Teaching Social Skills To Children With Special Needs

Many children with special needs, especially those on the Autism Spectrum, don’t have the social understanding that enables other kids to navigate the various social situations they find themselves in. They operate in environments that take for granted that this ‘social instinct’ is present, when in many children, these neural connections are missing.
What are some of the important social skills we should be equipping our kids with?
–          making and keeping friends
–          cooperation
–          turn-taking
–          listening
–          patience
–          being respectful
–          helping others
As mentioned in last week’s article www.chilledkids.com/tips-for-calm-and-happy-kids , skills such as these have to be taught explicitly to the child with special needs. They will not necessarily just ‘pick them up’. The teaching of social skills is a life-long journey. It requires patience, consistency and flexibility.
Here are some quick tips for teaching these skills to your child with special needs:
–          As you play at home together, follow your child’s interests. Verbalise what you are doing and your observations e.g. “Oh you’ve finished with the red crayon, I might use that now”. If sharing is an issue, set a timer so they know when they will get the original item back.
–          When reading a book or watching a video, discuss the characters facial expressions and body language and what they might be feeling or thinking. Draw their attention to the emotions of others. Or watch TV with the sound turned off. Are those people happy? Scared? Are they friends? What will happen next?
–          Joining sporting groups and other community activities can be very successful though you will have to choose them carefully and prepare your child. Before the sessions, discuss expectations, role play what might happen and draw pictures. Take photos of your child at these activities and discuss them later i.e. “There’s a photo of you waiting for your turn behind that girl. Well done”.
–          Social interactions can be overwhelming. Teach your child an appropriate way to let an adult know that they need a break from a social situation. They can learn to verbalise “I need a break” or hand a ‘Break’ card to the appropriate person. This is a valuable self-regulation tool.
–          As with all things associated with students with additional learning needs, you need to be very explicit. Explain exactly what it means to ‘be a good listener’ i.e. you should maintain eye contact, nod in agreement or to show you understood something, don’t interrupt etc.
–          You will need to do it over and over again. It may seem formulaic, but have in your mind one social skill to teach each week. Repeat it again in a few weeks time.
–          Kids with special needs often don’t ‘read’ social cues such as body language and tone of voice. We need to teach the skill as well as the underlying ‘social knowledge’. Social stories are an effective way to do this and are easy to make. A social story is a verbal or written story, usually with pictures, aimed at teaching a specific behaviour or skill. It can help explain what’s happening in the environment, social behaviours and social thinking. It need not be complicated and you don’t have to be an artist. It could be for any social situation – learning how to smile and say hello to a new friend, how to behave at a restaurant, moving to a new school. Two useful Aussie websites are: http://www.cheri.com.au/documents/Whataresocialstories.pdf
–          Studies have shown that free play, as opposed to highly structured activities, encourages more social interaction in children (with or without disabilities). However, the amount of social interaction increases when adults initially provide a certain amount of structure (establishing rules, assigning roles).
–          It’s ok if your child shows a preference for play with younger children. They may feel a sense of social competence they don’t get when they play with same-age peers.
Jiselle Simpson is Director of Chilled Kids, an educational support service specialising in creating programs for children with additional learning or behavioural needs.  For more information on how Chilled Kids can help your child visit our website at www.chilledkids.com, phone 0408 716 350 or email jiselle@chilledkids.com

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