Social Skill Autopsy

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the book It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend by Richard Lavoie. I absolutely love this book, and I wanted to focus in particular on one of his interventions that can help kids learn from their social errors in the moment - The Social Skill Autopsy. Addressing a social misstep and using it as a teachable moment is a great way to help kids identify what went wrong and what they could try again the next time.  


A social skill autopsy is a supportive way to solve problems and can be done by any adult in a child’s life. The child is actively involved and it’s most effective when done immediately after the social error.


It is not a punishment or a time to judge or blame. It’s also not a one time fix so they never have to work on that skill again. If a child is struggling with social skills, it takes practice and they’ll need support and scaffolding to continue to build on and improve these skills.


  1. Ask the child to explain what happened - Have them explain in their words what happened, and don’t judge. Let them finish without interruption.

  2. Ask the child to identify the mistake they made - What the child might identify as the mistake may actually not be the mistake. They may not even be able to identify what error occurred. You, as the adult guiding the social autopsy, need to help them figure out the mistake they made, which is step 3.

  3. Assist the child in determining the actual social error he made - You help the child identify what the social error was and what could have been done differently. Try not to use the word should. Using could instead of should will help kids realize that there are multiple options in social situations.

  4. Create a brief social story that has the same basic moral or goal as the social faux pas.

  5. Social Homework - this is important to ensure the child starts to internalize and apply these skills. Give the child the task to use the skill in another setting and report back to you when they did it and how it went.

Here is an excerpt from the book which shows a social skill autopsy in action:

In seminars, I often cite a classic Social Skill Autopsy that I conducted in a dormitory. I was walking the halls of the residence when I heard loud arguing in Tom and Chip's dorm room. I entered the room and inquired about the nature of the argument.

"It's Tom!" Chip bellowed. "Yesterday I bought a brand-new tube of toothpaste. Tonight, Tom borrowed it and lost it!"

I turned to Tom and said, "Let's autopsy this!" I began by asking Tom to tell me what had happened. He explained that he was unable to find his own toothpaste. He borrowed his roommate's tube, although he was unable to locate Chip in order to get his permission. He went down the hall to brush his teeth in the bathroom. As he was brushing, Jim (a mutual friend of Chip's and Tom's) entered the bathroom and asked Tom if he could borrow the toothpaste. Jim passed it on to yet another student and its current whereabouts was now unknown.

The following dialogue took place:

LAVOIE: "Okay, Tom, I understand what happened. What do you think your mistake was?"

TOM: "I know, Mr. Lavoie. I won't make that mistake again. I promise. I never should have borrowed Chip's toothpaste."

LAVOIE: "No, Tom, that wasn't your mistake. It's okay for you and Chip to borrow things from each other occasionally. You are roommates and friends. You borrow his stuff and he borrows yours. That's not a problem."

TOM: "Oh, okay. I've got it now. I know my mistake. I shouldn't have lent Jim the toothpaste. I should have told him, ‘No.' "

LAVOIE: "Nope, that's not your mistake, either. Chip and Jim are good friends, too. Chip surely would not have minded you lending an inch of toothpaste to his friend Jim. Try again!"

TOM: "I've got it! I shouldn't have let go of the tube. I should have squeezed the toothpaste onto Jim's brush and then returned the tube to Chip!"

LAVOIE: "Bingo, Tom, you've got it! Our social lesson for the day is not ‘Do not borrow,' it's not ‘Do not lend.' Rather, our lesson is ‘When you borrow something from someone, it is your responsibility to be sure that it is returned. You cannot give that responsibility to anyone else.' Got it?"

TOM: "Yup, I've got it!"

LAVOIE: "Okay, let's make sure. Suppose you stuck your head into my office and said, ‘Mr. Lavoie, all the kids are playing catch and I don't have a baseball glove. Can I borrow the baseball glove that you keep in your closet?' I say ‘yes' and toss you the glove. While you are playing catch, your dorm counselor comes over and tells you to return to the dorm to finish some chores. As you head off the field, one of the kids asks to borrow the glove because you won't be using it. What are you going to say?"

TOM: "I'd say, ‘Sorry, but it's not my glove, so I can't lend it to you. It belongs to Mr. Lavoie. Why don't you come with me while I return it to his office? Then maybe you can ask him to borrow it.' "

LAVOIE: "Great! Now, Tom, I want to give you a little social homework. Today you learned that it is important to return what you borrow and that you can't give that responsibility to anyone else. Sometime this week, I want you to use that skill. I will check in with you on Friday and you can tell me how and when you did it!"

It doesn’t have to be a long process, but using that teachable moment to discuss the issue, figure out where things went wrong, and come up with alternatives will help those kids who struggle in social situations.

Have you ever done a social skill autopsy?


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