Dissertation: Adolescent Social Skills Intervention: Theory, Design, and Implementation

Adolescent Social Skills Intervention: Theory, Design, and Implementation

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in School and Clinical Child Psychology, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Alberta

by Rianne Elvira Spaans,


This dissertation consists of three separate papers that contribute to the field of social
skills intervention design and implementation with a specific focus on how to support
adolescents with identified social skills difficulties. The first paper is a review paper of important
topics related to this dissertation, namely social skills development, and current common
intervention designs and strategies. The importance of underlying cognitive and socio-emotional
abilities for social functioning are outlined, thereby emphasizing the importance of training these
abilities in interventions focussed on improving social skills. In this first paper, I describe gaps
noted in currently available social skills interventions and highlight specific concerns for the
adolescent population due to limited availability of developmentally appropriate and engaging
interventions for youth. I call for a new way of intervening for adolescents with social skills
difficulties with an emphasis on training underlying abilities while employing innovative
intervention delivery methods to increase engagement. As a result, I make a case for the use of
video games as an intervention platform that can help offset some of the noted gaps.

In the second paper, I describe a two-fold process including the design and implementation phases of a newly developed social skills intervention for adolescents with identified social skills difficulties as well as a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) diagnosis. First, in the design phase, I discuss the steps taken to create a video game-based intervention focussed on training underlying cognitive and socio-emotional abilities for social skills improvement. Furthermore, details about the development team, the chosen training constructs, the training progression, and the gamification process are provided. Second, in the implementation phase, I present and discuss data collected from an initial implementation of the video game based social skills intervention with three adolescent participants with an FASD iii diagnosis. Several positive trends are found, including caregiver report of positive impacts on the youth’s social skills and problem behaviors. Some inconsistent yet positive changes are also found for the cognitive scores, thereby providing some initial support for the concept of training cognitive abilities within a video game setting. This initial implementation is an important first step as it assesses feasibility and helps guide future refinements for the designed intervention.

In the third paper, I extend the exploration of the use of the designed and refined theory driven video game based social skills intervention for a broad group of adolescents. A sample of 10 adolescents, with third party identified social skills difficulties, participated in the intervention. I conducted pre-and post-testing of social skills outcomes and collected change data on the participants cognitive and socio-emotional abilities. The results show some continued positive trends towards positive change in social skills and problem behaviors associated with social functioning. Furthermore, I collected data on the intervention engagement of the participants, and I present preliminary evidence of high adolescent engagement and low attrition within the video game intervention. Although exploratory in nature, I discuss the importance of these findings and the associated links to clinical practice and future research.

Overall, this dissertation is based on the premise that a video game grounded in theory
can answer the call for a new way of supporting adolescents with social skills difficulties. Thus,
all three papers are threaded together by a common focus on exploring this new intervention
from theory to design, and implementation with an ultimate goal of improving the delivery and
availability of social skills interventions for adolescents.

Click here to read the full dissertation by Rianne Elvira Spaans

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