Questions parents need to ask before enrolling their child in a social skills group

The field of social learning is a relatively new field and widely misunderstood by many parents as well as professionals in the mental health, medical and education fields. To complicate matters, there are no standards or criteria put in place by any professional organization (the American Psychological Association, National Education Association, American Medical Association, etc.) that require professionals who run social skills groups meet certain educational or training standards. Because of this lack of standards and criteria many parents do not know what they should be asking before enrolling their son or daughter in a social skills group.

Social skills groups are often thought of as the “go to” treatment for kids who are struggling socially but like anything else in life, not all social skills groups are equally effective. I wrote this article to help parents as well as professional understand what questions should be asked before enrolling a child in a social skills group.

Some important things to know:

  1. One’s ability to effectively teach social skills is not predicated upon one’s educational level.

The field of social learning is not taught in graduate programs thus having a masters or doctorate degree does not automatically qualify someone to run a social skills group. Some of the most talented people I’ve seen “teach social” are bachelors level teachers who are naturally gifted at understanding how to teach concepts. Learning how to teach social skills is not taught in higher education. Someone who is committed to teaching social cognitive skills seeks out training on their own and often makes a personal, financial investment in learning whatever program they may be using.

2. Difficultly with social skills or “social learning challenges” is a learning issue, not a mental health issue and need to be address accordingly. Many parents I work with have learned that traditional “talk therapy” is not an effective treatment to help improve social skills. If a child is struggling socially it is because they did not learn social information intuitively and need to be taught. Social learning challenges cannot be effectively addressed simply by taking about feelings surrounding social skills or role playing in a therapist’s office.

3. Social cognitive skills do not need to be taught in a group, they can effectively be taught individually. Some students with social learning challenges have difficulty working in any kind of group with peers thus would not be successful in a social skills group. Many do best with individual instruction, with the intention of transitioning into a small group when they are ready.

I created this list of questions to help parents understand what questions they should be asking before committing their child to attending a social skills groups.

  1. How are the students grouped together?

If students are grouped together solely by age or diagnostic label (ADHD, Asperger’s, autism) it is likely that the instruction is going to be too abstract for some in the group and too basic for others creating boredom, disengagement or acting out behaviors. Social learning challenges are not diagnosis specific, nor are they similar solely based on age. When taught correctly, students are grouped together because they share similar social learning needs. You can learn more about this by reading the Social Thinking Social Communication Profile article.

  1. What methodology or program are you using and what training does the group leader have in using this methodology?

Parents whose children receive social skills instruction in school often tell me that their child’s school uses the Social Thinking methodology. Upon meeting their child and assessing them I find that while most know the Superflex® characters and Social Thinking terminology such as “expected behaviors “and “unexpected behaviors” yet they have no understanding how these terms are tied into the learning concepts. This is not the fault of the school faculty, most have not had the opportunity to attend a Social Thinking conference or training program. If it’s helpful to know if whomever is facilitating social skills groups has received any training in the program they are using.

  1. How do you help skills to be generalized outside of the group setting?

I have found that many people who teach social cognitive skills employ the use of visual metaphors, symbols and activities to convey a concept. While I appreciate the creativity in their instruction, many students who struggle socially are very literal, concrete thinkers. They simply cannot generalize skills when they are taught abstractly, by using metaphors, symbols, etc. They need information presented in a way that is concrete to be able to generalize concepts.

  1. How do you teach natural sounding social communication?

I frequently find that boys who attend social skills groups learn social communication skills that are overly formal and not natural to the ways that similar-age boys communicate with each other. As an example, many people who teach social skills teach students they need to compliment others. What many people who teach social skills do not realize is that a “hidden rule” exists that boys do not compliment other boys publicly nor do they ask questions such as “How is your day going?” Learning to sound natural is a cornerstone of the work I do. A middle schooler cannot connect with his similar-age peers if he is sounding like a 45-year-old.

The field of social learning (teaching social skills) is unregulated which is why parents need to do their homework and go beyond what is advertised on a website or what they’ve heard from other parents so they can ask relevant questions to determine if the social skills group is a worthwhile investment in their time and money.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and Linwood, New Jersey. Learn more at: www.centeradhd.com

Social Thinking was created by Michelle Garcia Winner. Learn more about Social Thinking by visiting their website.

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