Parents always feel bad when they ask me, but I get this question all the time… How can I help my kid look normal when we are talking to people? You know what I’m talking about. You’re at the grocery store and run into someone you know- you are chatting with them but your special needs son or daughter is looking down, not interacting, and looks socially wrong.
Now, “normal” and “wrong” are said with love, but it’s hard to chat with a friend, co-workers, or anyone if you don’t follow social cues. That becomes infinitely more challenging if you don’t even know what the cues are. If our special needs kids are going to look the part when they are out in public, interacting with their own friends, or working at a job, there are some basic skills that make a big difference!
As a teacher in the classroom, I have seen special needs and even general ed students struggle with some basic social skills. They could be delayed because of cultural differences, home life, disabilities, or a myriad of things. Bottom line, though, is that every kid in school today needs these soft skills to be successful in the post-secondary. With that said, here are 5 ways to up the social interactions in the classroom. Though designed for special needs, these tips can be used with any student.
1. Cooperative Learning
Cooperative Learning is a way of teaching in the classroom that constantly requires students to interact and share what they are learning as well as collaborate on tasks. In a typical classroom, it is possible for an entire 50-minute class period to go by where a student never communicates with a peer. Day after day without interacting leads to a deficit in an important soft skill. That’s where Cooperative Learning makes a huge difference.
One of my favorite strategies is to have students read their writing prompts to each other every day- Rally Robin style. Then we work on asking at least one on topic question. It looks like a train wreck the first three months of school, but by the second semester my kiddos are rocking it. Check out the strategies listed on this Cooperative Learning website to learn more. If you have the opportunity to attend a Kagan Cooperative Learning class, their strategies are fabulous in the classroom!
2. Non-Verbal Posters & Cues
There are some basics to looking the part when interacting with others- you have to have good eye contact, smile and nod throughout the conversation, and listen so you know when to talk. Those rules work for everyone (believe me, sometimes I forget to listen as I make my to-do list in my head… then I’m totally lost)! Now, some people have know these nonverbal communication skills intrinsically, but others have to have it taught.
I have loved seeing the change in my students when I link the nonverbal poster with physical cues because they react when they are talking and I don’t have to stop them to tell them what to do… and the truth is, they look so much more “normal”. People interact with them differently and it is so much better. Check out the printable posters on Teachers Pay Teachers. The kit includes suggestions for IEP goals as well as data sheets.
3. Real Life Practice
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you have to practice these soft skills. You have to practice a lot. I have my students talk to me everyday when they come in the classroom. They can’t come in without talking to me. Everyday. I greet them and ask them some basic chit-chat questions (like: How are you? or What did you do this weekend? or Did you see _____ on TV last night?) I also give them pointers at the end or , if necessary for some, have a para help them to by prompting them with statements they can use.
Wait time is essential to this. Equally as important is generalizing the skill. Me everyday is fabulous, but someone not-me is necessary so the student can apply the skills we practice in real-life situations.
4. Scripted Interactions
VIsuals are a great way to remind students what comes next. It is also great for kids with Autism who echo what others say. I have used this social interaction template with several students to get them to talk to me (and to anyone they may meet) in a socially appropriate manner as a starter to developing social skills. Download this FREE pre-filled bubbles and start using them today. I have several echolalic students who have used this and have learned to generalize it- now they at least get through the initial part of social interactions in a fairly ‘normal’ looking way.
5. Practical Social Communication Boards
Lots of students with disabilities have the mental skills needed to socially interact, but lack the verbal skills to make it happen. Several electronic AAC devices exist that can bridge that gap, but there is a learning curve for that, some students struggle with them, and others have not developed the pre-requisite skills needed to use them effectively.
This Communication Flip Board is available on Teachers Pay Teachers and is socially geared. The pictures really help to master the boards and may really help students to talk more with their peers. I have seen parents take note when their student uses this board- they can see the improvement!
No matter what method you use to get your students interacting, you MUST get them interacting… with each other… often. Start today!