Most parents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children want them to have effective social coaching in school to supplement what’s done at home. School Individualized Education Programs (IEP) usually include groups using social learning curriculum.
How do we assess whether the child is learning effective skills? Are there any possible negative effects of social skills instruction, or are there ways to do it better? What else can we do to improve our children’s school experience?
Social skills teaching
There are many programs to teach social skills; Thinking Social and Circles are popular. Indiana University gives a list of commonly used curricula, including targeted grade levels, goals, and objectives.
Research shows that to be effective, learning in pull-out groups has to be supplemented by real-time coaching. There are two ways to add real-time coaching: embedded in academic classrooms or during unstructured activities.
Social skills teaching embedded in a classroom setting might have teachers cueing strategies to help a student listen to the ideas of other students or participate effectively. One might target interrupting; teachers could say, “I know you have an important idea. Why don’t you (use a strategy) and I’ll call on you next?” The teacher and student might rate how well that went, and the student could rate his or her feelings about using a strategy.
Adding social skills coaching would be challenging for most teachers. Classes have 25 to 30 children, and teachers have their hands full teaching a curriculum already. Many teachers feel they’re not trained to teach social skills. Some “get” ASD children and would welcome training while others would not.
Coaching in unstructured settings could be cueing skills from the social skills curriculum during recess, lunch, or hallway time. Collaboration between social skills groups leaders and real-time coaches and feedback from teachers and counselors would be critical.
Assessment of social skills training
Current typical IEP goals could remain much the same as they are: developing and using communication and relationship skills and social understanding. However, measuring progress would include assessment of a student’s ability to identify strategies to use in real-time settings, to use strategies in those situations, and to deconstruct real-time interactions afterward.
The Thinking Social program suggests taking learned skills outside the small group setting and assessing by observation, but there isn’t specific instruction. The PEERS program assessment is based on self-report of outside group practice exercises, a multiple-choice questionnaire testing knowledge of social skills and a quality of social skills questionnaire for the students and parents.
Tony Attwood has a useful observation tool for real-time assessment. The observation checklist includes friendship skills such as recognizing cues to enter a conversation, giving an appropriate greeting, accepting suggestions, and cooperation.
Sample IEP goals and objectives
The following are sample goals with objectives to be measured by real-time observation and charting. Use these as a guide when crafting the goals and objectives specific to your child’s social skills development.
Goal One: John will improve relationship skills with peers
Objective: John will improve peer interactions at recess.
1. John will identify to a teacher individuals or groups of peers who would be appropriate playmates 4 out of 5 times.
2. John will greet peers and initiate mutual conversation 4 of 5 times.
3. John will ask at least one peer to play together for a minimum of 10 minutes, 4 out of 5 times.
4. John will follow the rules of games and accept winning or losing without verbal or behavioral outbursts or withdrawal 3 out of 5 times.
5. John will say goodbye before leaving peers 4 out of 5 times.
Goal Two: John will use strategies for handling conflictual reactions with peers (for more advanced students)
Objective: John will handle disagreement or conflict with a peer using strategies in a conflict situation.
1. With an adult, John will identify predictable triggers for conflict in the classroom and potential strategies.
2. John will use self-calming techniques to stay in control or regain self-control in conflictual situations 4 of 5 times.
3. With adult cuing, John will select and use a strategy, (such as self-assertion, asking questions or compromise) 4 out of 5 times.
4. When interactive strategies are not helpful or possible, John will leave a conflict situation 4 out of 5 times.
5. When necessary, John will ask an adult for help rather than engage in conflict 4 out of 5 times.
6. In discussion with an adult following a conflict with peers, John will be able to explain his point of view and that of the others 3 out of 5 times.
7. In discussion with an adult following a conflict with peers, John will be able to describe his own role in the conflict 3 out of 5 times.
Staff, Training, and Time
When goals are to be cued and assessed in real time settings, the IEP team must focus on having the necessary resources. Most unstructured social interaction takes place outside the classroom.
If coaching takes place and data must be gathered in non-academic settings (hallways, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds, etc.), how this would be accomplished and by whom is a challenge that would require planning, training, and allocation of staff time—all of which the IEP team must determine.
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Using the Information
Communication, collaboration, and cooperation among staff working with ASD students are imperative. Teachers need to know strategies being taught to use teachable moments in the classroom, as do the coaches doing cueing and assessment during unstructured time. There needs to be a feedback loop so everyone can fine-tune strategies and cueing.
Considerations for Social Skills Training Programs
We need to consider the impact of teaching normative social behavior to ASD children. We want effective teaching of meaningful skills. However, autistic adults report that the message that they must act “normal,” suggested they were inferior to their neurotypical (NT) classmates. This was a basis for future depressive thinking such as “I am unacceptable as I am” and “No one could like the real me.” Children need to feel that their authentic selves are worthwhile and valued.
Autistic adults also emphasize that consciously having to use neurotypical social skills or “mask” themselves constantly can be exhausting. If skills are taught as tools for achieving goals such as friendships, group participation, and self-advocacy, we can help children identify when they want to use these tools.
The focus should not only be on the children changing. They will need tools to succeed socially. However, a paradigm change to accept neurodiversity is also necessary; school staff needs to understand spectrum behavior. They shouldn’t expect facial expressiveness to indicate interest, take honest comments as hostile, or think stimming is attention seeking.
Improving the school environment for ASD children
Schoolwide social-emotional learning (SEL) is the buzzword of the day in the educational world. Five areas for SEL competencies have been highlighted: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Research has demonstrated that teaching SEL promotes improvements in social behaviors and peer relationships, fewer conduct problems, and less emotional distress. Academic achievement scores in schools with SEL training were an average of 11 percentile points higher than those in schools without SEL instruction. (Durlak et al., 2011)
SEL curricula are designed for the entire study body in a school. What could a comprehensive SEL school program mean for ASD children? Increased self and social awareness can influence understanding neurodiversity. Students taking responsibility for behavior, including the impact of actions on others could have an impact on bullying, a frequent and devastating problem for ASD children. One metric of the success of SEL programs could be a lower rate of reports of bullying.
Social skills teaching can provide critical tools for ASD children. How often does a progress report indicate that a social skill is mastered when the child isn’t doing anything different in class, the lunchroom or on the playground? Research shows that teaching social skills in social skills groups needs to be supplemented by coaching for students using these skills in real time situations with peers for learning to be effective.
IEP objectives and assessments also need to relate to students’ ability to use skills in real situations with peers. Ongoing collaboration and feedback among different members of the school team are critical to implementing social learning effectively. Teaching methods need to consider the self-esteem of the child and avoid reinforcing a sense of inadequacy.
A school milieu more accepting of neurodiversity could play an enormous role in lowering school stress for ASD students. In a safer environment, ASD children could self-advocate and are more likely to develop friendships with peers. Social teaching and SEL in schools could help ASD children better navigate the mainstream world, as well as providing them with a safer environment for social, emotional, and academic growth.
Duriak, J., Weissberg, R, Dymnicki, A, Taylor, & Schellinger, K (2011) The impact of enhancing students; social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82 (1): 405-432
Lisa Lightner, a special education advocate, has a website with IEP advice for parents of ASD children: https://adayinourshoes.com.
For a sample SEL statewide program, look at New York State Education Department Social Emotional Learning: Essential for Learning, Essential for Life August 2018
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies