The Importance of Social Skills
By Amy Coleman
For children with learning challenges, navigating social situations and forming friendships can be a struggle. With patience, persistence and support, however, children can make great strides.
As adults, many of us take social skills for granted. Communication among our business associates and personal circle of friends is so much a part of our daily lives that these social encounters most often run seamlessly and without much thought.
For many children with learning challenges, however, good social skills can be far from automatic. Richard Lavoie, a former special education teacher and administrator, writes that most every learning challenge has a social component attached, and failing to master social competence can have catastrophic effects.
“Social skills are the ultimate determining factor in the child’s future success, happiness and acceptance,” Lavoie writes in his book, It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend. “The research here is overwhelming. The adult success of the person with learning disabilities is largely dependent upon his social-emotional relationship skills—not his academic skills.”
Although parents can’t predict all the social situations their children will encounter, there is still much they can do to help. The best approach for parents might involve getting educated about the complexities of social interaction, categorizing a child’s social strengths and weaknesses and carefully reviewing the various programs and methods used to treat social skills deficits.
Sizing Up Social Skills
Does your child need help with social skills? If you’re unsure, become a careful observer. Watch your child at play to identify if there are specific deficits that need intervention. If your child has weaknesses in some of the following areas, he could be a good candidate for social skills intervention. Assess your child’s ability to:
- join a group
- initiate conversation
- use proper voice pitch (neither too loud nor too quiet)
- resolve conflicts without hitting or retreating
- control his tempe
- speak positively of self
- use good proximity (does not stand too close or too far from others)
- maintain eye contact
- follow the rules of games
- wait for his turn
- initiate play with others
- use appropriate facial expressions
- express empathy
- follow a conversation
- maintain interest
- maintain topic of conversation
- make friends
- maintain friendships
In addition to taking this inventory, it is also important to understand and recognize some of the underlying reasons why children with learning challenges struggle socially. “The child simultaneously may be confronting problems in the areas of attention, memory, organization, language and impulse control,” Lavoie writes. These problems can often impede social success.
Children who struggle with language processing and/or pragmatic language (See related story) also might need intervention from a speech and language therapist. Language processing and pragmatics include numerous issues such as the ability to maintain a topic of conversation and the ability to recall words without hesitation or long pauses. Brook Todd of Children’s Therapy Group, Inc. says it’s important for parents to understand the link between language problems and social skills. She describes language problems as “understanding (what is said) and knowing what to talk about.”
“Closing Circles:” The Greenspan Approach
Social skills intervention takes many forms, but most of the programs begin by developing skills on the individual level and then progressing to two-way and small-group communication. Finally, the skills practiced extend to family life and then to school and the community.
One method that can help children improve social interactions is Floortime, a method developed by noted child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan. In his book, The Child with Special Needs: Encouraging Intellectual and Emotional Growth, Greenspan explains the importance of “meet ing a child where he is” by talking about the child’s interests and expanding on them. By doing this, a dialog can be established and “circles” of communication are opened. These circles constitute the first step toward intimacy, one of Greenspan’s emotional milestones.
Kathleen Platzman, Ph.D., a psychologist with Floortime Atlanta, describes Greenspan’s method as a “philosophy” and a “technique” of dealing with children of all abilities. Floortime Atlanta is a multidisciplinary group of practitioners who are trained in the Greenspan method and have incorporated the principles into their practices.
Platzman finds that children with special needs have core deficits: they sometimes don’t relate easily to people or have difficulty maintaining eye contact, for example. In other programs, Platzman says, often what is measured is compliance, such as whether the child sits when he is told. Instead, Floortime allows the child to lead the interaction. Platzman says she knows the program is working when the child is having fun, begins opening the dialog and a genuine feeling of relationship begins to develop.
At Floortime Atlanta, parents are taught the Greenspan approach and encouraged to practice it at home with their children. Often parents inform teachers and other caregivers about the approach, and the child becomes immersed in social skills training outside of therapy. In some cases when the method is being implemented successfully at home, the therapists at Floortime Atlanta turn into consultants.
Parents have told Platzman that they have seen their children change from a “puzzle” to a “real person” after some Floortime intervention. Platzman says she’s seen children change so radically that she knows they’re going to be okay. “Most parents come away from Floortime knowing their child more intimately as well as having a child who understands his own motivation and is a better companion than they ever thought possible,” Platzman says.
One of the most common forms of social skills intervention is a social group. Social groups usually meet once a week. During the meeting, children explore one social skill or trait and learn to develop it within the context of the group setting. First the skill is role played, and then the children apply the skills in a safe environment. The ultimate goal is that, with practice and repetition, the skill finally transfers from the group session to home or school.
Gayle Born and Mary Jane Trotti of Parkaire Consultants collaboratively lead social skills groups. The groups are selected “very carefully” so that the children in those groups have similar skills. The ability to join a group is one of the skills on which the group works. The skill is demonstrated, and then the children are given the opportunity to apply the skill without the fear of getting it wrong. When children do get it wrong, however, Born and Trotti find these to be invaluable “teachable moments.” As Born explains, it allows an opportunity to help the child “analyze,” role play and “dissect” what went wrong.
For example, if a child attempted to join a group and was rejected, he could respond in several ways, including hitting, crying, screaming or retreating. Born calls these “hot” responses because the child hasn’t stopped to think through any alternative choices. Born and Trotti’s group goes beyond showing the skill and practicing it—their children learn how to deal with rejection, how to control their anger and how to stop and think before acting. These coping strategies are as important as the social skills taught in class. One of the easiest coping skills to teach children is “freeze.” Instead of hitting or yelling, they tell the child to just freeze. This allows the child to think through alternatives, apply breathing techniques and participate in positive self-talk.
Born and Trotti know when their program is working because they see progress in a child. Parents and teachers also comment that the child is making social progress in situations outside the group. Judy Norris, whose 11-year-old son Mitch has attended the social skills group at Parkaire for three years, is one such parent. Norris says just being able to sit in the group was a challenge at first for her son. Now, however, he has begun to participate in group discussions and activities. Recently, his grandmother took him to the park and he walked up to a group of kids and asked if he could play with them, Norris says. Mitch’s grandmother told Norris the kids played together for more than an hour, and even Mitch’s younger sister joined in. Some of the most important things Mitch learned in his social group, his mother says, are responding appropriately when someone tells him something he doesn’t want to hear, knowing how to join a group and knowing how to handle stress.
Despite such success stories, Born warns that social skills groups are not a quick fix. Some kids aren’t wired for social interaction, Born says, whether it’s eye contact, empathy or anger management. It’s important to realize, however, that these children can learn to compensate for these social deficits, Born says.
Learning on the Log, a program that strives to engage children in activities while improving motor and communication skills, borrows principles from Greenspan’s Floortime and also incorporates social skills training and sensory integration (see related story, page 6). With locations in Atlanta, Decatur and Savannah, the program offers Saturday hikes, summer camps and after school activities for children ages 6 to 12.
This program begins by focusing on individual communication strategies. The children are given instructions and directions about upcoming tasks, and then they are asked to repeat the directions in their own words. Children also are encouraged to talk about things they have experienced. Once these skills begin to emerge, children usually begin participating in small group discussions. Eventually some are given leadership roles within the groups which help them develop positive self-esteem, says co-director Chris Zelski. The goal of the program is for students to be able to apply the social skills they’ve learned at home, at school or at the park.
“We know it’s working when we have a response from the child,” Zelski says. For example, on a Saturday hike some children are withdrawn at the beginning while others seem to be going 100 miles an hour. During the course of the hike, sensory exposure begins to give way, and the child might begin showing signs he is having fun and becoming more self-regulated. The child who was withdrawn begins to come out of his shell, and the child who was going so fast has slowed down a bit. Zelski says his program can help children become “calm, focused and alert.” Parents of children who participate provide feedback about better sleep patterns and improved sibling relationships, Zelski says.
Originally written by Carol Gray, Social Stories are often used to help children with autism. These stories, however, can be helpful for all children who struggle socially. Social Stories are short narratives about appropriate social behavior. They can be as simple as “how to greet people,” or as complex as “how to resolve a conflict without yelling or hitting.”
Social Stories give the child the ability to see both sides of social interaction played out on the pages. Children can then take what they have read or what has been read to them and apply it to similar situations at home, at school or in the community. Social Stories are easy to create using a word processing program or by simply putting pen to paper and cutting pictures from a magazine. Gray’s Web site, www.thegraycenter.org, provides information and ideas about using Social Stories.
When done properly, role playing can be an effective tool for teaching proper social skills. Special education teacher Carol Holbrook, who also has a background as a speech-language pathologist, and paraprofessional Anjum Merchant work together in a Gwinnett County kindergarten serving 5-to-7-year-olds with speech and language difficulties. Holbrook says that sometimes this is a child’s first experience in a school setting, and social problems arise because of a lack of “self control” or an inability to understand the rules and structure of the classroom.
In the beginning, the teachers talked to the children about making good choices, but talking about the problem did not help change the behaviors they were seeing. After role playing a few situations, such as the proper way to stand in line and asking rather than snatching, the teachers began to notice a change. Role playing has now become common in their classroom. Role playing can be proactive, where teachers show children how to line up at the door, or reactive, where they replay an incident that occurred earlier in the day. In both cases the children are given an opportunity to comment on what they’ve seen. Holbrook and Merchant have found that the children, even those who rarely raise their hand in class, have a lot to say about role playing.
No matter which intervention parents chose to help address their child’s social struggles, experts say they should not expect overnight improvement. “It is important to remember that children with learning problems often require intensive instruction, guidance and assistance to master social skills,” Lavoie writes in his book. But, if better social skills translate to happiness and improved self-esteem, the investment is worth it. The rewards can last a lifetime.
Amy Coleman is the mother of two children, including one with learning challenges. She leads a parent support group in Duluth and is a member of Families of Children Under Stress and the Learning Disabilities Association of Georgia.