While it may feel like we are still trying to dig out from recent winter storms and stay warm, spring time is fast approaching. Over the next several months, parents and special education teams once again will begin to consider children’s needs for the summer and next school year. Many children with social skills difficulties and pragmatic/social language needs require support and instruction throughout the summer months in areas such as friendship-making, manners, expression of feelings, self-control, social problem-solving, anger management, organization, conversation skills, play skills, and the “hidden curriculum” to name a few.
While some children lack these skills, others have acquired them but struggle to use the skills when and where they are needed. Often, these children avoid social situations or may try and often fail.
Children who struggle with social skills, especially those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, are at-risk for continued problems: internalizing (e.g., depressed mood, anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., oppositional and defiant behavior, aggression); school-related problems (e.g., failure, quitting school); and family issues (e.g., discord, stress). When a child is not making progress in developing and using social skills, the team should collaborate and discuss additional supports and services to help the child.
For some children, Extended School Year (E.S.Y.) services are needed. E.S.Y. refers to special education and related services that are provided to a student with a disability beyond the normal school year. E.S.Y. services are provided consistent with the child’s Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.). The I.E.P. team determines whether the child requires programming. E.S.Y services are based upon the child’s needs, the child’s progress throughout the year, the likelihood of regression of skills, and many other factors.
When a child demonstrates social skills difficulties, the team should carefully consider the following questions to determine the need for E.S.Y. programming:
- Has the child mastered the social skills, social-language and/or emotional-behavioral goals and objectives in the I.E.P.?
- Has the child generalized these skills across environments?
- Does the child require more intensive, systematic and individualized social skills programming than he/she has been receiving throughout the year to demonstrate progress toward the goals and objectives?
- Does the child have a history of or is the child likely to regress after an extended break during the summer?
- Does the child have difficulty recouping any deterioration or loss of skill within a reasonable amount of time (e.g., 1-2 months upon returning to school)?
If the team can answer “Yes” to any of these questions, then serious consideration should be given regarding the appropriateness of E.S.Y. programming. If and when the team considers E.S.Y. programming, there should be careful planning to ensure that the program or intervention is aligned with best practices. This should be a collaborative process based upon information specific to the individual child’s needs. Ultimately, the recipe for social skills success requires a careful blending of teamwork, sustaining efforts to help the child, and adhering to evidence-based approaches.
When considering a summer program to teach social skills, parents and school personnel should learn about the approaches used at the program, the skills that may be targeted, how progress is monitored and what they should expect regarding generalization of skills to the “real” world. Staff should have training and experience working with children who have social skills difficulties.
It is important to review the program’s daily schedule, looking for a balance of formal social skills instruction, sports and recreational activities, and opportunities for creative and child-directed activities. Staff members should provide frequent feedback to the children, including behavior-specific praise, activity rewards and/or tangible rewards. Strategies should be shared with the parents to transfer skills across environments. And with all quality programs, there should be on-going data collection to ensure accountability for the student’s progress and to evaluate performance.
Best Practices for Teaching Social Skills
Like reading and math, social skills can be taught. Best practices for helping children acquire, perform and generalize social skills involves a comprehensive, consistent and individualized approach. Having a systematic plan is at the heart of successful programming. The plan must have several components:
- The child’s parents, school personnel and any private professionals involved should work collaboratively throughout the process. The child should be included and treated with respect and dignity.
- The team should select relevant social skills to target for intervention. These should be socially meaningful and important. Like all other aspects of the IEP, social skills objectives should be specific, observable and measurable. The team should obtain baseline data regarding the child’s social skills strengths and weaknesses.
- The plan should include a variety of evidence-based strategies including systematic teaching of skills, modeling the desired skills, video modeling and video self-modeling, role play, behavior-specific feedback, reinforcement, and training to ‘fluency’ so the child can use the skill quickly in a social situation.
- Programming should be continuous and on-going.
- There should be a systematic plan to generalize skills across environments, with ‘coaching’ to provide prompting and feedback.
- The team should plan carefully to incorporate classmates who have good social, behavior and language skills.
- The child’s progress should be monitored throughout the year. A data-driven approach allows the team to determine how the child is doing, decide whether the plan is effective, and to identify when modifications within the plan are needed. The student should be observed across social situations in school, the home and community by multiple observers. Data should be collected regarding the specific objectives. It is possible to use ‘norm-referenced rating scales’ to monitor progress. Children can also be included to self-monitor.
Michael C. Selbst, PhD, BCBA-D is Director of Behavior Therapy Associates, P.A. in Somerset, New Jersey. He is a Licensed Psychologist and a Certified School Psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral level. Dr. Selbst has co-founded and is the Executive Director of HI-STEP® Summer Social Skills Program, an intensive 6-week day program for children to improve their social skills and problem solving ability, and the Executive Director of the Weekend to Improve Social Effectiveness (W.I.S.E.). He has extensive experience working with pre-school aged children through adults. Dr. Selbst provides individual and family therapy, behavioral parent training, social skills training, school-based consultation, functional behavior assessments and behavior intervention plans, psychological and psychoeducational evaluations, and expert/independent evaluations. He has led numerous workshops, including at local, statewide, national and international conferences, as well as for parent advocacy groups and school districts. Dr. Selbst has collaborated with three of Behavior Therapy Associates’ doctors to co-author the Behavior Problems Resource Kit: Forms and Procedures for Identification, Measurement and Intervention. With Steven B. Gordon, Ph.D., ABPP, Dr. Selbst has co-authored the social skills curriculum, POWER-Solving®: Stepping Stones to Solving Life’s Everyday Social Problems.