Kid To Kid: 5 Considerations For Teaching Peer Communication

One of the most important skills we have is communicating effectively with our peers.  This is the pathway to friendship. It is the means by which we thrive (or survive!) at social gatherings.  It is how we navigate the workplace.  For our students, it can be the difference between playing with peers at recess and sitting alone on the playground bench. Social interaction is part of succeeding and engaging in school and life.

If we are to teach children to grow in peer communication, we must do it well.  It will be one of the most important skills they ever learn. Consider these five (brief) points for laying a solid foundation for the children with whom you work:

 1. Never assume.  Children with social learning difficulties often don’t make sense of social interaction like typical children do.  This means that every step needs to be taught and explained.  Never assume that they see it like we do.  Never assume that they understand why greetings are important or that they know not to interrupt another peer when they start talking.  Social interaction is a part of living that does not come naturally to children with autism so we need to help them develop a new category for connecting with others.

This social narrative teaches children how to greet their peers every step of the way. Great for Pre-K through early elementary. Can also be shown on smart boards for large group teaching.

2. Break it down.  Every social interaction is comprised of many individual steps.  Always strive to reduce peer interaction down into these small steps in order to increase understanding and keep things manageable.  Be patient.  Your student may be learning to greet others for a long time before he or she is ready to tackle simple conversation starters.

3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  Much practice is required here. And just because a student does something once, does not mean that he or she has fully learned it and will always have it. As you likely have seen, students with autism can have days where they are quite “on,” demonstrating skills quite well.  Other days, however, can seem like they never had the skill at all.  The more teaching and practice the student has, the more he/she will gain the skills towards sustained application.

4. Use actual peers. All the time.  Using social narratives, visuals and other teaching tools are helpful only so far as they are used in conjunction with real peer interaction.  As you teach social interaction skills, have typical peers involved to practice with your students.  Even better, have the typical peers teach your students and role-play.  There is nothing like the power of positive peer influence.  This also allows for natural learning and practice to take place outside of your classroom or office.  Peers who work with your students can continue to interact with them in other settings throughout the day, increasing generalized learning.

Save ink with this Simply Social Narratives resource.  Appeals to a wide range of ages and includes interactive templates.

5. Keep it visual.   As you provide and build an understanding of social interaction with your students, keep a clear, visual record for them. Social narratives and talk/thought bubble conversation templates are a couple of strategies you can use.  Also, keep these materials interactive by having the student fill in greeting and conversation ideas.  Be sure to send a copy of these materials home in order to provide parents an opportunity to practice and review social interaction skills with their child.

Shown throughout this post are resources I have created to help children grow in these essential skills.  These can be used individually with students, with small groups, or as smart board presentations for a whole class.  They also serve as helpful resources to send home to parents so parents can support their child’s social learning.

For children who identify with this well-known theme, this narrative walks children through all steps of peer communication from greeting through conversation starters and follow-up questions. Includes interactive templates.

 

 

Problem Solving Skills

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How do we help children develop problem solving skills?  Teach them. Give them a simple strategy they can remember.  Review it often.  Post it in a visible location, refer to it and demonstrate its use regularly.  Role play.  Review.  That is the aim in my latest social narrative.  Click on the image below for more.

OR, for an ink-saving, simpler option, click here:

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Spotlight Strategy: Social Narratives (Part 1)

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I have found that many parents and educators use social narratives more than any other strategy for social understanding. This is not surprising, as these narratives provide vital explanations of the social world for individuals who lack natural understanding in this area. Social narratives help people navigate the murky waters of the world around them.

Social Narratives communicate social and behavioral expectations through written means. They may also highlight the perspectives, feelings, and intentions of those involved in a social situation. The narratives often provide examples of social overtures and problem-solving in order to increase the learner’s understanding of appropriate responses in a particular situation. They can provide insight into a common social norm (e.g., personal space), or a highly individualized event (e.g., describing how an unexpected schedule change has occurred and everything will be OK). Think of social narratives as instruction manuals that provide codes for understanding the complexities of the social environment.

A social narrative outlining steps to talking with a peer.
An excerpt from a social narrative describing how to talk to a peer. Simple illustrations can be helpful for younger students. Click the image to preview the full narrative.

Social narratives can be easily and quickly written and can provide helpful clarification on any number of issues. They can be as short as one sentence (“Kids become upset and scared when I growl at them…”) or they can be more in-depth and comprised of multiple pages (see examples here or click on the image below).

An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. Click on the image to preview the full narrative.
An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. This narrative uses a popular medium of exchange.  Click on the image to preview the full narrative.

Are social narratives only to be used for children with autism or related disabilities?  Certainly not!  I have written social narratives for many children (including my own).  Think of social narratives as mini lessons on any given topic.  It is a teaching tool.  Children with social learning challenges need the narratives more frequently, but all students can benefit from them, given the wide range of social/emotional understanding among children.

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This social narrative increases predictability in order to reduce anxiety when something new happens.

Social narratives are to be presented to children in a proactive, teaching manner on a regular basis, just like other academic content is taught. They are designed for use in the classroom, in the home, or anywhere else a learning opportunity might present itself.  They are not merely a tool to use after a child has made a mistake, as I have often seen.  As with anything, teach the skill regularly if you want children to learn.

This relates to a broader issue, namely that social understanding is generally not taught like other academic content is taught. Some skills for social understanding may be addressed in general education classrooms on occasion (particularly in early elementary grades), but largely, there is an assumption that social understanding is naturally acquired as children grow. While this may be true for many children, I have found that adults often overestimate how much children understand socially, and underestimate the amount of intentional teaching that needs to be done. Parents and educators will serve children well to support social learning through the use of strategies such as social narratives.

(Click here and here to peruse or purchase social narratives that I have created and used with students).  

One thing I have Learned…

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Quite possibly the most important thing I have learned over almost 15 years of working with children with autism and other disabilities is…

Ready?

WRITE IT DOWN.

There it is. When you want the child to understand something (big or small), write it down. Write it on a dry erase board, a post it note, or scrap paper. Write it in a notebook. Type it in a Google doc and print it. Write it in an iPad. Whatever.

Imagine if you were suddenly picked up, put on a plane, flown to another country, then dropped off in the middle of a foreign city with nothing. No one speaks your language, and you feel completely lost. What do you do? What do you look for? You start to walk around the city, looking desperately for something familiar. Just before panic begins to set in, you see the visual sign for restrooms. “Yes! Now I know where the bathrooms are!” you say to yourself. Shortly after visiting the bathroom, your eyes fall upon a sign written in your language containing directions to an information office. You reach the information office, which contains pamphlets in your language explaining where you are, what the cultural expectations are, where you can stay, how to communicate with the locals, and how to get home. The relief is palpable. Your anxiety decreases as you finally breathe again. You have regained your bearings. You will survive.

A perfect analogy? No, but hopefully it gets the point across. At home and in school, we live in very verbal worlds. We think, If I say it, then they get it. How often we say, “I told him!” However, we must remember that for children with attention-related disabilities and social understanding challenges, verbal communication often does not register like it does for most of us. Many steps are involved for verbal communication to be fully understood and applied. First it must be heard correctly (understanding vocabulary, tone, context, voice inflection, meaning, etc.). Then the meaning must be understood and categorized in the brain, pulling in prior knowledge and experience. Finally, when understood properly, the information translates into behavior, all of this assuming that the child can follow through amidst the thoughts and feelings that currently inform his or her readiness.

When information is written down, it cuts through all the verbal noise around the child and eliminates some of the steps required with verbal communication. It is concrete. It can be viewed again and again. It is simple. It is one step or rule, not six things to sort out. It is the familiar language from our analogy above, reducing anxiety and increasing clarity and predictability. We may not even fully understand why visual communication works so well with these children. This is OK. We do know that individuals with autism have helped us learn that in most cases, when it is written down, it sticks. I have worked with many parents and children in instances when verbal commands are given repeatedly with no success, and as soon as it is written down, the child follows through.

One sentence directives, a 3-step list, pictures, social narratives, “first-then” visuals – they all get through to the child through visual means, helping them learn by presenting information in a clear, organized, simple fashion.  Below are some examples.

A short social narrative preparing a student for a substitute teacher the following day. Should be sent home for review with parents as well.
A short social narrative preparing a student for a substitute teacher the following day. Should be sent home for review with parents as well.
Simple pictures help younger students understand expectations.
Simple pictures help younger students understand expectations.
A schedule to maintain predictability.  Nothing fancy - it takes about 20 seconds to handwrite.
A schedule to maintain predictability. Nothing fancy, it takes about 20 seconds to handwrite.
A mini schedule to foster independence on an assignment.
A mini schedule to foster independence on an assignment.

For some reason, writing it down for students is something we often stop doing.  We must not slip back into our familiar “verbal mode” and neglect this important strategy!   Develop the habit now, and never look back.

Questions to Ponder at Year’s End

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It always amazes me. After another full year of teaching, problem solving, de-escalating, planning, evaluating, strategizing, meeting, and meeting again, the close of another school year has arrived. With all the exhaustion that accompanies this time of year, I hope that we (as educators and parents) can find some time and energy to reflect on the past school year. While regular examination of our work with children and students is best, sometimes the only time for proper reflection comes at the end of the year. The closure of it all (more like the abrupt stop) naturally summons thoughts and questions regarding what has been, what should have been, and what could be. Consider these questions as you look back over your year of supporting students (or your own children):

  • Did I implement strategies, systems, and supports with fidelity – that is, did I use visuals, social narratives, self-monitoring tools, and behavioral supports on a daily basis for at least six consecutive weeks before evaluating effectiveness and proposing any changes?
  • What did I spend too much time doing this year?
  • What would I spend more time doing if I could go back?
  • What is one important thing I learned this year?
  • What did I not get to that I had planned on?
  • What issue frustrated me this year? How will I be better prepared for facing similar situations next year?

It would likely serve us well to take a small part of our summer break to reflect on questions like these without the stress of school year demands to distract us. If you’re anything like me, better sooner than later (and write it down!).

Why a Blog?

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Welcome! I have been in public education for 15 years serving as a school social worker in Pinckney, Michigan. The thought of having a blog has been simmering in my mind for some time mainly as a way to foster growth by sharing and receiving ideas with the broader education and parent communities.  I have already had correspondence with teachers and parents around the globe regarding strategies for students with social learning challenges, and I figure a blog will give me more room to communicate with others around successful and needed strategies for learning.  I create and sell downloadable social learning strategies and I have learned a lot from those who have purchased my products (thank you!).  With a glut of educational information now available via the internet, my hope is that this blog will be a resource of effective learning strategies and ideas for both parents and educators around the globe.