Ten Guidelines to Facilitate Social Groups for Students with Complex Special Needs
Sartini, Emily C., Knight, Victoria F., Collins, Belva C., Teaching Exceptional Children
Mrs. Martin has 25 students in her first grade class at Clear Lake Elementary. This year, her class includes Kyle, a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is clear from his complex needs that he is on the more severe end of the spectrum, although his assessments have been vague about his intellectual functioning due to testing challenges (e.g., communication deficits, ability to follow directions). His support team wants to keep Kyle in the first grade class as the least restrictive environment, but his presence presents some challenges. When Kyle is in class, he often chants or sings to himself and flaps his hands. The other students seem curious about Kyle but rarely interact with him. Some of the children have tried to speak to him, but he does not answer them, and the students rarely persist in engaging in conversation. Kyle occasionally looks at the other students, but he has never spoken to them. During recess, Kyle usually swings for the entire period and never participates in games with the other students. On occasion, Kyle has played with cars next to Max in the sandbox, imitating Max when he makes "vroom-vroom" sounds with his car.
Mrs. Martin wants Kyle to be included in the class as much as possible so he can have access to the same-age core content taught to his peers, have same-age peers as role models for communication and social skills, and develop friendships that may carry over to settings outside of school. She knows, however, that he will need help learning how to socialize with his peers. Mrs. Martin and Ms. Marsh, the special education teacher, meet after school to decide how to help Kyle learn to socialize. They both agree that peer socialization is important for Kyle and will improve his ability to establish fulfilling relationships throughout his life. They know that they will need to plan carefully to teach Kyle how to make friends with his classmates. He will need explicit instruction to learn how to establish and maintain positive peer relationships.
Kyle and other children with special needs provide unique challenges for many classroom teachers. Students with complex special needs, including students with severe and multiple disabilities (SMD) and students with ASD, often struggle in establishing peer relationships, engaging in conversation, and using language to express thoughts and feelings (Howlin, 2006; National Research Council, 2001; Prizant & Wetherby, 2005). These challenges in social interactions are usually due to communication needs. For example, students with ASD rarely respond or initiate conversation as often as their peers (National Research Council, 2001). Students who have difficulties in communication may also be at higher risk for social problems (e.g., Benner, Rogers-Adkinson, Mooney, & Abbott, 2007).
Much of the research on social skills and peer interactions includes students with ASD. These studies have investigated a number of successful strategies to increase peer interactions. Zanolli, Daggett, and Adams (1996) studied the use of "priming" during social skills groups that included preschool boys with ASD and their peers. In the priming strategy, the teacher conducts a social skills lesson immediately prior to the social activity. During the priming session, the teacher uses the same materials that will be used in the social skills activity. The teacher creates frequent opportunities for reinforcement in the context of a low-demand activity. For example, the teacher may praise a student for giving eye contact or taking a seat in the class. In this study, students with ASD developed the ability to initiate interactions with their peers, and, consequently, peers increased their interactions with students with ASD (Zanolli et al., 1996).
Other researchers also have advocated the use of explicit practice in social skills instruction. In their study of students with ASD, Liber, Frea, and Symon (2008) taught social skills to elementary school students with ASD using the time delay technique. They provided frequent, structured practice opportunities to increase peer interactions, which increased the students' ability to interact appropriately with their peers.
In addition to teaching students with complex special needs how to initiate and sustain interactions with their peers, an equally important component is the use of peer training in social skills instruction. Owen-DeSchryver, Carr, Cale, and Blakeley-Smith (2008) taught strategies to peers without disabilities for conversing and interacting with their second- and fourth-grade peers with ASD. This intervention taught students about the characteristics of individuals with ASD, gave strategies for promoting conversation with students with ASD, and provided numerous practice opportunities for students, thus enabling them to develop conversation topics.
Researchers also have examined social skills training for peers and students with complex special needs in the context of inclusive settings. For example, Kamps, Leonard, Vernon, Dugan, and Delquadri (1992) successfully taught conversation skills to firstgrade students with ASD and their peers. Both peers and students with ASD were able to increase their number of interactions.
In another example of social skills instruction within a primary inclusive classroom, Laushey and Heflin (2000) implemented a peer buddy system for kindergarten students with ASD and their peers. They trained peers, as well as students with ASD, in social skills. After the intervention, the students with ASD demonstrated increased interactions with peers and improved social skills, such as taking turns, obtaining peer attention, and making eye contact.
Last, Taylor and colleagues (2005) examined social skills instruction in a functional context. In their study, they required students with ASD to ask a peer for access to an edible reinforcer (i.e., a snack). The students with ASD demonstrated increased interactions with peers when they were required to ask for preferred reinforcers. Preferred reinforcers were then used to increase targeted social skills.
Based on these investigations, social groups can be advantageous to students with ASD and other disabilities. The following section offers guidelines for teachers who may want to implement social groups using the array of strategies that have been found to be effective for students with ASD in school and classroom settings.
Guidelines to Increase Social Groups
Instruction in social skills interaction is important for students with complex special needs, including students with ASD. Teachers should include peer instruction and frequent opportunities for practice of social skills (Liber et al., 2008; Zanolli et al., 1996). In this article, we provide 10 guidelines for teachers to use when implementing effective, researchbased social skills instruction for elementary school children with complex special needs. Although most of the interventions discussed in the article have been targeted for students with ASD, they also can be used to facilitate social interactions between typical peers and students with other disabilities, including students with SMD. Table 1 provides an outline of these guidelines and questions for consideration.
1. Consider Current Social Skills of Students and Establish a Goal
All children, including students with complex special needs, have a wide variety of social skills. For example, one student may respond when peers talk to him or her but may not initiate interactions independendy. Another student may initiate interactions with adults but ignore peers. Some students with complex special needs may not yet have a meaningful communication system with adults or peers. Before beginning the intervention, the teacher needs to consider the student's current level and mode of communication and social interactions. The teacher may collect information about a student's social skills from past evaluations, but these may not be detailed enough to show exactly what the student's strengths and needs are. In many cases, the teacher may need to use other measures, including interviews, rating scales (e.g., Social Skills Improvement System; Gresham & Elliott, 2012), and direct observations. Interviews of the people who know the child best may be the easiest way to begin such an evaluation (Sansosti, 2010). For example, interview questions might include information concerning the nature and setting of the social skills difficulties; any particular events that occur before or after the social skills difficulties; and information pertaining to the frequency, duration, and intensity of the difficulties (Sansosti, 2010).
Communication level and mode should also be determined. The following are some examples of ways that students can show what they know:
* Eye gaze.
* Facial expression/body language/ gestures.
* Head nod yes/no.
* Vocalizations/word approximations.
* Object/picture/photo symbols.
* Communication symbols.
* Sign language.
* Augmentative and assistive technology. (National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities, 2010)
Often, interactions with adults precede interactions with students. Children may learn to speak to adults because adults frequently provide desired items. For this reason, speaking with adults is a more functional skill and, therefore, may be acquired more quickly. In addition, adults are usually more adept at reading students' social cues, work harder to determine communicative meaning, and engage in persistent attempts to continue conversations.
After examining the student's current level and mode of communication functioning, the teacher should determine an appropriate goal for the student. A child in preschool who uses an augmentative communication system may be able to learn to take turns with a preferred toy. An elementary student who can use a visual choice board to make a basic request from an adult may learn to make a request from a peer. An elementary-aged student getting ready to transition to middle school might be able to initiate comments to adults but also may be ready to learn how to initiate interactions or respond to peer comments.
2. Plan the Level of Structure
After the teacher has established a starting goal for the student, the teacher should choose the level of structure necessary to ensure student success (Mesibov, Shea, & Schopler, 2006). Some students may be successful with a low-structure activity, such as engaging in conversation during lunch. Another student may require instruction in the context of a highly structured task, such as taking turns with a preferred toy. The level of structure may change depending on the age of the student. For example, a child in preschool may need more structure than an elementary student when interacting with others on the playground. The preschool child may need highly structured social rules (e.g., wait in line for your turn), whereas the elementary student may already know these rules and be ready for a less structured social activity (e.g., engaging in conversation while waiting for a turn).
Even if the teacher chooses a lowstructure activity, components may need to be added in order to maximize the student's opportunity for success. The priming strategy (Zanolli et al., 1996), for example, could be used at the beginning of the lunch period. The teacher could model appropriate interaction with peers and provide frequent opportunities for the targeted student to engage in structured social interaction with reinforcement.
Regardless of the level of structure, the teacher must make sure that sufficient opportunities occur during the group for the student to practice the targeted skill. During the group, the teacher should plan to provide modeling, guided practice, and opportunities for independent practice. Table 2 provides a hypothetical example of student needs, goal selection, and level of structure.
3. Select Peers
After determining the level of structure needed, the teacher should observe the student's classroom to determine the peers who may be appropriate for inclusion in the social skills group. The teacher will need to look for children who could potentially develop friendships with the targeted student. One way is to ask students who already interact with or have shown interest in the student with a disability. According to Bellini (2006), peers should be socially competent, have a neutral or positive history with the individual they are paired with, exhibit age-appropriate play, be socially responsive, be likely to follow adult directions, and be willing to participate. See Table 3 for an example of peer planning.
4. Select Reinforcers
Many students with complex special needs, especially students with ASD, initially may not find peer interactions reinforcing. First, consider reinforcers that are naturally occurring (e.g., playing cars with a peer because cars are the reward rather than rewarding Kyle with a car for playing on the playground with a peer). Adding differential reinforcement to the intervention can help the student achieve her or his interaction goals more quickly (National Research Council, 2001; Rogers & Ozonoff, 2006). When the student exhibits the desired social behavior, the teacher should use tangible and/or verbal rewards. If the student exhibits aggressive or inappropriate behaviors, the teacher can ignore or redirect the student (as appropriate). After the student achieves his or her social skills goal, the teacher can decrease the rate of reinforcement. During the initial learning phase, the teacher will want to deliver reinforcement for every instance of the target behavior. Eventually, external reinforcement should not be necessary, and the student will find social interaction itself rewarding. The teacher will need to plan to systematically fade (or reduce) reinforcers in order to ensure that social skills maintain over time.
Reinforcers should be determined based on student preference. The teacher will need to pick quick and easy-to-obtain items for reinforcement. Possible choices are stickers, edibles, or a brief period of time with a preferred toy (e.g., kaleidoscope) and will depend, in part, on the age of the student. For example, a preschool student may enjoy watching part of a cartoon, whereas an upper elementary student might enjoy watching a segment of a popular music video. It is important to select items that are motivating for the targeted student. The teacher also will need to have several of the items available in case the student becomes tired of one of the reinforcers. If social interaction is an especially challenging activity for the student, the teacher may choose to save the most powerful reinforcers for social skills time only. Table 3 demonstrates how reinforcers can be selected for students during social skills instruction.
5. Select Topics or Activity
Teachers should consider student interest when selecting topics and activities for students with ASD (Koegel, Openden, Fredeen, & Koegel, 2006; Mesibov et al., 2006). When working on conversation skills, the teacher should select a topic of interest to the targeted student. For example, if a student enjoys basketball and dinosaurs, the teacher could make picture cards depicting these conversation topics. The topics of interest should be age appropriate as well. For example, although Dora and Caliou are appropriate cartoons for students in preschool to watch, a student in fifth or sixth grade would likely rather watch Spongebob Squarepants.
If a student is not yet working on conversation skills, the teacher can select a preferred play activity. A student in preschool might enjoy taking turns and learning beginning conversation skills (e.g., "my turn," "your turn") while playing dress-up. On the other hand, a student in fifth grade may want to practice conversation skills during a card game (e.g., Uno). Snack time may be an appropriate setting for a social skills intervention. Providing peers with access to the snack may motivate the targeted student to initiate communication with peers (Taylor et al., 2005). A preschool student could raise her hand, use a big mac switch (a switch with a single large button that can play a brief recorded message when hit) , or tap the peer's shoulder to ask for a snack, whereas a student in elementary school could verbally ask the peer for a snack or use "Proloquo2go" (an application that can be purchased at ilunes for about $190) for picture communication on her iPad. Social initiation, therefore, becomes an instant gratification and a useful skill to the targeted student. Table 3 provides an example of activity selection for social skills instruction.
6. Set Up Visual Supports
Visual supports such as social stories, scripts, and visual activity schedules are effective ways to promote social understanding for students with complex special needs in preschool and elementary school (e.g., Reichow & Volkmar, 2010) . When setting up an intervention, the teacher should determine the visual supports necessary for the student. The teacher selects the pictures, social stories, or other prompts that will clarify expectations for the student and establish the routine of the group. If the teacher is using differential reinforcement, for example, a picture of "talking to your friends" used as the selected reinforcer can be placed on a visual schedule. For conversation skills, a social script can be used to enhance communication practice. Older students might have a list of ways to start a conversation listed on an index card for their script (e.g., popular sayings). Younger students and peers may also benefit from a script with pictorial reminders for the expectations during the group (e.g., "Say 'Hi' to your friends").
7. Train the Poors
Teaching peers how to interact with students with complex special needs is an important component of social skills instruction (Liber et al., 2008; Zanolli et al., 1996). The age of the peer and student will need to be considered when determining the skill to teach. For example, peers in preschool can be taught how to encourage social greetings, but older peers in elementary school can be taught how to encourage students to engage in conversation beyond the initial greeting (e.g., social exchanges). The teacher explicitly states to peers the guidelines for social interaction. It may be useful to roleplay what to do in a variety of situations that may be likely to occur with the targeted student. For example, if the goal for the targeted student is to respond when peers comment, the teacher should show the peers how to explicitly state the student's name and repeat the comment if they are ignored. If a student uses an augmentative or alternative communication system, the teacher will instruct the peers on how it is used.
The first step is to get the peers involved. For example, a simple way to encourage peer engagement in preschool is to use joint activity schedules. In this setting, the teacher can set up step-by-step pictorial directions for how to play a simple interactive game (e.g., Hungry Hungry Hippos, Don't Spill the Beans) in which two children can play at the same time (Betz, Higbee, & Reagon, 2008). Depending on the age of the students, the second step could be to teach the peers about the characteristics of the child with complex needs and answer any questions they may have. For young children, this conversation will need to be concrete (e.g., "Kyle sometimes has a hard time telling you that he wants to play"). Next, teachers and other trained peers can give untrained peers specific strategies. These strategies can be discussed and practiced during specific times, or they may be embedded throughout the day in the schedule. In many cases, young peers without disabilities benefit from receiving the same social skills instruction as the students with complex needs, just to varying degrees (e.g., taking turns, pretend play). In other cases, peer modeling, in which the typically developing peer is taught a specific social skill to model for the child with ASD, may need to be implemented.
Video modeling is one form of peer modeling. At the preschool and elementary level, video modeling and direct teaching opportunities can target the following skills: simple and complex motor imitation (e.g., clapping, placing a block in a cup, rolling a car), parallel play (e.g., drawing, coloring next to a peer), ball play (e.g., rolling, throwing, kicking a ball), taking turns (e.g., completing a puzzle, Memory, Connect Four), finding play partners, and pretend play with peers (e.g., pretend to be sleeping, pretend to feed the baby; Kroeger, Schultz, & Newsom, 2007).
After the students have a chance to benefit from watching their peers, the teacher should set up a social skills group that is rich with practice opportunities. Teachers will need to determine when, where, and how long social skills groups should last. A social skills group can occur during circle time, centers, small group time, or even on the playground (Sansosti, 2010). Skills can be practiced from 5 minutes to an hour each day (see Table 4 for examples based on suggestions from Leaf, Dotson, OppenheimLeaf, Sherman, & Sheldon, 2012). Opportunities for role-playing and real life practice (necessary for the student to acquire a targeted social skill) should occur throughout the day. For example, in preschool these opportunities may come during snack time, time on the playground, show and tell, and free time. In elementary school, students can practice their skills during lunch, physical education, and centers. To ensure fluency, the teachers can prompt children's practice of the modeled play skills or provide additional modeling of appropriate interactions for peers and the targeted student. The teacher then can provide explicit chances to practice initiating and/or responding. The teacher can embed specific, clear feedback into the lesson (e.g., "I like the way you are taking turns, Charlie!"). Depending on the needs of the student, peers and group members can evaluate the role-play and practice opportunities (Sansosti, 2010). In planning, the teacher should collaborate with other members of the individualized education program team to carry over practice opportunities to other times and settings. Practice in other settings and with other people will improve generalization of the learned skill.
9. Collect Data on the Targeted Skill and Monitor Progress
In any intervention, it is important to examine data to determine the level of success (Heflin & Simpson, 1998). Data should be collected during acquisition (i.e., when the student is initially learning), fluency (i.e., when the student is learning to do the skill quickly and accurately), and generalization (i.e., when the student is learning to do the skill in various environments, with various materials, and with various people). Before implementing the social skills group, the teacher will need to select an appropriate data collection system for the student's goal. For example, a quick tally of student interactions provides valuable information on the student's progress. The teacher will determine the appropriate criteria for goal achievement and will plan the next step for the student after the goal is mastered. The teacher also monitors the goal over time to ensure that progress is maintained.
10. Teach for Generalization
Social skills instruction should include plans for generalization to other students in other skill areas and in other settings (Koegel et al., 2006; National Research Council, 2001). For a student who significantly increases interactions within his social skills group, generalizing to students outside of the social skills group is an important goal. To ensure generalization, the teacher will need to collaborate with other staff members to develop goals and set expectations.
Teaching the entire class how to interact with and encourage responses from the student with a disability will improve the student's ability to transfer learned skills to a new setting. The teacher should also look for frequent opportunities throughout the day to encourage peer interactions. For example, students in preschool can sit together during circle time for a story, play at the art center together, or play on the computer together, whereas students in elementary school can read in pairs, work math problems in small groups, or engage in inquiry science with one another. During these opportunities, the teacher will need to reiterate the expectations and goals for student interaction. Table 5 demonstrates a sample planning sheet for training peers, planning practice schedules, data collection, and generalization opportunities.
The teacher also may choose to cycle other students into the group in order to help the targeted student interact with other classmates. Including other students will help all peers learn how to interact with the student with low-incidence disabilities. In addition, the student will begin to generalize the taught social skills to other students.
How did Mrs. Martin and Ms. Marsh ase the 10 guidelines to assist Kyle in his peer relationships? After their initial meeting, Kyle's teachers determined that he seemed curious about social interactions on the playground, especially with Max. Because he was playing next to Max in the sandbox with cars, they decided that the next step might be to encourage Kyle to play with Max using a high level of structure. Kyle will learn that when Max opens his hand and looks at Kyle, it means that it is Max's turn to use the car. Kyle learns that he can do the same to indicate that he wants a turn with the car. Because Kyle enjoys swinging, his teachers have set up a visual schedule that says, "First cars, then swing. " Max and other students in the class model taking turns with the cars and then practice with Kyle, using hand over hand assistance when needed. The teachers collect data on the level of guidance Kyle needs to ensure the reinforcement is faded over time. A few weeks after the guidance is faded, Rebekah brings a toy dump truck to school and wants to share with Kyle, so Max shows her how to join in the fun!
The importance of fostering positive social relationships for students with complex special needs cannot be overstated. In many cases, students with complex special needs will benefit from explicit training in social skills. Without direct training, this population of students may end up having difficulty interacting with peers, making social adjustments, and gaining in academic skills. For many students with complex special needs, setting up social groups that provide frequent opportunities for practice can be a benefit in many areas socially and academically. Not only can social groups assist the student with a disability in relating to peers, but they also can effectively teach peers how to encourage interactions with students with disabilities (e.g., Kamps et al., 1992; Laushey & Heflin, 2000). In a structured, explicit setting rich with opportunities for interaction, students with complex special needs can be taught to notice and respond to peers. After students master skills in this setting, instruction should focus on generalizing learned skills. Notably, social skills groups can contribute significantly to a child's development, which leads to the possibility of a lifetime of rewarding social interactions.
Before beginning the intervention, the teacher needs to consider the student's current level and mode of communication and social interactions.
Teaching the entire class how to interact with and encourage responses from the student with a disability will improve the student's ability to transfer learned skills to a new setting.
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Emily C. Sartini, Teacher, Fayette County Public Schoob, Lexington, Kentucky. Victoria F. Knight, Assistant Professor; and Belva C. Collins (Kentucky CEC), Professor, Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling, University of Kentucky, Lexington.
Address correspondence concerning this article to Emily C. Sartini, Fayette County Public Schoob, 1700 Farmview Dr., Lexington, KY 40515 (e-mail: emily.sartini @fayette. kyschoob. us).
TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 54-62.
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Publication information: Article title: Ten Guidelines to Facilitate Social Groups for Students with Complex Special Needs. Contributors: Sartini, Emily C. - Author, Knight, Victoria F. - Author, Collins, Belva C. - Author. Magazine title: Teaching Exceptional Children. Volume: 45. Issue: 3 Publication date: January/February 2013. Page number: 54+. © Council for Exceptional Children Jan/Feb 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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