A social skills group can be a valuable way to foster necessary social skills in children with special needs, who often exhibit slower social skills development than their peers do. Saying “please” and “thank you;” learning when to participate in a conversation and when to simply listen; discovering how to respond to others and how to appropriately ask for help…these are all areas where children with special needs may need extra support.
Those in speech therapy jobs – or other types of therapy jobs – must set up and run a social skills group in such a way that the participants learn valuable social skills in a safe environment. Through the incorporation of exercises and activities, you can encourage social interaction among the participants, and guide them in discussing their experiences. So…how to get started?
Running a Social Skill Group – Set Up
Before the start of your social skills group session, it is important to determine the demographics, session frequency, curriculum and other group characteristics.
Identify Ideal Participants
Most therapy jobs focus on specific student age groups. Even a four year gap between the youngest and eldest participant (e.g. ages 8 to 12) may be too broad a range for students to effectively learn social skills. Students may struggle with a wide range of social skills, and it may be necessary for the group to emphasize one or more skills.
Decide on Curriculum
The specific curriculum you use for your social skills group will depend on the age and skills your clients most need to work on improving. While you may have an environment that allows you to be flexible and change lessons based on the needs of the clients, your speech therapist job allows for you to also have a prepared curriculum that may include teaching about emotions, conversations, sportsmanship, manners and conflict.
Determine the Number of Sessions
After determining needs and curriculum, decide on the number of social skills group sessions. If your therapy job is in a school setting, your social skills group may last either the entire school year, or a segment of it.
Set the Group Size
Group size is critical when factoring your social skills group dynamic. While you need enough participants to make social interaction possible, consider that the presence of too many students could inhibit social learning – especially if one or more group members feel intimidated or insecure in larger groups. Generally, three to eight persons is a decently-sized group.
Running a Social Skills Group – Session Time
Now that you’re finished with the practicalities of social skills group setup, here are some session structure recommendations for running a social skills group in your job as a speech therapist.
The children entering your group will be in different moods and mindsets. Some will be ready to interact, while others may hold back. Check in with each student to assess their current moods and readiness levels.
A great way to help group members to get engaged is to allow for some open time to interact and play. This prepares them to learn together as a group. The type of play will very much depend on the age range of the clients in the group but may include games, iPad apps designed for social skills development or activities (e.g. hopscotch, cards, a craft, etc.).
Once the students have interacted as a group without direction, bring them together for review. The review time will consist of reviewing group rules, talking about lessons from the previous group and sharing successes/achievements.
With each group lesson, be sure to define a goal. Encourage the students to participate in the goal setting process so that they learn this valuable skill for their own use. Help them to determine what a good goal may look like and then to set the individual goal for themselves based on what the class lesson will be for that day.
For students to learn and apply new social skills, any activities should be fun and engaging. Facilitate role-play situations so students can practice what they are learning. Also, if you ask in every session if there are any other skills they want to learn, you will be able to adapt your curriculum to the ever-evolving needs of students.
Prompting and Re-direction
As the students interact and practice their newfound social skills, be sure to use prompts and encouragement appropriately. Early in the lesson, prompts will be more directed and obvious and should become less explicit over time. Encourage and reinforce the right behaviors and redirect wrong behaviors as needed.
Some students with whom you will be work in your speech therapy job may not yet have the intrinsic motivation to succeed at learning social skills; in light of that, establishing a merit-based system of reinforcement will be valuable to success. You can determine whether rewards should be the same for all students, or customized. Some ideas for rewards include stickers, small toys, verbal praise, written compliments from each group member, hugs or high-fives or tokens to “buy” things like larger toys.
Maintaining consistency with group structure is important, but allow for enough flexibility to allow for individualized attention so all participants in the group can truly benefit.
Beyond the Social Skills Group Sessions
Remember: the most important aspect of learning should be the real world application of valuable skills in daily life. As part of your speech therapy job, you will be interacting with students’ parents and classroom teachers to provide progress updates. When providing feedback, you can recommend social skills activities for parents and teachers to reinforce the social skills learned in the group.