How to Make Social Skills Stick

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At Communication Works, a private practice in Oakland, California, we’re passionate about partnering with parents and caregivers in the treatment process. When it comes to social learning, many children struggle to carry over learned skills from the therapy setting or school to their home environment. Parents are in a perfect position to help practice and facilitate those skills and help make them stick! As professionals, we can give parents the awareness and knowledge as well as the tools and strategies to help them embrace teachable moments and guide their children. Even though parents are busy and sometimes overwhelmed, we can enlist their help without making stressful demands on their time. Parents are usually eager to help as long as we offer specific, easy activities that fit within the family’s natural routines.

Whenever possible, try to support the things parents are already doing and to piggyback onto those activities, such as reading bedtime stories, doing chores, or eating dinner. As an example, if a child is working on conversational turn taking in therapy, families can pass a “talking stick” (a spoon or spatula) at the dinner table to signify whose turn it is to talk and facilitate taking turns when describing each person’s day. If the child is working on “wh” or “wonder” questions (who, what, when, where, etc.) and you are using a visual prompt to facilitate this in therapy, make a copy of that visual and send it home for parents to use with their children during meal times or when having conversations in the car..

If you’ve created a roadmap or social story for an event at school, share a copy with parents. If the child has an event coming up (a graduation, birthday party, holiday, etc.), offer examples of details the parent can share with the child about what is expected during that event. For example, if a child is planning to attend a graduation for the first time, the parent can explain about caps, gowns, and diplomas (and why students toss the caps into the air) as well as how much sitting still and listening time the child can expect. If the child hasn’t yet attended a July 4th celebration, the parent can prepare the child for a big crowd and loud noises. They can discuss the type of behavior expected in a crowd and how to make the event more enjoyable and comfortable for the child, perhaps by bringing earplugs or asking for a break when feeling overwhelmed.

Parents also appreciate simple suggestions for teachable moments that may occur during part of the family routine or in the community. For example, if you’ve worked on increasing observational skills and understanding nonverbal language, talk to the parents about setting up a time for them, to take their child out for a snack and do some “people watching.” This can not only be an excellent opportunity to generalize a skill learned in the therapy setting, but can be a great bonding experience for parents and children. Teach the parents how to play “social detective” with their child and identify how the other people in the coffee shop are related, how they are feeling, and possibly what they are talking about. If you’re teaching sequencing during a therapy session, show parents how to practice this skill by sequencing out the steps for baking cupcakes or making a birthday card. If you’re focusing on self-regulation strategies like calm breathing, show the parent how to practice by placing a teddy bear or book on the child’s belly and watching it go up and down. As you develop new lessons, think about how parents could easily adapt them for home use. Be sure to provide handouts or information for them to share with other family members, and keep activities “no fuss” for busy parents.

Therapists working in schools will have limited time with parents, but can communicate through notes, logs, or a binder that goes back and forth from home to school. If you work in a private setting, consider bringing parents into group or individual sessions for a portion of the time, and have the child(ren) show what they have learned. Take a few minutes to brainstorm with the parent about ways to practice at home. Parents appreciate knowing the why’s as well as the how-to’s. Without overwhelming them with pages of information, provide the reasoning behind a particular activity as well as specifics about how to carry it out at home.

Social learning is a 24/7 process, and kids need support to be able to bring learned skills into the home and community. If professionals don’t collaborate with parents, the child misses countless opportunities for practicing essential social skills. When we do engage parents in the process, they can serve as both coaches and cheerleaders for their children. If we give parents the right tools, knowledge, and encouragement, they can feel confident and inspired to play an essential role in bridging the gap between therapy and real life.

Elizabeth Sautter, M.A. CCC-SLP is co-director and co-owner of Communication Works, a private practice in Oakland, California, offering speech, language, social, and occupational therapy. She is the co-author of the Whole Body Listening Larry books. Her most recent book is Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence Through Everyday Routines and Activities. She can be reached at makesociallearningstick@gmail.com or follow her: website; Facebook; Pinterest; Twitter.