Social Skill Development and Special Needs Kids
For families with special needs students, difficulties with social situations seem to rank right up there with academic concerns when it comes to the Top Ten Ranking of panic-alert issues in homeschooling. Many of my own clients have decided to homeschool after their special needs child was the victim of repeated rejection, name-calling or bullying in a traditional school setting. And, unfortunately, the same scenario repeats itself across all settings in the child’s life – church, scouts, sports, summer camp and so on. From an outsider’s view, it often looks like the special child “asks for it” – you know this child – he’s always “in your face,” or bouncing off the walls, or appears to ignore the adult leaders, or is always two steps behind everyone else in the next activity, or worse yet, breaks down in tears or angry outbursts at the slightest provocation.
Whether your child has Attention Deficit Disorder, Aspergers Syndrome, Down Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a Learning Disability, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a physical handicap or even a chronic health issue, social skill development may not come easily in the course of your child’s development. However, within the homeschooling community, there are wonderful opportunities to teach other parents and kids a little something about your child’s special needs, and work with them to develop mutual strategies for including your child in group activities.
Set the standard for inclusion
These days, homeschoolers do an amazing variety of group activities together, including learning co-ops, organized classes, field trips, sports and music groups. The adult organizers of these groups may need specific information about your child’s strengths and limitations, and how to make accommodations to include him in the group’s activities. The other kids might benefit from some direct instruction, modeling and role-playing to learn some ways to interact with your child without being condescending or phony. And in all settings, the adults in charge need to make it absolutely clear that name-calling, bullying or excluding other kids is NOT acceptable.
In all the classes and groups that I have taught over the past 30 years, the first lesson on Day#1 is this: Nobody treats anybody like garbage in my class. I commit to treat you (the student) with respect and I expect that you will do the same with me and with each of the other students. Then we go on to a simple discussion that covers topics such as:
– Do we want to be just like everyone else?
– Do we want to be so different that we don’t fit into a group?
– How can we express our strong feelings without getting out of control?
– How can we express our differences of opinion politely?
– What do we tend to do when other kids are a bit different in what they wear, or the things they are interested in, or the way they interact with you
– What are some ways we can make everyone feel included in this group?
If there are students with special needs in the group, then I will talk privately with the parents (and the special needs students, if they are older and capable of contributing their own thoughts and feelings to the discussion) about ways to make social interactions work better for the student. Then, I talk briefly to the class about the strategies we will use to enhance peer relationships and group dynamics for all the students, and any accommodations we will make for students with unique needs. I remind each student: At some time in your life, YOU will be the new or different person in a group. How will you feel if other people make fun of you or leave you out? The way you treat others now is the way others will treat you someday. Then I lay it on the line – my clear expectation: In this group, disruptive behavior or meanness to other students will not be allowed. In this group, each student is special and has something valuable to contribute. No garbage. Period.
Brad was a strapping big 7th grader in one of my 4-H Clubs, confined to a wheelchair from progressive muscular dystrophy. He also had some learning disabilities with reading and written language, but strong expressive verbal skills. We made simple accommodations for Brad – doing our plant science activities in my garage since his wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the narrow doorways of my Victorian home, letting his mom write some of the answers that he dictated in his project books, choosing field trips that would be wheelchair accessible. Brad participated in everything – propagating plants from cuttings and seeds, participating in our annual planting of 1,000 flowers at our county courthouse, even doing one of the dreaded 4-H speech demonstrations. The other kids accepted him as he was, and endured the special accommodations without complaint.
Often, however, the special needs child needs extra help maintaining his self-control even when emotionally charged, following basic group rules, and respecting the rights of others. The child or young person who is developmentally delayed often has difficulty picking up on the subtle (or sometimes obvious) social cues of other people. He may not notice or be able to interpret facial expressions, gestures or body language which cue the rest of us to what is likely to happen next. This child cannot gauge the intensity of someone else’s emotions – he just can’t see that his own behavior is driving his playmate up the wall. Social dynamics are culturally-based, and often the autistic or emotionally fragile child develops his own private world, and needs intensive training in “cross-cultural” skills in order to learn how to interact meaningfully (and safely) with other people. When I was visiting the Masai people in Kenya, it was astonishing to learn that taking photos of young babies was taboo (the mothers believed that the cameras would pull the baby’s spirit out through the soft spot on his heads), but spitting on babies was a form of blessing. Our American social rules must seem as unfathomable to some special needs children as the Masai values seem to us.
Next Month: What social skills and how to teach them to your child