As interest in social skills development has increased, so has the understanding that some children have more difficulty than others decoding the various social cues that many of us take for granted. We have begun to appreciate that many children who are struggling socially do so not because they are “attention seeking” or because they have “behavior problems,” but rather because they are misinterpreting the rules of social engagement. In response, many school systems and therapy practices have begun to form social skills groups to help teach these skills. Many of these groups begin to work with children as young as 3. This article will describe critical components of groups for children ranging in age from 3 to 8. During these years, children are essentially experiential learners. Most are not yet able to reflect upon their own behavior and the impact that they have on others, so using a cognitive behavioral approach for this age group is not developmentally appropriate.
Who would benefit from a Social Skills Group?
Although social groups are often formed to support children who are experiencing social challenges, it is important to note that all children can benefit from social learning opportunities. In fact, children who are described as “typically developing” may be able to interpret many social cues without direct instruction, but can still benefit from an improved understanding of why some of their peers are struggling. For the purposes of this article; however, we will focus upon the groups that are designed to support children with challenges.
What is a Social Skills Group?
A Social Skills group is any group formed with the intention of teaching social skills; that is, skills related to interacting and communicating with one another.
- taking another’s perspective,
- developing a sense of social timing,
- attending to and reading nonverbal cues,
- and managing self-regulation.
In order to best meet the needs of each child, we have found that it is important to group children who have similar verbal skill levels. It is also ideal if the kids have complimentary strengths and challenges. We have found that such a grouping provides each child the opportunity to be a role model for some skills while working on other more challenging skills.
Often we are asked whether it is helpful to include “typically developing” peers. While we certainly see the benefit in having these children as “role models,” we have found that it is most helpful if all of the kids in a group have challenges. These groups become small communities and when all of the children recognize that they are not alone in their struggles, it often helps them to be more willing to take risks. If “typical” peers are included, it would be important for activities to be designed to meet the needs of the kids with challenges rather than simply engaging all of the kids in games and hoping that the modelling of the typical kids would be enough to support the learning of the kids with challenges. Including the following critical components of an effective social group is necessary regardless of the makeup of the group.
What are the critical components of an effective social skills group?
Critical Components of an Effective Social Skills Group:
Direct teaching rather than online facilitation:
- Over the course of years of running social groups, we have found that it is very difficult to teach children “in the moment.” When emotions are running high, it is very difficult for a child to reflect upon his own behavior. Instead we have found that engaging kids in activities which highlight a particular skill over and over again in a fun and engaging way gives them the opportunity to be successful with that skill and to experience the inherent positive rewards that come from using it. This experience in turn makes it more likely that they will draw upon that skill later in a more naturalistic context. Here’s an example:
We have lots of kids in our groups who use silly behavior as a means of getting the attention of their peers. This is an incredibly effective strategy because it is pretty easy to get peers giggling and soon ignoring the teachers. An online facilitation approach would lead the teacher to try to stop the instigator in the moment and to try to have a rational discussion about the negative effects of silliness. Unfortunately, the fact that the other kids have joined in the sillies has already given the instigator his positive reinforcement.
The proactive approach that we are advocating would consist of starting a group meeting with a role play entitled, “Making Your Own Good Choices.” This role play is designed to target the peers of the instigator and to empower them to ignore the sillies. We introduce this role play by having the adults (if there are two) or the teacher and one child role play one child being silly and the other ignoring. We emphasize how the ignorer is “making his own good choice” which reinforces the positive. We then engage each of the kids in each role, all the while reinforcing the notion of “making your own good choices.” As all of the kids have practice ignoring the instigator in this highly-structured and supported role play, it increases the likelihood that a number of peers will be able to ignore “in the moment” and then the teacher can reinforce their good choices rather than giving attention to the instigator.
Attaching Catch Phrases to Desired Behaviors
As was demonstrated above, using the catch phrase “making your own good choices” has now become a cue for a desired response. This strategy can be used with a wide variety of social skills, including:
- gaining one’s attention before talking – Say a Name
- letting a friend know you heard him – Let Them Know
- rejecting a friend’s idea in a constructive manner – No Thanks, How About…
- asking a question followed by a follow-up question before sharing about oneself – ask, ask, tell
Engaging in Generalization Activities
As kids begin to master new behaviors that are learned through role play and highly-structured activities which highlight one specific skill, it is important to then engage them in more naturalistic activities to support generalization. Here’s an example:
Once the catch phrases, “Say a name”, “Do you wanna…” and “No Thanks, How About…” have been introduced and the kids seem to have mastered their use during highly-structured activities, we give the kids a chance to practice during “free play.” In our clinic we are fortunate to have an indoor gym for kids to play in, but giving kids free play with toys works equally well. The idea is to cue them when needed while they are playing with these simple catch phrases and to reinforce the moments when they independently use them. Over time, these skills become automatic and the best reinforcement of all is a happy and cooperative play time with friends!
Addressing the Physical Components of Interaction as well as the Verbal
We like to use the acronym IMAGINE to think about the various goal areas that we address. These are:
Advocating and Conflict Resolution
Getting and Staying Regulated
Interpreting Nonverbal Cues
Negotiating Space and Body Awareness
This is the first of 4 posts related to the running of social cognition groups. The next three will present more specific activities designed to teach children of specific ages: 3 and 4, 5 and 6 and finally, 7 and 8. Stay tuned and enjoy the adventure of running a social group!