In my last post, I mentioned the importance of teaching social skills in the classroom, and promised to share some ideas. I’d like to begin with my favorite group of students…..the little guys! Given that the majority of my teaching experience has been with preschoolers and Kindergartners I have a tendency to feel strongly about social skills instruction in the classroom as students are just entering school for the first time. Although a good deal of what children learn in preschool has to do with getting along with others and following rules for appropriate social behavior, not all students are easy to reach. I thought I’d share an idea I’ve utilized in the classroom, which can be used as a jumping off point for other ideas and strategies, and which may be adapted for different age levels.
Several years ago, I was involved in the integration of students with autism into a classroom of typically developing four year olds. Although we adapted activities and attempted to facilitate interactions when opportunities arose, the students never seemed to initiate interactions on their own. The naturally occurring opportunities seemed to occur with less frequency, and we found that the typical preschoolers needed as much support in the interactions as did the students with autism. At that point, we stepped back and looked at how we were attempting to teach the skills needed for these interactions, and decided to directly intervene in a more structured and systematic way.
We realized a few things about teaching the social skills we wanted to improve in the classroom:
- First, we needed to motivate students to use certain “target” skills, as the interactions in and of themselves were not necessarily reinforcing enough. We developed a classroom reward system, whereby the students would be able to earn a classroom “Friendship Party” once enough bees were earned to fill the honeypot that we posted on the wall. The honeypot poster was labeled “Bee A Friend”.
- We needed to identify the specific skills we were looking to increase, and we developed lessons for each skill. We spent time once per week teaching and practicing a new skill. The rest of the week was devoted to teachers catching and rewarding students demonstrating the skill on their own in the classroom. When this occurred, the student was able to put a bee in the honeypot, while the staff publicly praised the student and described why they had earned a bee for the class.
- As new skills were taught, it was important for us to review the previously taught skills, and be sure to continue to reward any of the “target” skills. For this particular classroom, we were teaching students to ask for a turn nicely, to appropriately reject a peer (without screeching, whining, or being “mean”), to invite somebody to come play, and to help each other.
- We realized that we needed to do a lot of rewarding up front, but start to reward students more intermittently as they got used to the new system. It was also important to spread the rewards around, and not always be so quick to call attention to the students who caught on very quickly. It was important to catch those who were most in need of social development, even if some of the initial skills were prompted.
- Finally, it was important that the students realized that they were working together to achieve a reward for the whole class. Students were not in competition with each other, they were a team. The Friendship Party was for the whole class, regardless of how many times any given student contributed to the effort. (It was up to the staff to be sure everyone contributed on some level, however, even if prompted.)
The students really seemed to enjoy this system, the lessons, and the rewards. Most importantly, we did see students start to gain more independence with handling social situations that were sometimes difficult. Such a reward system could be easily adapted for a variety of age levels and targeted social skills. The main things to keep in mind for implementation include:
-Identify the skills you want to improve, as well as a theme that would appeal to the students.
-Communicate clearly to students and provide instruction/practice opportunities.
-Reward heavily in the beginning, and fade to a more intermittent schedule as students buy into the system and begin using skills more naturally on their own.
As always, I welcome readers to share thoughts and ideas on this topic. I’d especially enjoy hearing from teachers of older students, as I recognize these systems may have limitations for the middle and high school set, when socialization takes a tremendous number of twists and turns!