Social Skills in a Mainstream School

My seven year-old son has been attending a mainstream school for about three months. He spent the first two years of his schooling at a Special School. When his academic and social skills had advanced to a point where that environment was no longer in his best interests, it was decided by his principal, teacher, and myself, that it was time to try mainstreaming. In consultation with his new mainstream school, it was decided that it would be best to hold him back a year – begin him in Year Two instead of Year Three – to give everyone a chance to assess his skills and competencies in an environment that wouldn’t challenge him too much from the get-go. As it turns out, that was a good decision.

By naraekim0801 via Flickr

It was decided that we’d give him at least a term (about three months) to settle in before deciding whether he’s ready to be shifted into Year Three. Apparently it was clear from early on that academically he was ready (which is an extremely positive reflection on the fantastic teaching team he had at his Special School, don’t let anyone tell you those schools aren’t about meeting academic needs as well as special needs). The problems that have become more obvious to the teaching team as the months have gone by, are his social challenges. Initially his new teacher had been full of glowing praise for his all-round abilities and saw little area for extra work and support, I tried to warn her and others that the real challenges hadn’t had a chance to expose themselves yet. Sure enough, they came to see and understand what I’d feared from early on.

My son struggles to make friends and understand friendships. He does not grasp the subtleties of relationships and of everyday interactions, in ways that his peers already do. The admirable and inspiring thing about my son though, is his willingness and ability to extend himself. Everyday we have conversations about social skills and knowledge: What’s the line between a stranger and a friend; what’s the difference between polite and friendly; how do you join in an activity that’s already underway; what do you do when a friend wants to do something you don’t want to do. I support these discussions with examples, role-playing, and books that show suggested scripts with pictures to support his visual learning style. Sometimes we go to his school playground in weekends to practice what to say to the other children and how to handle it when others want to do something that scares him; he really enjoys these outings and they help build his confidence.

For all this though, he still hates playtime at school. He loves the learning, and doesn’t like to leave the classroom environment. He tells me that at playtime he’s started wandering the grounds by himself, sometimes watching friends. I asked him if that made him sad, he says no, but he also told me that he’d join his friends if they weren’t doing things that scared him. I and his teachers and his support staff practice his social skills with his friends too, but it’s obvious this is hard for him and it’s going to take time.

And it’s these issues – with his social skills – that are ultimately why he’s going to have to remain in Year Two instead of Year Three, at least for another term, and possibly the rest of the year. How can that be, you might wonder. Why do social skills matter more, it seems, than his academic skills and capabilities, since those are at Year Three level? The answer touches on the general complex importance of social skills that I didn’t used to understand at all, and am still getting my head around, though I am reading and talking my way to a better understanding every single day; this is my journey alongside his.

The reasons these social skills matter so much to his education, are many, and some I know I don’t truly appreciate or fully comprehend yet. His challenges socializing with children his own age, make group work difficult, and requires lots of scaffolding to make sure he gets turns and learns from group activities, which are inevitable at school. Basic social skills are also required for him to get the most from the chance to communicate with the other children in and out of class time: One of the key reasons we decided he needed mainstreaming was because he couldn’t get the daily and frequent verbal interactions he needed from his special classmates anymore, so we want to make the most of that opportunity within a mainstream school.

His social skills also of course impact on him getting the most from the teachers too. He needs to know how to do what he’s instructed without responding to requests in a way that takes up class time (by, for example, always requiring an in-depth explanation of why he must do what he’s told: Respecting authority figures and doing what they ask of you is important at home, school, and the work place; it’s not appropriate to question every direction, particularly in time-poor scenarios). He needs to learn to stop and listen rather than walking away mid-way through someone’s sentence. He needs to learn how to ask and answer questions that will get him what he needs to further his own learning. He has the basics of these skills, but they need a lot of work yet, and it requires a team effort from his teachers at school and me at home.

The lovely thing is that, for all this, he does have at least one close friend at school. That one close friendship gives him a feeling of belonging and acceptance and someone to practice social and communication skills with. If we were to advance him to Year Three, he would lose that close daily friendship, and the other friendships we have been working on. He would have to re-establish a relationship of understanding with a new teacher too (his current teacher really cares about and tries hard to understand him and his challenges, she’s just lovely). I’ve been warned from many quarters that in Year Three, social relationships with peers becomes more dependent on emotions and communication, rather than a shared classroom and shared interests, that currently at least give him a shot at making progress.

So all up, it could do his confidence a blow if we advanced him. His ability to take part in group activities, and feel included and accepted would potentially be damaged by going up a year. Academic performance at school is not a wholly separate issue from social relationships and skills, and school is not just about academic performance.

Thankfully, his teacher is mindful of giving my son advanced studies, to help stretch his academic abilities anyway, so he is not being “held back” as such, though no doubt this increases her work load as she has to accommodate not just his special needs, but his academic successes.

A week or two from now I will be having his next Individual Education Plan meeting, where all this will be discussed in more detail, and I can figure out how to support him further at home to match their efforts at school. As is I am in almost daily contact with his teacher, and have the chance to talk to his old teacher once a week when she comes in to help support his social skills in the classroom. Still, I am looking forward to the chance to get into a more in-depth discussion about where we see him going, and how to get there as a team.

I share all this not just because I find it interesting and I hope others will too, and not just because it’s the sort of thing I wish I’d known and read about a year or so ago. I share it because I know some of you reading this have already had this journey, and will have insights and experiences that may help me and my son. I want to know what worked for you, what didn’t, why, what you wished you’d done differently if you’d known then what you know now. Help me, so I can help my son. He is an amazing kid, but we both need all the help we can get.

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22 Responses to Social Skills in a Mainstream School

  1. Rose says:

    His social skills also of course impact on him getting the most from the teachers too. He needs to know how to do what he’s instructed without responding to requests in a way that takes up class time (by, for example, always requiring an in-depth explanation of why he must do what he’s told: Respecting authority figures and doing what they ask of you is important at home, school, and the work place; it’s not appropriate to question every direction, particularly in time-poor scenarios).
    That’s Ben. Always got to know “why”. “Because I said so!”, that’s what I remember being told as a kid. I’m not sure I always listened, either. But think about it. If you are lacking understanding skills, you may not understand the reasoning for all that is asked of you, and there is always somebody getting in your face telling you to do something. I think our kids make decisions based on how it furthers their goals because they have limited energy to even attempt to please everyone, something they’ve probably given up on, anyhow..

    They are exceedingly independent thinkers, believing they are the equals of adults. You have to mean business. For Ben, it always took the “threat” of taking something away to get immediate cooperation. “You don’t want to empty out the dishwasher? I’ll do it for $10 of your allowance, no problem.” “Darn you mother!” and he goes in and does it. Humor saves face…if it can be a joke, it’s better. Also, if he made me angry…I used to always feel guilty…but I started using his allowance to gauge how much he was ticking me off. “Go ahead and do that, Ben. It’ll cost you $20.” Or $50, or $100 if it really, really was going to tick me off. He’s reading this over my shoulder because he heard me snickering at the memories.This system sounds simple, but it was bought with blood and tears, believe me. Just a thought, and may not be related…if the work instructions were on paper, it might be easier to keep in his mind. Ben needs visual cues to do his chores without a fight or being reminded. If he has a visual cue, he just does it. It’s uncanny. I know this is a lot to wrap your mind around. I’ve had 10 more years to cogitate on it.

    He needs to learn to stop and listen rather than walking away mid-way through someone’s sentence. His visual mind is much quicker, and very easily distracted. It’s not that he’s bored with the other child, it’s that it’s hard to shut off the natural way you think to accommodate others. I think this comes with time and maturity. On the other side, because language is his second language, the other kids (and even Mom and Dad) lost patience with Ben as he struggled to find the words to say what he thought, and ran over him verbally, which he found very frustrating. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. It’s all a part of life.

    He needs to learn how to ask and answer questions that will get him what he needs to further his own learning. He has the basics of these skills, but they need a lot of work yet, and it requires a team effort from his teachers at school and me at home.
    Ben NEVER did this. I’m channeling here…I don’t think he cared. School was such a demanding place…just keep your head down and throw something in there and hope it’s good enough. Teachers seem like prison wardens…you aren’t gonna get friendly with the warden, you are just doing time. Now, in college, he has LD accommodations, and he is given extended time for everything. People think it is unfair…but when he gets it, he really gets it. He doesn’t just memorize for tests like I did. It’s a different type of intelligence. And he is motivated by free choice. At tech, because so many of the kids didn’t do school well, the teachers just seem to take learning accommodation in stride. I pray one day it hits the lower classes.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your son’s and your experiences Rose. I found that both interesting and educational. I’ve read it through a couple of times now, lots of think about and absorb there. Thanks for commenting.

      • Rose says:

        We are all in this together…I never saw any of this when Ben was going through it. We used to pray for him to be “healed”. I woke up and realized it was me that needed healing. The world seems like it is working against your child…if you are, too…well, I’ve never known such happiness or come to love Ben so much as when I started seeing what he might be going through, and using laughter.

        I think my son is brilliant. Not ordinary, in any sense of the word! Don’t let fear ever guide you, like I did for years.

  2. KAL says:

    Your son sounds an awful lot like mine. His school has organized an after-school group consisting of 4-5 other boys who are all similarly challenged. It’s led by the sp. ed teacher (basically a school-based social skills group, but more valuable – I think – because it’s made up of peers he interacts with every day opposed to a group he’d only see once a week and has helped to foster new friendships). We were fortunate that the school found this a necessary support.

    I have also found great value in asking teachers who they think is a good match with my son and attempting to organize play dates for 1:1 time. One of the biggest things I’ve done to manage my own level of anxiety about this for him is to occasionally join him at recess to see what interactions look like. What I’ve found is that every kid, to some extent, has some quirk to them (immensely reassuring when I assume that it’s just MY kid 🙂

    • Those are some excellent ideas KAL.

      My son already has occasional play dates with a child he was matched with in class, but I think I will go back to the teacher and ask if she thinks another child would suit too, so my son gets the chance to extend his skills and friendships beyond the singular (but highly beneficial nonetheless) interaction.

      The idea of a group of kids working together after school, with a focus on fostering social skills, sounds fantastic. I may raise the idea with his teacher or school, see what they have running that might perform a similar function, or suggest something like that to them.

      I also really like the idea of observing and joining him at recess. I have a feeling the school might not welcome a parent’s precense during that time, but if I carefully explain my concerns, my goals, and how I hope it can benefit my son, they may be open to it. I know they keep the occasional eye on him during play time for now, and I am grateful they take that interest.

      I really appreciate you sharing those ideas, thanks a lot 🙂

  3. Sidney says:

    It sounds like you’re doing an amazing job. My son is gifted and possibly had AS, he’s in year 1, mainstream school but with small classes and clusterclasses (mornings are regular, in afternoons 1 and 2, 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 work together on projects). He’s doing exceptionally well academically, the teacher gives him a differentiated curriculum, but has the same social and emotional problems as your kid. Could you tell me more about the resources you use to help teach him social skills?

    I wish I could give you advice in return, but sadly, I’m trying to find some clear path myself within this chaos. Everyone seems to have different opinions and visions (teachers, school psychologist, consultants, etc). We don’t even know if he has AS, some say it’s clear, some say he’s ‘just gifted’. We’ll have to wait at least another year before he can be tested due to waiting lists. On top of that, I find myself in doubt about my own brain (I was more or less the same kid). Needless to say, my brain is getting overloaded and I just don’t know what to do anymore. Since you seem way ahead, I would like to ask: does this get any easier? How did you know who to listen to?

    • Hi Sidney.

      There are two main books I’ve been using to teach my son social skills, I can’t recall their names and they’re currently in my son’s bedroom where he’s sleeping! When I get the chance, I’ll go fish them out and tell you what they’re called (which reminds me that I really should review them on my blog).

      I have a post on the difference between Aspergers and giftedness that I suspect you’ll find interesting and useful: https://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/distinguishing-giftedness-from-aspergers-will-the-dsm-5-help/

      Does it get any easier you ask? Yes, and no. It gets easier because you learn new ways to cope and to make your child’s life easier, and it gets harder because new unforeseen challenges pop up that can throw a serious spanner in the works. I try to remain calm and methodical when that happens, and invite other people in his life to help me problem-solve how to respond, but I am careful about who’s opinion I let influence my ultimate response, which goes to your second question about knowing who to listen to: I look to success, and personal understanding of my son. By which I mean, I most value the opinions of those who have lived through what my son is going through and have found a way to achieve personal success (Temple Grandin is a favourite), and I listen to those who have a really good grasp and interest in my sons’s motivations and personality. So I look for expertise in his “condition,” and expertise in him as an individual, and combine them to inform what I should do. I’m sure there are other ways to find answers, but that works for me. I don’t know if that helps!

      • sidney says:

        Thanks for your reply. The article you referred to in your post describes our ‘problem’ quite well. I think it is very much possible that his lack of social skills is due to his asynchronous development.

        It still doesn’t solve my problem of how to deal with it, though. I am exhausted trying to find ways to make him a little less rigid, to try to teach him there are alternatives to yelling and crying when something happens that he doesn’t agree with, especially because he seems to hold most of his frustrations inside until he comes home with me. It’s almost like someone with Tourettes who tries to hold his ticks; they will eventually come out. And, it’s a vicious circle; right now he’s at home for Easter holidays, and after a couple of days with him at home, I am so tired that even small outbursts drive me nuts. I try so hard to remain calm, but it’s so hard and depressing that every day has to start with him crying because of things like ‘you used the wrong spoon’ or ‘the milk is too hot’. He’s just so angry with me for every little thing I do ‘wrong’, and there’s absolutely no way to foresee what will tick him off. I find it hard to enjoy holidays with him, feel guilty about it (what kind of mom doesn’t enjoy being with her kid?), and am puzzled with the fact that he’s a totally different kid at school, at his dad’s, or at his grandparent’s place.

        If you find the time, please do share the books you mentioned. We’re Dutch, but I’m sure there will be a translated version, and if not, I’ll translate it for him. I desperately need some kind of ‘method’, if only just to stop the endless worrying (‘am I going about this the right way’, ‘is this really a problem or should I focus on other things’, etc). Thanks again.

      • Hi sidney, so sorry for my delayed response, I have a lot going on lately and I don’t always get around to replying to comments as quickly as I’d like to.

        The books are: The Social Skills Picture Book (my preferred of the two books: http://www.bookdepository.com/Social-Skills-Picture-Jed-Baker/9781885477910 ) and The New Social Story Book ( http://www.bookdepository.com/New-Social-Story-Carol-Gray/9781935274056 ).

        I want to reply more fully to the rest of your comment than time currently allows. A lot of the problems you’re describing are what we went through with our son too, but we had a whole bunch of therapists on board helping us to decipher the behaviour and how to address it. The most relevant person in our team at the time, for what you’re describing, was the occupational therapist, who helped us understand his need for control and how to satisfy it while not making it worse, and helped us to understand his intense insistence on what seemed very odd or mundane details to us. Perhaps getting a specialist (perhaps a behavioural specialist more broadly) in to observe and advise would be a good idea?

        As to your child being worse at home than at school, that’s a sad norm. It’s because of what you’ve already picked up on: At home he feels safe to let his gaurd down and that will often mean you get to see his frustrations and the worst of what he’s trying to cope with. I know it won’t help you, but you need to know that this is usually seen as a positive sign for your parenting and home environment; that he feels that home is a safe place to let his frustrations out; he’s not afraid of you or what might happen to him if he just lets it all out. It sounds like it’s a coping strategy, not a good one per se, but one that I’d say reflects well on how safe you make him feel.

        I really hope some of that helped in some way, I only wish I could help more xxx

  4. Rose says:

    Are you talking to me? Because as I was reading this, I was going back in time…..Don’t worry about him being in the year 2 class. When Ben was in year 2, was about the time I was considering holding him back. Even though he was among the oldest in his class, and very bright, something was rearing it’s head then, and it ended up being learning disabilities. I didn’t see it until he was in High School, I thought it was behavioral, a part of autism, a stubborness. (It was Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia, that were never addressed: I tried a little…) Even his language disability would have been accounted for by staying another year. He never did stay back a class, but it wouldn’t have hurt anything as he ended up being homeschooled the last 4 years of high school. That might not have been necessary, I don’t know. I have a friend who was held back 2 years—he’s a millionaire.(His mama thought he walked on water…I think that’s a prerequisite.)

    Frankly, when Ben was in those grades, my best friends were the Speech Pathologist and the resource room teacher. I think they are vastly under-rated in our children’s language disability, which is what autism is. The Speech Pathologists gave him “scripts”, just like you are doing, to interact with the kids. Still, he was on the sidelines…don’t worry, it’s how he is comfortable. YOU go into a crowd of people where the noise is going 100 miles an hour and be expected to understand everything they are saying, and then have them laugh at you when you don’t react like you are “supposed to”. Oh, my sweet Ben, he was SO sensitized to being laughed at. But still, A&O, I never give up hope he will find his place. Ben is in year 2 in college, and he is still different…but maybe he is finding his way. The other best friend was the resource room teacher, where Ben went to take tests if he needed it, get caught up on homework, and just “be”, if that’s what he needed. It was one mod, at the end of the day. He was lucky to have a male teacher who didn’t sweat the small stuff, and he could get Ben to work like a trooper somehow. There was no anxiety for Ben there. It was a safe place he could always go. Your son needs a safe place at school where he can go, no questions asked, to gather up courage to go back into the fray. He is fighting a mighty battle for such little shoulders. There will be people who will be extra loving and friendly to your son. Most of the time, I’d find out they had LD or Autism in their families or themselves, and they didn’t sweat the small stuff, either. They are your greatest allies.

    Ben currently is reading “Raising Cubby” by John Elder Robison, as I am, and drinking it up like a sponge. It’s like going back in time, in a way, too, because Ben and Cubby have some things in common. Between John Elder Robison and Dr. Temple Grandin, I need NO other “experts”. Dr. Grandin suggested Tech School rather than High School. Kids aren’t as big of “a##es” there. There’s also no freaking “behaviorally disordered classroom”, which he would have attended in High School, had he gone. No freaking ritalin, either. If you read anything by Grandin or Robison, it will help you understand where your son is coming from. Honest to God, true story: We went into Atlanta to attend a seminar where John Robison was talking about Autism at the CDC (major governmental agency dealing with “disease control” and medical issues in the USA).

    “There he is, Ben!” I recognized him from the pictures.
    “Would you like me to sign your book?” asked Robison, speaking directly to Ben, who hands him the book.
    For a fine fellow Aspergerian, GEEKS RULE! John Elder Robison

    It’s “AUT-DAR” I tell you, just like Gay-dar, A&O. They can spot each other in a crowded room. Your son, my son, there are millions like them out there!! Ben didn’t say a word to him, he just smiled.

  5. nostromo says:

    That’s excellent. I think keeping him back a year is smart thinking, and when I think about it the whole business of keeping kids of the same age in the same classes is based around social level and not academic level which we know varies more widely.

    • That makes a lot of sense nostromo, and I am finding myself increasingly accepting and approving of the decision to hold him back a year (it does help that so many people commenting here and elsewhere have said they have done or would happily do the same).

  6. Rose says:

    Ben’s friends were ALWAYS the ADHD kids who had a similar tough time in school, or got kicked out of most houses in the neighborhood. I don’t worry about pushing friendships. It’s exhausting unless it happens naturally. I’m really shy myself, and it’s torture for me to set it all up. I really didn’t develop friendships until high school.

  7. We have found that with our son Cole, who will be 7 in July, we are very glad about mainstream schooling him, and also believe this is gradually helping improve his social interaction skills and communication. Now into his third class, having started in the second half of 2011, we’ve found it critical that he has a good match with an appropriate teacher, and or teacher assistant, as it is critical that he enjoys school, and that it is a positive rewarding experience for him to want to (and so be able to) go to school. If he was matched with anyone that was too “old school”, strict or forceful, he just would not cope, and his days would be full of frustration. He needs and likes his regular routines, but also needs some teaching flexibility, where he can have outs or retreats or alternatives, when he requires. We have to remember that his perception and perspective of an experience is his own, and may be completely different to our own, even if it is the same object we are both hearing or looking at.

  8. I am really sorry I can’t offer any help or advise but my little boy will be in the same situation late next year. We don’t have a diagnoses of ASD (but its quiet clear at times to us). His diagnoses is speech and language disorder which affects his social communication skills. He attends a SERF unit in a mainstream school which is great because every morning he gets small group time and speech and language therapy and then gets to join the mainstream class in the afternoons. We are very lucky to have him here because his speech is beautiful sometimes he talks more like a little adult…..full of factual content though. He looks very socialable and that’s why we don’t have the ASD label, he will talk to anybody and everybody but the social skills aren’t there. I am always putting forward to the school that playtime is such an important time to teach these social skills and help is needed. Sadly when he finishes year 2 (he is currently in year 1) we will have to find him another school because the SERF unit only go on until the end of year 2. So he will have to be the new boy in a full time mainstream school which is hard enough for a normal child. I feel lost at times and very alone with these worries for him. I am very sorry again I can’t offer help or advise but sometimes it helps to know you aren’t on your own. You do a fantastic job and have a fantastic blogg x

  9. Wife of Jack says:

    This is a really interesting post and relevant to our own experience. Our son’s first Individual Education Plan meeting at school was less about academic achievement, and more about working on those tricky social skills. The teachers were fairly pleased with his level academically given that it’s only one term in to New Entrance which was a big surprise to us. All of that early intervention work must have paid off! So it’s the social skills, independence and being a functional class member that they are are focusing on. Quirky and funny is good, sharing/personal space issues and refusing to sit with the others at meal times is not so great.
    Confident that we have made an excellent choice of school. They get it.

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