BY KAREN KABAKI-SISTO, M.S. CCC-SLP
Along with academic achievement, a goal of the educational experience is to learn how to have successful social relationships both inside and outside of the classroom that continue through adulthood.
However, physically seating a student into a classroom –mainstream or self-contained –does not automatically ensure social acceptance. Problems with learning and communication can cause a child with special needs to be misunderstood, left out, teased, and/or bullied, leading to behavioral meltdowns and depression.
Parents and teachers working together can promote friendship, values, and camaraderie among all students. The following suggestions for socialization promote positive emotions and self-concepts for all children and can be used with fellow students, friends, or family members.
TIPS FOR THE CLASSROOM
Decreasing Prejudice While Enforcing Equal Status
• Teachers can display a classroom “flower garden” where students each display their individuality by drawing a flower. On petals and leaves, children can tell about themselves, who they are, where they come from, and their unique interests.
Identifying Values and Fostering Positive Feelings
• After the instructor pulls a student’s name from a hat, the other students write, “The thing I like most about you is your…”, chosen from a list of qualities like honesty, friendliness, helpfulness, etcetera. Their statements, along with examples, are reviewed by the teacher and then read aloud to the honored student. This fosters a sense of belonging. Proudly, the revered student can take these letters home in a class-decorated folder in order to help with anxiety, depression, bullying, and overall negativity.
• With the idea that positivity “sticks,” students can write empowering remarks and compliments onto sticky notes to boost self-esteem. After teacher review, each note can be placed on the respective students’ desks to remind them of this recognition and caring between one other.
• Given teacher guidance, students can create “Want Ads” for friends. Students can “advertise” that his or her desired friendship requires emotional traits such as “being accepted” and “having patience” and interests like “enjoying reading” or “playing baseball.” The student placing the “ad” would describe his or her strengths and talents such as organization, trustworthiness, love of art, and so on.
Cooperative Learning and Cooperative Discipline
• Cooperation is based on relationships, social responsibility, pride, and a strong sense of belonging. Activities like tutoring, mentoring, group studying, board games, group projects, and plays are some examples of cooperative learning. Such activities require each student to depend on the help of one another to accomplish a common goal, so teamwork rather than competition is fostered. As students create more positive interactions between one another, they can learn to better appreciate each friend’s similarities and differences.
• To benefit the entire class, students can work together to develop their own ‘Classroom Code of Conduct’ and partake in peer-to-peer conflict mediation with teacher guidance. This way, students experience a deeper sense of community, discipline, and social consciousness.
Fostering Team-Building and Connections
• A great way for students to connect with other students, both individually and as a whole class, is by creating a ‘human web’. Standing in a circle, each student takes turns throwing a single ball of yarn to any classmate while giving him or her compliments (e.g., “You are a generous person because you like to share your pencils with me.”), expressing gratitude (e.g., “Thanks for helping me clean up during art class. I couldn’t have done it that fast by myself.”), or asking personal questions (e.g., “Have you ever traveled to another state?”). Since the yarn is interwoven between throws, everyone’s contribution is important to the web, everyone is connected, and there are unlimited interesting designs for the students to create together!
TIPS FOR THE HOME
Non-Threatening Expressions and Positive Responses
• Using “I” messages, teach your child to say things to family members and friends like, “Mike, when you laughed at me, I felt upset and sad. I like when you help me instead of laugh at me.”; “Do not take my stuff without asking. I like to share, and I will usually let you borrow my stuff if you ask me.”
• Explain to all children within the household that any behavior including misbehavior is a choice that each person has control over. Even though we have reasons to feel badly, we can choose positive behaviors. You can say something like, “Feeling grouchy does not give you the right to be disrespectful and make nasty comments.”
• Have discussions about your child’s daily conflicts and how she or he feels. Using role play of actual or hypothetical social situations, you can both work on scripts and suggestions for a calm resolution.
• Help your child make social relationship judgements by examining the people within her or his life. Draw a dart board with concentric circles, different colors, and possibly a point-value. On thin sticky notes, your child can write the names of people he or she knows. Have your child assess how “close to” or “far from” the center each person is, pointing out that the bullseye represents the most trusted relationships (highest point-value) while further circles depict less intimate relationships. People who aren’t friendly or act as bullies are placed outside of the circle, earning no value points. If you feel your child has made inappropriate judgements about the true relationships, discuss the reasons why with your child. Then, together you can re-assign the placement of these people on the dart board.
• Sharing some personal experiences and hardships as you were growing up may allow your child to feel more comfortable and willing to share more of his or her daily encounters with you.
• Sometimes physical disabilities tend to evoke more sensitivity from others because those limitations are observable. In contrast, classmates may misunderstand the student with special needs who has social, communicative, emotional, and/or behavioral disorders. Educators along with parents can teach general awareness, kindness, and advocacy. Some general tips for parents to use with family members and friends as well as for teachers to use with the class follow:
• Some children who cannot speak or communicate effectively may feel happy just to have others play or work near them. There are lots of fun activities that don’t require language such as taking turns at putting puzzles together, playing catch, or playing a memory match card game.
• Some students with special needs might not know how to make friends or they may feel uncomfortable. Encourage everyone to introduce themselves and show an interest in becoming his or her friend.
• Since children with special needs have difficulty communicating, sometimes they might misunderstand and/or miscommunicate. Being a good friend to anyone means helping others to understand and get their needs met.
• The person on the inside matters the most—not the way they talk, look, or move. Good friends accept each other’s differences and respect their unique traits. Remember how important this is, and stand up for your friend if someone is teasing or bullying her or him.
FRIENDS ‘TIL THE END
Developing strong social responsibility and friendships are some of the best ways for all children to build self-confidence along the journey of life. Being part of a tight-knit, respectful community leaves little room for negative behavior. The more time spent successfully learning from each other through teamwork, collaboration, and communication, the safer and happier everyone can feel.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, has been a communication expert for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with autism & special needs to have more meaningful conversations than ever before. Her highly effective I CAN! For Autism Method™ – perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” – is changing lives through improved social and language skills. It is 100% fun for both kids and adults to use! Join the conversation at www.iCanForAutism.com