All children need to be able to understand facial expressions and recognize social cues in other people, look them in the eye, and be able to follow classroom rules. For kids with special needs, however, these lessons may not come easily.
“When interacting socially comes naturally for people, we don’t pay much attention to it,” says Amanda Bennett, developmental behavioral pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “But your ability to regulate an interaction with another person — having that back and forth conversation in a successful way; reading someone’s social cues and recognizing whether they agree with what you’re saying or doing; being able to recognize when someone is being friendly or a bully — these are all really important in childhood and in life.”
Start at a young age
Children begin learning these lessons as babies, taking cues from their parents and the people around them. Socialization at preschool and playdates or in activities like music, gymnastics or library story time, are opportunities to apply these lessons.
“They are working on some of those skills in a small-group setting,” says Bennett.
If a child seems to struggle in a particular area, the school can provide additional support with games or activities to help a child develop his social skills without formal therapy.
Bennett urges parents to discuss with the teacher how their child is doing socially — who she plays with and how she plays. If necessary, the school can help the family find additional services.
Social lessons learned in school
Students must behave appropriately in the classroom for effective learning. Many schools use programs like Social Thinking, which offers strategies to get all students on the same page, often by using specific words to help students focus on the task at hand.
For example, if a child is not exhibiting expected behavior, the teacher will ask, “What is the group plan?” says Eleanor Lantz, speech language pathologist at Centreville Layton School in DE, and the child’s response brings him back into focus. “They are all child-friendly, positive terms so the children don’t feel like they are being corrected.”
The students not only learn how to behave in the classroom, but are given necessary skills so they are more successful when they go into the world, says Lantz. “It’s not enough that you know information, but also that you can present yourself and make a connection with other people.”
Practice social skills at home
Harry T., 12, is a seventh grader who loves playing Magic the Gathering cards and video games with his friends. But Harry has a sensory processing disorder, which makes certain social skills more difficult.
“He has a brain-muscle coordination issue,” says his mom, Ashley, from the Pennsport section of Philadelphia. “He thinks certain sensory inputs, like hugging, which feel really good to him and help keep him focused, are something everybody should want.”
Greetings are an area where Harry struggles. The best practice for these skills take place each week in church when Harry greets the minister. “It’s a controlled environment where Harry got practice shaking hands, looking the minister in the eye and saying thank you and moving on,” says Ashley.
Harry’s interest in cooking has provided another great teaching device. “Food and cooking are a way for him to have conversations with people across all boundaries,” she says. “It becomes a common language for him.”
Cultivate good manners
At the Bancroft School, lessons include role playing in an environment that resembles the community. Its Mount Laurel, NJ campus includes a fully operational convenience store run by the students with support from staff. Students practice waiting on customers and selling goods.
“A good place to start is in the realm of greetings, just saying ‘Hi’ to others,” says Nicholas Forvour, clinical director of education at the Bancroft School. “When a community member says hello to you, the expectation is to say hello back. We want our learners equipped with that skill to make that relationship in the community an actuality. Social skills are how we navigate our community and environment and how we build relationships that go well beyond our immediate family.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.