April 18, 2013

Conference Summary: Building Social Relationships

highlights from a social skills conference presented by Scott Bellini

On April 4-5 I was fortunate to be able to attend a conference presented by Scott Bellini regarding Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Mr. Bellini is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling & Educational Psychology and Clinic Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University. This was a great presentation that was attended by speech-language pathologists, social workers, special education teachers and consultants, general education teachers, and school psychologists. This will be a long post, but there was just so. much. great information presented. I wanted to use this blog post as a way for me to hash through and review the information presented. The following information focuses mainly on the evidence-based strategies Mr. Bellini discussed.

Social Skills are defined as socially acceptable learned behaviors. These skills are important because they bring about positive responses from others when we interact. It is important to remember that children with ASD want to form meaningful relationships but may not have the skills to do so. A lack of such skills can result in anxiety and social isolation, poor academics, substance abuse, and even suicide in extreme cases. Also remember, however, that social skills are not just for students with ASD, and should be taught in every environment a child enters.

Social skills refers to behaviors, but social cognition is related to considering viewpoints, understanding humor, compromising, interpreting and inferring intentions of others, maintaining topic of conversation, and analyzing social situations. In social interactions, we are continually taking the perspectives of others. Children with ASD may know you have a different perspective, but can have difficulty figuring out what that perspective is. This especially comes into play when predicting what happens next in social situations because you have to attend to relevent cues around you and have prior knowledge about the individuals you are interacting with. Children with ASD may be over-attentive and have difficulty attending to more than one environmental factor at a time. This is huge! Without attention, you will not have learning!

Children can have difficulty in skill acquisition (or learning the skills they don't have) as well as skill performance (using the trained skills they have). When training skill acquisition, the best instruction stays within the zone of proximal development. The ZPD (Vygotsky ring a bell?) is the range of skills between what a child is able to do independently, and the skills the child can do with support.

A big portion of the information was about evidence-based and proven strategies to promote skill acquisition and performance. Strategies such as peer mentors, video modeling, social narratives, and prompting.

Social Narratives:
*A strategy for teaching specific social skills or concepts by presenting in the form of a story.
*Combine social narratives with behavioral rehearsal (role-playing) for maximum effectiveness. Doing so targets both "thinking" and "doing"

*Prompts are support and assistance that is provided to help the student experience success.
*Prompts can be physical, modeling, verbal, gestural, or natural.
*Use the least supportive prompt necessary to ensure success.
*Prompt attention prior to prompting behavior. Your student needs to be attending to the situation in order to perform the appropriate response.
*Fade your prompts as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do this is to pair a more supportive prompt with a less supportive prompt, then fade away the more supportive prompt.

Peer Mentors:
*Peer mentors should be similar age, be socially competent, and have a history of neutral or positive interactions with your student.
*Peer mentors are taught to appropriately initiate/respond to their peer with ASD before any structured interactions occur. Using peer mentors allows skills to be taught in a more natural setting.
*Adults facilitate the play, but are not directly a part of the interactions. This results in significantly reduced prompts to the child with ASD.
*Also select "generalization peers" to see how play skills and interactions transfer to other children.

Video Modeling and Video Self-Modeling:
*This is a highly effective strategy due to the strength of visual cues vs. auditory cues for students with ASD.
*Record your student participating in social interactions. You can provide prompts and instructions to the student while recording, but then edit those out so that the final video the student watches is him/her performing the desired behavior successfully. Think about it - athletic teams have been studying videos for a long time!
*Videos should be 1-2 minutes in length or student won't retain information in memory.
*Keep it POSITIVE and focus on SUCCESS!

There were some big ideas that stuck out to me throughout the conference. Ideas that made me think and double-think about my own strategies:

*Students with ASD can experience a fear response when asked to make eye contact. Since the conference I have found myself wanting to prompt eye contact, but catch it and prompt the student's attention instead. Mr. Bellini suggested teaching students to look at facial expressions or body language as a whole, and save eye contact for initiating and ending turns. He recommended maintaining eye contact not be a goal in and of itself.

*Peer mentors. When I grab students from a preschool or kindergarten classroom, there are always classmates (not students of mine) who beg me to take them too. Once in a while I oblige, but now I have an even better reason to do so. I'm excited to get parent permission for a few select peers to be involved in our social interactions, so that my students with ASD can receive fewer prompts from me, and so their skills can be targeted in a much more natural interaction.

*I am so, so excited to begin incorporating video modeling into my social skills interventions! Students seeing themselves successfully interact with peers is such a powerful tool! I am convinced it can be the difference in students acquiring skills and performing skills successfully at a faster rate. And is not to be solely used for students with ASD either. Video modeling and video self-modeling can be used to make differences in the performances of students with trouble behaviors, reading fluency and comprehension, articulation errors, selective mutism, and more. Good stuff!

This post doesn't even begin to cover everything that we learned from Scott Bellini. If you'd like to read more about Mr. Bellini's systematic program for training social interaction skills, check out his book. If you ever get the chance to hear him present his research and methods in the area of Social Communication, I highly recommend you take advantage. I can't wait to get started implementing the strategies I learned!

Big thank you and high five to the Heartland Area Education Agency for bringing in Scott Bellini to educate us in the area of Social Communication!

Click here to read a Chirpstory highlighting all the information from the 2-day conference, including teaching emotions and perspective taking, additional strategies, and training students to self-monitor their skills.

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