Thursday, 25 August 2011

Social Skill Building the MM Way

Social skills classes are great in theory, but in practice I have seen some that are... less than stellar. 

According to my research, which comes from a number of peer reviewed sources including but not limited to several text books from my post graduate degree, articles written in academic journals, and too many years of teacher preachers to cite; the main reason social skills groups fail is because of a failure to plan for social skill generalization.

It almost seems obvious doesn't it? Autism is itself associated with an often times great aptitude for skill acquisition, but with a deficit in the ability to transfer that skill to novel environments. Kids with ASD are often incredibly bright, but struggle to conceptualize the use of skills in environments in which they have not been explicitly taught. Many people never even think about how naturally skill generalization happens for typically developing children; it is something I certainly took for granted. 

Knowing what I know...How do I actively plan for generalization in MM social skills program?

Where do I begin?! By scheduling the group to float between classrooms (sensory, sensory motor, class, office) outdoor locations (playground, park), and by constantly changing the teaching materials (stimulus) and the structure of our physical  teaching environment. We are constantly exposing our students to novel environments as an active pursuit of generalization.

Having our students work with several instructors and educational assistants allows us to ensure that skills generalize across people; as a class, we interact with each other and become comfortable in a controlled social dynamic! The more positive interactions with people we have on a daily basis, and therein practice the elementary social skills (relative eye contact, pitch, greetings, answering basic questions, etc.), the more we are able to call upon these skills at another time; eventually, they join our repertoire. The more we practice, the more fluent we become.

Most of our kids thrive in a 1:1 setting, but working in a group we automatically tackle the other major concern when it comes to generalization; that is, will the skill taught in 1:1 generalize into group environment? Usually, it does take time but when instructors are skilled at eliciting these skill sets, students are able to stay on-task and motivated. The ALLSR includes this skill as a target, which at least to me, says it's worth considering.

When planning for maximum engagement there are themes....and there are themes.

Themes are a great way to keep social skills classes focused and age-appropriate. When working with themes it is important to do your research, not every idea on the internet works out and it is best to test it out before hand. I also like to have a few "in case of flop" ideas hanging around to; sometimes, you just can't plan for a lack of interest or a failure to launch. Some ideas just don't work, and it's best to let it go and move on. 

When planning themes, and all the while planning for generalization, I try to make themes functional, but also subjects of interest; anytime I can toss some life-skills into the mix, I do that too. I recommend you take your themes to the "next level"; include vocabulary, theme based games and of course arts and crafts should reflect a clear theme (from fish to french fries, topics and themes come in all shapes and sizes).

I always try to simulate real life scenarios; in a french fry unit I might host a mock restaurant, or in a shapes unit we might try cooking with only things that are round. This year I plan to simulate a buffet; a particular area of concern for some of my little ones.  Keeping it hands on, theme based, and outside the box helps our kids stay engages with the activity and with each other.

As always, thank you to

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