Teaching Social Skills to Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home and at School
By Jean Newton, M.A.
The field of learning disabilities has experienced a surge in development of ideas and attention to Nonverbal learning disabilities of late. The past decade has brought attention to the area of nonverbal processing and the effects of learning disabilities on nonverbal social communication. There is no other area of learning more critical for children and no other area where parent and school cooperation is more vital. The importance of social competency is a central theme in a person’s self-narrative (Palumbo), it elicits or encourages ongoing interactions, and it influences development in other domains (Piaget). Vaughn and Hogan found social competence analogous to general intelligence in that it is a higher order construct “made up of many components that combine to affect behavior.” Martha Denkla describes social competence as transactional (involves another), dynamic (steps occur interdependently), with separable steps one can perform whether aware of them or not. The separate skills of social interaction can be catalogued but questions as to how to teach these in ways that can be generalized have been raised and remain to be answered. In the meantime, however, teachers and parents both need information: what is social competence, how can I teach skills that are durable, and how can I help my child right now?
Social cognition and social competence, as well as the social skills that contribute to these, must be understood. First of all, social cognition is the sets of thoughts, neural processes, behaviors and skills brought to bear on interactions. It is how a child makes an interpretation of the other’s behavior. Nonverbal processes of perception, memory and comprehension form the child’s intuitive or logical representation of others. The behaviors and skills learned through these processes result in performance in social competency. Parents have brought practical and urgent concerns about their child’s social competence to teachers for decades. Only recently has evidence of the nature of social skill deficits been clarified for teachers; classroom conduct rules, lessons on sharing, the importance of friendships have always been taught, but there is ample evidence that children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Asperger’s syndrome, and other neurobehavioral disorders fail to profit from this instruction and may fail to develop social competency. We do see evidence that nonverbal social communication is disrupted, such as the knowledge of how long a “turn” to take in a conversation, or the meaning of facial expressions and gestures.
At the same time, the classroom makes up much of the child’s social environment. Clean-up, lining up and turn-taking comprise much social interaction in the classroom. These interactions stem from the child’s social world and take place because the school has brought children together: the child experiences social interaction along with the teaching and learning process. The way in which children take part in the tasks of learning is also a part of the social process among children. As children form positive relationships they are more likely to be able to negotiate problems to an agreeable end. For example, if a child initiating a negotiation uses a strategy that disregards the other’s rights or interest, the negotiation ends without an accepted solution, whereas if the issue is discussed freely and the initiating child acknowledges a common interest, the negotiation usually terminates with agreement (Krappman, 1996).
Other factors influence social interaction: children in early to middle school years show a preference for same-gender play groups, and children in this age group with disabilities are more successful in dyads than in larger groups. With younger children, free play with non-stereotypical toys encouraged the most opportunity for social interaction. With school aged children, interactions where a teacher set the theme, assigned roles and set rules provided the most interaction opportunity for all participants in a free play setting (Odom, 1996). Classroom environments have the potential for high social interaction, and direct instruction in social skills led by the teacher is necessary to help children with learning disabilities and other neurobehavioral difficulties. Classroom teachers must find a way to integrate learning in a way that transfers to real-life social situations. Direct instruction in the physical location where skills were to be used (In situ social skills instruction), and with role-playing new skills, has proved beneficial to students with disabilities (Clemont-Heist, 1992). Here, lessons in social skills were given in a context of an imminent social interaction.
Discussion of a specific skill, in the actual setting where it was going to be used, and a “targeted practice” session, where the student rehearsed possible situations and people with whom the skill could be useful, was undertaken. These methods provide a natural setting to observe social interaction and improvement in behavior. The focus of social skill instruction is on the generalization of social skills to improve social competence. Social Skill Instruction at School While much investigation of intervention methods that promote generalization remains to be done, it is still necessary to provide the opportunity for children who are isolated to have positive social experiences within the school and home setting. The need for carefully validated intervention methods continues, but children require help which applies to their immediate situation and which is put to use in social settings immediately. Children need to know the variables that will affect their success in attempts to join others at play, for example, such as eye contact and making a remark that fits the play underway.
Careful attention to how social skills are taught also requires awareness that social behavior is situationally specific. Each step depends on its antecedent and consequence. The goal of the “other” and the relationship between them determine the social context (Haring, 1996). For example, in classrooms, offers of help between two children are more likely to be accepted when there is a perception of difference in skill level (Krappman).
Social skill instruction that assists children can be built in to classroom instruction if the teacher “remodels” classroom social interactions to provide an opportunity for children with nonverbal social communication difficulty to rehearse and insert new behavior into existing social context. Requests to share materials or space are examples of these. Modeling how to request to share materials could become part of verbal instructions on completing seatwork. Modeling requests to share space on bleacher seats, given before assembling in the gym, provide a “script” and a prompt to look for ample space and determine if a request is needed. These help the child who may not be able to select a response to an apparent lack of a spot to sit or a shortage of materials. Children with difficulty reading social experiences may respond according to prior, negative experiences, and may need ongoing support and reminders of how to negotiate such situations. Joining a group already engaged in an activity or play could be incorporated into weekly instruction, rehearsed before recess, monitored for success and adjusted as needed for each child’s difficulty. Distinguishing between levels of humor, adjusting play or activity when two or more parties disagree, asking for and giving feedback, and discontinuing an activity are more advanced skills which could be introduced to small groups, put into practice, and monitored for success.
Social Skill Instruction at Home
Parents can do much to assist at home in the process of generalization newly learned skills. Their role in encouraging social competency and acceptance of their child as increasingly more socially competent is vital in development. They need the same knowledge of tools teachers have: the use of advance organizers and previewing to assist children in learning from social contexts is one example. Integrating structure into the environment to assist a child’s perception can assist social interaction at home. Parents can provide this structural support. Limiting the duration of playdates, reducing non-interactive games or activities, planning how play time will be spent, choosing one or two compatible play partners and rewarding interaction are all structures which will promote a positive, interactive playdate that relationships can grow out of. Knowing that only 50% of initial attempts to join play already underway are successful for all children helps parents to form their own child’s expectations. Finally, understanding how their child experiences nonverbal social communication is a valuable tool in their own relatedness to their child.
There is much to be done on investigation and design of methods to help children who experience disruption in the process of nonverbal social communication.
Increased opportunity to learn and practice social skills will not happen however, if clear attempts aren't made to undertake improvements in individual’s social interaction. Teachers can start with the actual situations a child experiences. Goals such as substituting an alternative response for a maladaptive social response are reasonable. Teaching social skills which are immediately applied and generalized is a healthy start with the long-lasting consequence of increasing growth in friendships.
Jean Newton is a Learning Disability Specialist in Private Practice in Northfield. She is interested in helping children, schools, and parents with concerns stemming from nonverbal learning disabilities and related areas. She teaches small social skill groups and consults with parents and schools.
Clement-Heist, Kim, et.al. (1992). Simulated and in situ vocational social skills training for youth with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 38, 336-345.
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