In our practice, we run multiple teen groups on a regular and consistent basis. Our groups have been successful for our community and I am often asked questions from prospective clients or fellow professionals — “How exactly do you run your social skills groups?”
Many often ask how many weeks we offer in a group session. Although many professionals neatly package their groups into a certain number of weeks, at our practice, we don’t believe that life happens in five or ten weeks. We run what we call an “open” group. It is modeled a little more after life. People come and go in your life. If you are working with individuals who have difficulty with change — providing change in a protected and guided environment providing opportunities for success offers the individual memories of which to recall that success and say,
“Remember the time when Julie left group without saying goodbye and you were upset? What did you do then to cope?”
“Yes, Robert has a tough time here sometimes but aren’t we all here to learn how to be in groups of people and do well?”
An open group offers real and practical situations which group members can learn from one another in a safe environment.
Token Economy – Hmmm?
Another frequent question we are asked is, “Do you offer points for good behavior?”
This question often provokes me answer with the question, “Do I get tokens in life when I am doing something right?”
“Does someone come up and reward me with a token because I was able to tolerate a room full of people?”
And I think further, “Have my own kids even spent one of the tokens that the orthodontist gave them for being on time?”
Token economies do have their place – particularly when you are working with large groups of kids who need incentives to self-regulate and manage their own behavior. However, I believe that by working in smaller groups, the group itself teaches the social behaviors and that is the reward gained.
In group settings, if you elect to take on a token economy, ensure it is managed well, is consistent, and is always a positive influence. I have used stars with very young children (ages 5-6) and only when a primary caregiver participates in the group. This reinforces positive cooperative behavior for the child, but also for the caregiver since eventually, the individual caregiver doles out the stars.
Measures of Success
Another top question that I get is “How are the kids when they aren’t in group?”
Our greatest measure is to regularly plan social activities outside of group and obtain feedback or simply observe interactions. For example, we went to a baseball game and the teens from group all got up and walked around the stands leaving the parents to watch the game. “How’s this, Annette,” says one parent, “we are all sitting here and they are up walking around spending all our money.” I just smile because this is facilitating independence.
One parent reported that a behavior plan implemented at school was scrapped shortly after the young man started group. In my professional opinion, I believe this is because he now has a place to come and be himself. As new teens join our group, I never promise parents that I will turn a child into a neurotypical child. Acceptance is key right from the beginning. His perceived negative behaviors ceased because the young man found a place where he was validated. He learned that he has an important place in the world.
In one activity, we created a paper chain that decorates our office. Individuals from group wrote down things about themselves that they would want the world to know. All the links of the chain were connected. In a poignant moment, the young man mentioned above, with a smile on his face was holding the whole group’s contribution to the paper chain in his arms. He felt in that moment that he was part of something bigger than himself.
Another time, we all attended a holiday concert as a group. At the conclusion of the event, the whole group gathered so kids and parents could say goodbye to each other. Our gathering spot was in a very loud room. Interestingly, there were neurotypical children running around and screaming. One parent noted, “Why are our kids in social skills groups?”