Ten Guidelines to Facilitate Social Groups for Students with Complex Special Needs

By Sartini, Emily C.; Knight, Victoria F. et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

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. …

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Ten Guidelines to Facilitate Social Groups for Students with Complex Special Needs
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