the next step of the process) their prosocial, “Good Choice” skills.

There are two types of Skill Scripts—those that teach social skills in a step-by-step sequential fashion (“Step” skills), and those where students additionally need to consider and select one of a number of possible good choices (“Choice” skills).

For example, the Following Directions skill script below is an example of Step skill because there is only one correct sequence that will result in the successful execution of the behavior:

  1. Listen to the Direction.
  2. Ask yourself if you Understand the Direction (if not, Ask a question).
  3. Repeat the steps of the Direction silently to yourself.
  4. Get ready to Follow the Direction.

The Dealing with Teasing skill script below demonstrates the elements of a Choice skill where students learn to socially evaluate the specific situation they are in so that they can strategically choose the best choice:

  1. Take deep breaths and count to five.
  2. Think about your good choices. You can:

a. Ignore the teasing.

b. Ask the person to stop in a nice way.

c. Walk away with an Explanation of why.

d. Find an adult for help.

3. Choose and Act Out your best choice.

Critically, this third step is strategically positioned before the fourth step below, because many students already “act before they think.” By teaching students to consciously use this third step first, we are neurobehaviorally conditioning them to “think before they act.”

Once students are taught to think about the prosocial social skill steps or choices needed for a particular situation, they are then prepared to behaviorally demonstrate them.

Thus, in the Do It! step, students behaviorally carry out their plan, implement the social skill steps or choices, and evaluate whether or not it has worked.

With younger elementary school-aged students, teachers often need to repeat or prompt the skill steps as their students follow them, and they may even need to physically guide students through some skills. Typically, older students will repeat the Stop & Think steps silently to themselves, and perform the prosocial behaviors that they have mastered more independently and automatically.

At the same time, some older students will still need adult or peer assistance and prompting for complex social skills or situations—especially when they involve some level of emotionality.

If the Do It! step works, students then are ready to go on to the last step.

If a Step Skill doesn’t work, students simply go back over the scripts in Step 3 and practice them more carefully.

If a choice selected within a Choice Skill doesn’t work, students are prompted to consider another “good choice option” within that skill, or identify another possible social skill to move on to.

For example, if Ignoring does not stop a peer’s teasing, then a student might decide to directly ask the peer to stop the teasing, telling how the teasing is making him or her feel. Once successful, it’s on to the last step.

The Good Job! step uses the cognitive-behavioral skill of self-reinforcement. Here, students learn how to reinforce themselves for successfully using a prosocial skill when responding to a specific situation or request.

This step is important because it is unrealistic to think that adults (or even peers) will always reinforce a student for making a good choice or doing a good job. Thus, students need to learn how to self-reinforce. But this also involves self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reflection—important processes that are embedded in self-management.

Self-reinforcement is also important so that students will reinforce their prosocial interactions and choices—counteracting the negative (or worse) feedback from peers who do not value their “good choices” and appropriate behavior.


This three-part Blog series began by presenting the research that calls many of the Mindfulness approaches into question—later contrasting that research with the many studies that support social, emotional, and behavioral skill instruction for all students in all classrooms.

The critical conclusion was:

If the primary goal of a Mindfulness program is to help students to be more aware and in control of their emotions, thoughts, and behavior, why would we not focus on the same goals—but use a research-based approach that has a 30-year track record of success?

In this second part of the series, we have presented the first four Principles that reflect the research-to-practice elements of sound and effective social skills instruction. When discussing each of these Principles, we have used examples from the evidence-based Stop & Think Social Skills Program to demonstrate some prototypical ways of successfully teaching students social, emotional, and behavioral self-management.

In Part III, we will discuss the last half of these Principles, and describe the typical outcomes of the Stop & Think Social Skills Program as seen in thousands of schools across the country.

Meanwhile, I hope that the first two Blog in this series have helped you to evaluate your current (or missing) approaches in this important area, and to see more clearly the components and decisions that are most-relevant to your school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management approaches.

But I also hope that you will take some time—this week especially—for yourself and your family.

The Thanksgiving holiday gives us a truly wonderful opportunity to reflect on the blessings in our lives, and to share our gratitude with family and friends.

I am thankful for professionals like you—dedicated to your students, your colleagues, and to the important work that you do to make every day successful, so that everyone’s tomorrow will be better in turn.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends !!!