Using "social building blocks" - from play into academics

Michelle G. Winner

Thoughts on how social skill deficits also relate to academic performance.

Doug has difficulty playing during recess. He walks around the playground talking to himself, not being invited to play by students. He clearly is "different" from others in that he has not intuitively developed skills for playing, even now that he has special teachers working with him. Relating to kids his own age continues to be a problem of primary focus for his educational team. Doug has difficulty paying attention to what other people are thinking by watching them. Other kids can figure out if they are welcome to join a group, what the group would do next, how the group is organized and how each of the kids feel about the other kids they are playing with. Doug does not even realize how important these skills are, thinking about others and their thoughts. He does not understand why kids think it is so much fun to play together. In addition, he also does not appear to know how to keep his body in a group and he fails to use eye contact, except when cued. Verbally, Doug loves to talk about things of great interest to him. For a fourth grader, he has amazing knowledge about space and NASA. He happily talks to adults and children alike about this topic, even if they do not have the time or interest in what he is saying. Doug thinks that communication is talking about what he likes to think about. He feels that most of the other kids at school are not good students because they don't think enough about important things like he does.

Doug's parents are aware that he is quite different in his social development from their other children. However, he appears to be so smart and determined to learn information that is of interest to him that they do not perceive him as a child with learning problems. The school district gave him tests that indicate a solid intelligence, and language and academic skills at grade level. While everyone knows that Doug is not like most of the other kids in class, his peers think Doug is quite "odd." It is difficult for his educational team to figure out if he needs further special education services and if so, what exactly the services should be. It is agreed that the speech language pathologist will work with him on developing social skills and the occupational therapist will work with him on developing better penmanship, given that he has difficulty with his fine motor skills.

His teachers appreciate Doug's intelligence even if he has a hard time functioning in a group. They report he is reluctant to study topics that are unrelated to science and space. Adults think he is charming given that he is polite and has so many interesting things to say.

The same skills that the other kids develop during social interactions and play: the ability to think about others, observe what they were doing, predict what they will do next, getting an idea how the overall social play is organized, determining the feelings of others, keeping their bodies at appropriate distances to interact but not so close as to offend, and forming language to add to the play are the exact same skills needed to work as a member of a group in a classroom. Doug's peers have been learning these skills since they were toddlers.

These play skills also appear to be incredibly important towards helping students to learn how to interpret social information that is embedded in their classroom studies. Reading comprehension of literature, social studies and history all require an understanding of other people's motives, intentions and emotions. Math estimation and word problems require a student to move beyond the facts and provide some level of interpretation and analysis. Written expression can even be impacted when a student has difficulty getting his thoughts organized around a topic that is not intrinsically interesting to him.

One thing that Doug's teachers do notice is that 4th grade for Doug is a lot harder than 3rd grade. He is noticeably more anxious during class, he is not learning how to organize his many materials well and his classmates seem increasingly aware that he is not someone they could easily work with. During an IEP meeting for Doug, his parents express growing concern about his lack of abilities. They know Doug feels badly that other kids seem to be able to be happy with each other and he feels left out. They also see that Doug's social weaknesses persist at home. It is difficult for him to be a part of their dinner table discussions. He often gets up and wanders away when he feels he is done eating, yet they have discussed their expectation of eating together, as a family, many times. His parents request to have Doug learn to have a conversation with others as the focus of his speech and language sessions They think other goals will be beneficial for Doug, such as using good eye-contact, maintaining a conversation and taking turns when talking.

Doug's speech language pathologist, school psychologist, occupational therapist and classroom teacher agree with his parents' descriptions of Doug's lack of "social connectedness." However they want to take a different approach to helping him. They recommend exploring what "social thinking building blocks" Doug is missing. The lack of these skills causes him to have such difficulty in his play, conversational skills, and interacting as part of a group. Within his academic learning demands, an increasing problem is noticed in his ability to comprehend what he is reading when it relates to social information or less interesting topics. He also continues to struggle with written expression and overall organization of his materials.

The team recognizes that Doug does not fully appreciate how he is suppose to think about others, whether he is playing, talking or reading about characters in a book. They want to write a goal explore how to think about other people. The goal reads: "Using comic strip conversations, (a therapy technique) Doug will be able to determine what different people are thinking, at different times of the day, 65% accuracy with minimal cues". Related benchmarks are written to explore what kids are likely thinking during play, what teachers are likely thinking when they ask kids to work in groups and what characters are likely thinking when he reads about them in books.

As the team continues their discussion they realize how many skills spring from thinking about others during play and within a classroom setting. It is determined that Doug needs to become better at learning to watch or observe others. A goal is written to help Doug figure out what people (students and teachers) were planning to do next. Benchmarks are written to help Doug learn to "read" other people's eyes so that he can start to see that where people are looking often related to what they are thinking about. A benchmark is also written to help him read people's body gestures and body actions so that he can start to figure out what messages the people are saying with their bodies. The team discusses that this is the same type of information students use to interpret what they are reading about characters in a book or going out to play at recess when they want to join a group.

They also decide to encourage Doug to use language to explore what other people are thinking/talking about so he can learn that social interaction and that communication is more than just talking about his own interests. They start with writing a goal that states that Doug will be able to "Ask questions of other people to these people 65% of the time with minimal cues". A benchmark is written to help Doug learn strategies to remember things about others, since it is much easier to ask people questions if you can remember things that they like to do or that they are planning to do.

Finally, a goal is written to help Doug learn how to talk about his own life in a way that it makes more sense to others. Doug has difficulty figuring out what information he needs to tell people since he often doesn't think about what information people already know or don't know. The team cautions everyone to be aware that when a child is dealing with significant weaknesses in social thinking their learning curve is slow but steady. They help the parents to be comfortable with the fact that the goals are not focused on an ultimate end product - of achieving success in the ‘big ticket social items' - such as spontaneous group play and conversation. Rather for Doug, a student with a very significant social thinking learning disability, the short term goals, for this year and probably next year, will be in helping Doug to build some basic building blocks of social thinking and knowledge. These goals will help him to slowly, but surely, develop skills towards understanding and interacting with peers, learning more about how to participate within a group in the classroom and on campus and being able to interpret and understand more abstract information in his required reading in literature, social studies and even science.

The focus for Doug is to increase his awareness of critical aspects of social information and begin to learn some related social skills. The goals and objectives are clearly not written to make all of Doug's problems ‘go away' within a year or even 5 years. The team and his parents agree that while it would be nice to have his difficulties disappear, it is not realistic. However, they are pleased that they have a solid starting point that they expect will break the information down in a way that will assist Doug. These social thinking building blocks will help him to improve one step at a time.

Other goals were also written for his needs in the area of occupational therapy, his behavioral attention issues in the classroom and his need to learn to ask for help in class. It is recommended that the resource teacher become more involved in his case. The academic demands are clearly causing Doug anxiety, even if his test scores do not show that he has problems. Standardized tests often do not do a good job of picking up problems related to abstract social thinking learning disabilities.

It is acknowledged that while the speech language pathologist, classroom teacher and the occupational therapist are important members of this educational team, each person who works and lives with a child with difficulty in social thinking and social interactions is responsible for following through with these basic social lessons. Thus the special educators needs time not only to work with the child but to also work with teachers and parents, helping them to learn to teach these unique, but very important, skills to children on the high end of the autism spectrum or with similar diagnostic labels. The ultimate goal is to help Doug, and other children like him, to become a better social thinker by becoming more aware of his social surroundings and expected responses across the home and school day.

Michelle G. Winner is a speech language pathologist and a specialist in working with students with social cognitive challenges, in private practice in San Jose, California. She has numerous products to help educators and parents to better understand their students. She works with clients in her "Social Thinking Clinic" and she also travels around the nation and world providing workshops on this topic. Michelle is known for her down to earth approach and practical strategies. In 2008 she was given a Congressional Recognition Award.

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