Home Private Practice Helping Middle School Students Hit Social Skills Targets

Helping Middle School Students Hit Social Skills Targets

by Stephanie Sanders
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One arrow of many hitting the center of the target

Discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate social skills during speech-language treatment sessions is easier said than done. Middle school students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need more than just a reactive system to make connections between themselves and missed social rules. I often experience successful results using the “T” in The F.I.L.T.E.R. Approach:  Are you hitting or missing the “target” in conversation? I find this a relatable method to address adolescents’ personal pragmatic challenges.

Heroic characters like Katniss from “The Hunger Games,” DC Comic’s Arrow and Marvel’s Hawkeye only add relevance to target lessons. I bombard students on my caseload and those in my weekly “Life Skills” elective class with these characters. Referencing the archery trend in television and movies even earned me some credibility with teenagers!

To introduce the target concept during this class, we discuss objectives for competitive sports like darts and archery. Hitting the bull’s eye is always desirable, but it takes such precision to achieve perfection. Ultimately, landing on the target itself allows you to score points. With practice, aim improves and missing the mark occurs less frequently. My students quickly transfer this concept into social or people skills. I include myself when I say that not one person on the planet achieves flawless social behavior in all situations. We don’t have to achieve perfection to score points, but we do need to at least hit the target. Missing consistently can damage your relationships and reputation.

How can someone hit the target, socially? You’re hitting the target and scoring points by making pleasant, interesting contributions to a conversation. Focused effort with your aim positively affects relationships and decreases socially awkward moments, while you develop good social habits for the future.

First, I use an actual target for visual support while we discuss and practice the following general social rules:

Aim to “hit the target” in conversation by:

  • being kind and courteous
  • giving space
  • using relaxed responses
  • asking simple questions

Next, we move to a target listing various misses and brainstorm negative results from these social errors.

You will “miss the target” in conversation with:

  • meltdowns
  • not creating personal space
  • topic obsessions
  • insults (and many more)

We circle or highlight applicable areas self-reported or teacher-reported. Shockingly (that’s sarcasm), some students report no social imperfections whatsoever. I load my “quiver” with specific examples, of blatant misses students have made right in front of me…and even toward me.

In fact, I base many scenario activities that tie into the curriculum on actual events. Some of those poorly aimed arrows landed right in my treatment plan book. Additional activities require students to recognize comments in scenarios as social hits or misses, explain the misses and then fix the misses.

Finally, I tailor personal targets to each student. I create these blank targets as individualized tools for pinpointing social rules applicable to specific students. A student then writes four social goals on their target as intended “hits.” We write self-reported and teacher-reported frequent social errors off to the sides as “misses.” We also identify significant social misses, which could result in severe consequences, such as detentions, suspensions and expulsions.

I encourage general education teachers to keep my clients’ personalized targets in accessible locations to visually prompt students before class or if they experience a disruption. Teachers can easily report hits and misses daily or weekly per parent request. The student’s entire IEP team must realize pragmatic perfection isn’t our goal. However, increased social hits with fewer social misses confirms progress. The most gratifying moments occur when teachers successfully redirect students simply with the verbal prompt: “Are you hitting the target?”


Stephanie D. Sanders, MA, CCC-SLP, has worked in the Brevard (Florida) County public schools for 16 years and previously specialized in pediatric rehabilitation through private practice. She published a book about her social skills techniques, “The F.I.L.T.E.R. Approach: Social Communication Skills for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”  Learn more at www.thefilterapproach.com or email her at stephanie@thefilterapproach.com.  

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1 comment

Phyllis Alrikas August 4, 2017 - 12:17 pm

Stephanie what a wonderful thing that you are doing with the book that you have written…!!!! Encouraging and showing the children there are other ways to approach situations. I applaud you on the book you took the time to write now so many more can benefit by your words of wisdom. Keep on teaching you’re amazing ?

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