My Work Developing Social Skills Groups in a School Setting
Why Social Skills Groups Are Needed
I work for a cluster of schools one day a week in East Sussex. The schools have a facility that provides excellent in-reach and out-reach support to children, although sadly this service is being closed, see: put link). There are quite a lot of children in the schools who have social communication difficulties, and many of these are on the autism spectrum. They run Lego Therapy groups, which the children love, and they are getting good outcomes from this, increasing their awareness of others, turn taking, and improving their listening skills. However, some children need more than this, especially the older ones, and as the NHS in this area do not have a social communication pathway, we decided to run a course for children in Year 5 & 6 to help them before they go to secondary school.
The Impact Of Moving To Secondary School
Demands on children increase considerably when they start secondary education in terms of learning and socially. They have more lessons, more homework, and more vocabulary to learn. They have to navigate a larger space and find their way around the school to their classes. There are more pupils and the unspoken rules of social interaction become even harder to understand. Strategies that just about worked in primary school, like copying others, and relying on support from an Individual Needs Assistant, are harder to use and there is evidence that this transition can be very difficult:
“The child-centred environment of a primary school can be difficult to replicate in a secondary school where children have multiple subject staff, whose awareness and professional understanding of ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) may be limited. In adjusting to secondary school, children are also expected to form new social relationships in unfamiliar settings and adapt to changes in routine, both of which are major challenges for pupils who fundamentally struggle with the social world.” (J. Hebron, Manchester Institute of Education)
A Curriculum For Teaching Social Skills
I recently attended a meeting run by the London ASD Special Interest Group, where three fantastic therapists spoke about a curriculum they have developed over the years to teach social skills. They compared it to a maths curriculum, which is taught for many years to achieve mastery. For people on the Autism Spectrum, social understanding is learned, like maths, at a cognitive level:
“For people on the Autism Spectrum, skills to understand the social world are acquired through intellect rather than through social intuition or instinct.” (Dr J. Gould. Lead Consultant, Lorna Wing Centre for Autism).
The therapists, Catherine Pownall and Mary Yong, found it took 3 to 4 years. They stated:
“In a nutshell – it takes years to learn to understand and function in the social world.”
Social understanding is central to functioning in the social world and yet it is often worked on in short blocks, perhaps in a group that runs for six weeks, or sometimes no provision is made. Many speech and language therapy services do not offer a social communication pathway, as they no longer have the staffing to be able to do this.
How We Ran The Social Skills Programme
We identified six children in year 5 and divided them into two groups, all children except for two having received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The other two have social communication difficulties and are on the waiting list for Social Communication assessment (ADOS). One of the six shuts down on a regular basis and falls asleep in lessons, or on the floor at break times. He has even fallen asleep standing up. We made the decision not to put neurotypical children in the groups as models this term, but we will probably do this later on. The children we selected all have quite significant needs and difficulties and we felt we should get to know them first and get them used to the group, which has a set structure and develops routines.
The school reported that these children had difficulty sustaining attention, difficulty participating in class tasks, poor narrative skills, friendship issues and anxiety. Parents said that their biggest concerns were reduced communication skills and poor conversational skills.
It has been fun and we have had some interesting feedback, but it is hard work and we have a long way to go. The groups threw up several things that we had not anticipated and were not expecting, and we had to be flexible with our curriculum.
Aims Of The Programme
The overarching aims of our programme to date are:
- To increase understanding of self and others to know what you look like, what others look like, and to recognise and identify characteristics in yourself and in others.
- To recognise and be able to label emotions in self and others, and possible causes and triggers – to know what they look like, feel like, to be able to discriminate between them and have increased awareness of possible causes.
- To increase the ability to regulate emotions and feelings and to develop strategies to support regulation – to recognise change and escalation and begin to self regulate.
Resources We Used
We have been using a range of resources, including Talkabout (Alex Kelly), The Social Communication Intervention Programme (Catherine Adams and Jacqueline Gaile), the 5 point scale (Kari Dun Buron), and we have also been making our own. We have been flexible so that we can respond to and accommodate the unexpected! We are learning so much on this journey. We are realising how crucial it is to recognise the differences in our thinking styles, in our perceptions, in our processing, in our executive function skills, and in many other areas, and how important it is to respect these differences.
It is easy to interpret behaviour through neuro-typical eyes, to fill in the gaps using neuro-typical experiences, but this does not always help us understand behaviours. Social skills work has to be a two way street, we all have to learn about each other. We did not want the work that we did to be about conforming to a norm that you do not understand, following social rules that make little sense; we are on this journey together.
We started each session with the group taking it in turns to draw or write something to represent what we were going to do in the session. They made the timetable. We put this in for several reasons:
- To give them responsibility for making it
- To develop this skill so we can work on transferring it to the classroom eventually
- To develop flexible thinking – they had to think what they could draw or write to represent what we were going to do
- To develop taking turns
After this we said hello to each other, asked, “How are you?” and thought of at least one question to ask about this. Everyone asked the person on their left, so we went round the group following this routine. This was very hard at first for the following reasons:
- Eye contact was difficult
- Listening and staying on topic was difficult. We had lots of responses that had nothing to do with what the person had said.
- Thinking of what to say and what to ask was very hard and we had tears over this.
- Waiting and taking turns was difficult.
However, both groups are excellent at this now and we have had some related comments, e.g. “I have hayfever, too,” as well as related questions.
Then we had a looking activity and a listening activity. We varied the activities that we used, but we tried to follow this routine. The group responded well to the predictability, and these activities helped develop attention and listening skills, which are crucial to successful communication.
Examples Of What We Did
- We showed the group animals on an app, e.g. horse, duck, donkey, cat, etc. Then we played one of the animal noises. The group had to think, without calling out what they thought the animal was, and then we asked them what they thought it was. If their answers were wrong, we helped them to work out what it could be by drawing on their knowledge of animal noises, by eliminating certain animals, etc.
- We played games that involved a looking detective who had to leave the room and identify what had changed when he returned. We played different versions of this, but the favourite was a game where the looking detective looked closely at everyone, then went outside. While he was out of the room, we all put on very silly dressing up things, e.g. stick on moustaches, silly hats, funny sunglasses, jewellery, gloves, etc. The looking detective came back in and had to spot what was different, e.g. “X is wearing sunglasses, a hat and gloves,” etc. This made us laugh a lot!
At the end of each session, we:
- Assessed our performance using a checklist. They had to think of examples of each one, e.g. “I looked at the person I was talking to – I did this when I said hello.” We did this to develop their reflective skills.
- Complimented the person sitting next to us. This involved thinking of what to say and focusing on the positive.
- Took it in turns to choose and play with a sensory toy while the group counted slowly to five. When they got to five the toy had to go back in the bag and it was the next person’s turn.
Outcomes Of The Programme
The areas of particular difficulties were:
- Making choices.
- Recognising emotions and what makes you feel like this.
- Underlying attention.
Some wonderful moments were:
- Spontaneous group hugs!
- Telling jokes – where do you find a dog with no legs? Where you left it….. It made us laugh!
- Seeing one of the children who had meltdowns start learning to regulate and use strategies to avoid this in the group setting.
- Laughing – we all laughed so much.
- Teachers reported improved listening, turn taking and fewer meltdowns for four of the six children.
- Working together so closely with a specialist teacher. We planned it all together, we ran it together, we analysed outcomes together – it was fantastic and I look forward to next term when we will continue.