Turning Words Into Social Action

Lots of students can rehearse, role play and regurgitate social rules BUT when they are in a social setting with peers, they freeze or suffer from a high “forget” rate. In the debrief after the event, they once again can tell you everything they should have or could have done BUT they can’t tell you why they didn’t remember what to say or do.

Whether you are a teacher, EA, parent or concerned friend, here are a few tips to help students learn to walk the talk and be a hit with their peers at home, school or community activities.

Be a Look Out

In hindsight it is often easy to identify the triggers that set off some inappropriate behaviour in your student. Social settings are unpredictable and you can’t plan ahead for every contingency. However, know your student and his or her tolerance for crowds, loud noises, or performing in public. You can set them up for success by ensuring there is appropriate supervision or a planned “escape” route if noise or crowd levels are intolerable.

Signal System

Use sign language or simple gestures to your student’s advantage! A simple signal system can alert your student that he is perseverating on an uncomfortable topic or standing too close to someone. It can help him move through the halls without pushing or wait with his hand up to be called on. Universal signals include – sh – be quiet, finger to ear – listen, moving hand in a circle – hurry up, thumbs up – keep doing what you are doing and hand up – wait. Visuals are a discrete, natural method to help your student learn while doing.

Fresh Start

Your student may be “branded” as a troublemaker or the shy mouse in a particular group of peers. Involving him or her in a new activity gives the student a fresh start where people don’t have pre-conceived ideas as to social competence. Too often we return to familiar activities when what is needed is a fresh start with new people. Students also tend to rise to new occasions because new is different and different engages their interest.

Practice, then Practice Some More

Many awkward moments are caused when students have a basic lack of social information. We can’t expect students to remember how to act or what to say if they don’t have lots of practice opportunities. Look at the student’s daily schedule or weekly timetable and yes, schedule in social skills “practice”. Some of the best opportunities are when students are given jobs and responsibilities that require them to work cooperatively with a sibling at home or another student at school.

Privacy Please

Too often students are signaled out in front of peers for inappropriate behaviour. A verbal tongue lashing is inappropriate, as it can provide negative reinforcement of inappropriate behaviour. It is far more preferable just to ask the student for silence or to sit down. The lecture can wait until you have a moment to ask the student to step out of the room with you or until you have a chance to keep him after class to debrief.

Talk to the Supervisor

If your student is joining a group with another instructor, take the time to let the instructor know about your student’s strengths and weaknesses. Simple tips as to where the student should sit or who is a good role model or what to do if the student does not listen; all will enhance the experience for your student and put the instructor at ease. Stay and observe the first class or two to make sure your student (and the instructor) gets off to a good start. Do not send students with special needs into a new group without letting the leader know! After all first impressions are important and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way in giving others the helping hand they need to welcome your student.

Allow Your Student to Pick His Own Friends

Do not discourage students from establishing relationships with students who are a year or two younger. Allow peer relationships to unfold naturally, as your student may find more interests in common with younger students on the playground or in a club. Developmentally their abilities or interests are more in sync and students are treated more like an equal. Making the “friend” connection is very beneficial, as students learn so much from peer models. As adults we enjoy a wide range of friends of different ages, it is okay for kids too!

Smaller Can be Best

Some students simply freeze or shut down in large groups. Do not force your student to participate if he or she shows signs of anxiety or discomfort. Start off with a smaller grouping where he is comfortable speaking up or where she wants to go independently. The more your student clings to you, the less he will learn socially!

Find the Fun, Drop the Competition

Non-competitive social or recreational activities are hard to find, especially in the teen years. Competitive activities of any type are stress inducing and many students with learning difficulties cannot cope with the agony of defeat. Often peers don’t want these students on their teams because of the focus on winning. Your student may still be able to compete in individual sports such as swimming, but not cope well in team sports. Find the balance and you will find the fun.

Believe Me, It Happened

Students sometimes try and share a tough social experience with others and are told to be “tough” or “just ignore them”. When we send students with special needs into social settings, we want to be careful to keep the lines of communication wide open. Thank your student for sharing experience, good or bad, with you and ask him if he wants to problem solve. If not, be there to comfort or reassure him. Help you student tell the adult in charge what happened so they can respond appropriately if it happens again. Role playing can be a very effective strategy to build your student’s confidence, so he or she is not a victim of bullies.

It Does All Start At Home

Parents sometimes seem to think that someone else can teach their child social skills somewhere else. Siblings play a huge role in helping students with special needs learn to behave appropriately. You do your student a great service by helping his parents to understand that social skills are taught first at home and cannot be worked on in isolation elsewhere. Share concerns and set goals with parents, so the student is not confused by inconsistency. Ask parents to commit to their child’s success, by following through with social skills practice at home.

Positive Reinforcement Please

Skill building takes energy, work and commitment. Social skills are no different from any other learned skill. Practice is the key to your student’s success. Students with special needs require more practice and support from those who will cheer them on. The power of positive reinforcement will result in a capable student who is courteous to others and kind to self.

We see many examples of confident students, who regardless of ability level, truly are a good friend to others in their life. These students know how to greet others, wait their turn patiently, and help others cooperatively. They are well liked members of their community because they are nice to people. Practice did indeed pay off.

by Barbara Tien
Executive Director
The PREP Program

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