Extending Social Skills Training for Children Through Interactive Technology

Period of Performance: 09/07/2007 - 09/06/2008


Phase 1 SBIR

Recipient Firm

3-C Institute for Social Development
DURHAM, NC 27713
Principal Investigator


DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Decades of research indicate 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, has 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 one-year SBIR Phase I project is to extend an existing evidence-based small group SST program for children (SSGRIN; Social Skills Group Intervention) into the home environment through a computer-based interactive social training system (ISTS). The proposed ISTS will offer tailored interactive social problem-solving exercises that parallel SSGRIN's in-person intervention. A unique multi- disciplinary collaboration between computer science and psychology will guide development. For the Phase I prototype, the software user-interface, including graphic design, as well as modes of user interaction, story plot and sequence, and hierarchy of causal relations will be developed. Development will build on 3-C's existing work on pedagogical agents in social stories and animation for SST. Via the ISTS, children will actively solve plot-based social problems by interacting with pedagogical agents, purposefully using SSGRIN skills and concepts to navigate the story events. The interactivity of the proposed ISTS will be a significant technological advancement over current SST software enabling story events to be scaffolded based on child's actions and goals. In addition, the proposed ISTS will have a reporting feature built into the software to provide intervention providers with feedback regarding children's interactions with the ISTS to inform their in-person SST efforts. Once the software prototype is created, an initial test of feasibility will be conducted within two target market segments (school- and community-based child mental health professionals; n=30 each) and with targeted end users (children ages 8-12 years and parents; n=30 each) to determine the usability, feasibility, and value of the proposed product. Phase I findings will provide the foundation for the development and testing of the complete SSGRIN-ISTS product during Phase II. Once the ISTS is finalized, a scientific evaluation will be conducted in Phase II 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 with SSGRIN alone. The long-term objective of this product is to decrease the development of psychiatric disorders due to socio-emotional deficits. This project addresses the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2003) calls for early treatment of children who experience mental health to offset potential co-occurring disorders, school failure, and other problems. Problematic peer relations, particularly when chronic, can have a tremendous impact on children's mental health as well as their academic, behavioral, and emotional functioning. Without intervention, social and behavioral problems tend to persist and escalate over time which, in turn, has a tremendous impact on the development of psychopathology. Development of psychiatric disorders due to socio-emotional deficits is a public health concern with annual US economic, indirect cost of mental illnesses estimated at $79 billion. Cost-effectiveness analyses of social skills training programs with even modest effect sizes estimated a monetary savings of more than $95,000 per participant and more than $8 return on every dollar invested. The President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2003) specifically calls for the identification and early treatment of children who experience mental health needs in order to prevent the potential onset of co-occurring disorders and break a cycle that otherwise can lead to school failure and other problems.