Ten Guidelines to Facilitate Social Groups for Students with Complex Special Needs
Sartini, Emily C., Knight, Victoria F., Collins, Belva C., Teaching Exceptional Children
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. …