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.

Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication and Coding Skills

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If you are looking for a fun way to target social communication skills, as well as beginning computer programming, Robot Turtles is a great new board game you can play with your students (with or without autism). Robot Turtles requires players to use simple commands to move their turtles to capture a jewel on the game board. When students give commands, they are replicating the process computer programmers use to give instructions for a computer to execute. Games, in general, provide opportunities for social communication; Robot Turtles in particular involves specific interactions between the game players that enable more opportunities for social communication. For students who show an interest in games and computers, playing Robot Turtles can be a highly engaging way to practice social communication. Check out this video.

During game play, it is easy to provide students with opportunities to practice five different social communication skills:

1) Perspective taking: As turtle masters, students take the perspective of their turtles on the game board in order to decide which way to move. If they were to take their own perspectives, players may not move in the intended direction; success in the game depends on the ability to make decisions based on a different perspective.
2) Turn taking: Students also actively take turns throughout the game. Not only do they have to wait for the other turtle masters to complete their turns, but students do not actually move their own game pieces. The adult overseeing the game, otherwise known as the turtle mover, is in charge of executing the moves on the game board based on student commands.
3) Eye contact and body language: Since turtle masters don’t move their own pieces, they must clearly communicate their commands to the turtle mover. This offers a good opportunity to practice politely giving directions, as well as utilizing eye contact and body language to effectively communicate and acknowledge the turtle mover.
4) Following directions: In return, the turtle mover may communicate directions for the turtle masters to follow. The turtle mover also ensure players are aware of and adhere to the rules of the game.
5) Making comments: Throughout game play, students can be encouraged to make positive comments directed specifically to other turtle masters. For example, a student could say, “Nice move. I like how you did that!” when another player makes a good move in the game. In Robot Turtles, the goal is not to have one winner; all students keep playing until they achieve the goal for that specific level. Establishing a positive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be successful creates a great opportunity for modeling and practicing comments.

Robot Turtles can be played with children as young as four, all the way up to middle or high school. The game has several levels so it is easy to adapt game play based on student age and experience with the game. The upper levels of the game require sophisticated logic and analytical skills to complete the challenges, while the simple levels introduce children to basic logic. Either way, social communication skills can be targeted in various ways throughout the game.

Eric Sailers, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist with eight years of experience who currently works with high school students. He has an assistive technology certificate and a mobile programming certificate specializing in iOS. When he is not providing speech-language services in schools, he is creating iOS apps and delivering presentations.

Pragmatics with Elephant and Piggie

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Are you working on social skills and building appropriate conversation with children ages 4 and older? Are you looking for more playful and fun ways to teach pragmatic skills and engage a child’s attention during therapy sessions?

Mo Willems is one of my favorite children’s book authors. Some favorite titles of mine are Knuffle Bunny and That is Not A Good Idea, and of course the infamous Elephant and Piggie books, which include A Big Guy Took My Ball, Should I Share My Ice Cream? My Friend Is Sad and many more. Mo Willem’s collection of Elephant and Piggie’s books expand to more than 20 books.

The Elephant and Piggie books are witty, silly and excellent for teaching some important social skills to children with delays or deficits with their pragmatic language skills.  These books are also ideal to read in a classroom or with a small social skills group because they are naturally engaging and can facilitate language.

Elephant and Piggie are best friends and treat each other with love and respect, which is an excellent friendship model for any child. I’ve used Elephant and Piggie books to help teach the following pragmatic skills:

  1. Turn Taking in Conversation: Elephant and Piggie have simple and animated conversation with each other and in certain stories, other characters. The conversation flows naturally between the characters and is related to a specific topic (great for practicing maintaining conversation). Role play after reading the book! A role playing activity can be a fun activity in a social skills group.
  2. Interpreting Body Language: Elephant and Piggie are extremely animated and express themselves well through body language. When reading an Elephant and Piggie book, discuss how the character’s body language shows how he is feeling (e.g. Elephant is jumping up a down, he must be excited!, Piggie is crying, he must be sad)  This is an ideal opportunity to ask questions and model language.
  3. When and why to use intonation in conversation: Mo Willems uses many explanation points, bold and italic wording to express the emotions and feelings of Elephant and Piggie. For example, in the book, “We Are In A Book,” Elephant jumps up and down and says “THAT IS SO COOL!” Ask your client, “Is Elephant whispering or shouting? How do you know?” Discuss when and where it is appropriate to use a soft or loud voice. When you are reading the book, make sure to use appropriate intonation as related to the text. I recently wrote an article about using intonation when reading to a child. Another great carryover book to teach punctuation and facilitate language would be with the picture book, “Exclamation Mark” by Amy Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld.
  4. Discussing Emotions:  Elephant and Piggie have intensive feelings and emotions in this series which makes it really conducive to discussion within a group. Ask your client how the characters are feeling and why. In Should I Share My Ice Cream? Elephant is confused about whether he wants to share his ice cream with Piggie. Discuss what “confusion” means and relate to an experience you or your client has had recently.
  5. Expanding and maintaining a topic within a conversation: Elephant and Piggie have extensive conversation in each of their books. Discuss how the characters extend conversation, maintain a topic and keep the dialog going. Determine if it’s by question, comment, etc. This can be a great exercise that can easily be carried over to other conversations with peers.

Other goals can include answering “wh” questions, building literacy skills, expanding vocabulary, describing, commenting, improving narrative skills and recalling information. This series of Elephant and Piggie books are also available at most libraries, which make them accessible.

More information about the Elephant and Piggie series is available online. If you have any comments, please comment below!

Rebecca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two young children, who began her website www.gravitybread.com to create a resource for parents to help make mealtime an enriched learning experience . She discusses the benefits of reading to young children during mealtime, shares recipes with language tips and carryover activities, reviews children’s books for typical children and those with special needs as well as educational apps. She has worked for many years with both children and adults with developmental disabilities in a variety of settings including schools, day habilitation programs, home care and clinics. She can be reached at becca@gravitybread.com, or you can follow her on Facebook; on Twitter; or on Pinterest.