Take a Seat, My Friend!

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The Buddy Bench has been in the news for a while, but if you missed it, here’s the gist.  A special bench (the “Buddy Bench”) is designated on the playground for kids to sit on if they don’t have someone to play with.  It is a signal to others that they should come and ask that child to play. I first heard about this idea on the news, when they picked up a story about a little boy named Christian (you can read his story HERE ) and his idea.  There is an entire website (www.buddybench.org) with ideas, a teaching video and a buddy blog with stories of the benches around the world.

My school installed one of these benches on our playground, but I heard one of the students say that he sat there, but no one asked him to play.  My heart hurt for him and I started thinking about why that may have happened.  Many of my friends with social language impairments struggle with the unstructured time at recess.  Too many hidden rules, social anxiety with initiating conversation or play, and the fast pace of social interaction outside are all hurdles that make it easier to wander around the periphery of the playground alone.   And just like any new concept in school, the kids have to be taught the rule of how to use the bench.

It made me so happy to walk down the hall a few weeks later and see that our counselor, Christina, had made a bulletin board (see pictures below) to do just that!  She had the kids make mini-posters of how to use the bench and even social scripts on what to say and do!  The information that I read about the bench also encourages schools to designate peer mentors (aka play pals) who will watch for kids on the bench and actively include them.  This is a strictly voluntary job, but oh how it warms my heart to see so many kids have empathy for others! In an increasingly academic focused environment, it is nice to see kindness and inclusion being fostered as well.

I love this teaching video and this one to share with a class, and prep the kids on how to use the Buddy Bench.  These videos really function as social teaching stories (and can be shared at home with families for carryover).  How great would these be in a public park to generalize a skill taught in school?  If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to call our local Parks and Recreation department and invite our Mayor to propose we do just that!

Does your school have Buddy Benches and if so how are they being introduced?

Slow and Steady…

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I happened to see this little snail moving along at its own pace, determined to get wherever it was going and not following a straight path.  It’s a fair representation of social language therapy from my experience.  Social language development isn’t like any other developmental acquisition timeline, such as language, articulation or gross motor skills. It doesn’t scaffold skills vertically like other areas of communication, one building upon another, leading to proficiency. I think that is part of the reason that it’s so difficult for parents, teachers and therapists to get a handle on what social language therapy is (and isn’t).

The students that I work with often have several preliminary diagnosis before they are identified as having a social language disorder (usually adhd, anxiety, or language delay). These diagnosis can and often do exist right along with social language deficits. Some of my students also have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, most often at the high end of the spectrum.  They tend to be identified later for social language intervention, as typically their academic grades are fantastic.  It is when behaviors start to occur that make these students stand out from their peers, that a referral is urgently made.    When I test these students (some as early as K-1, others not until high school), I find it’s really important to provide some good background knowledge on what social language skills are, and what the goal of therapy is for this student, to the family and the team working with them.  I love this visual of Social Thinking’s ® Social Learning Tree to help me explain the scope and sequence of social learning visually.  So many families will say their goal for therapy is  that they want their child to have friends, but there are so many prerequisite skills that need to be addressed before they are able to develop successful friendships (a very high level social competency)!

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A critical piece of this discussion is talking about how social skills are developing at each level of the tree (roots to leaves) but that students don’t necessarily move upwards through all the social levels to higher social competencies, regardless of their age.  This is a difficult conversation but so crucial in starting therapeutic intervention with realistic expectations.  Just as we cannot therapize an increase in IQ , we cannot therapize social cognition to increase beyond the person’s abilities.  What we can do however,  is deepen and broaden the skills, strategies and competencies within the abilities the person does have.  We do this through direct instruction (our kids are not incidental social learners), modeling, practice and lots of feedback.  I try to reinforce the idea that social learning is a life skill, and we need to work on these skills just like we would for sports, music or academics.

This is not a fast process and it’s often hard to understand a person’s perspective, motivation and deep understanding about how they fit and function in the social framework of their life.  It cannot just be the SLP working on these skills.  It has to involve the family, teachers (general ed as well as special ed), school staff, counselors, OT,  and peer mentors (read a great article about this here from Social Thinking).  Moving the skills and strategies from direct instruction in the speech room, to a structured and supportive setting such as a counseling group or small class, and then learning to generalize the skills across people, place and time is the long-term road map.  It may take several years to develop these social skills and successfully demonstrate social competency. There will be stumbles and mistakes, but that’s okay. It’s part of being human and none of us (even neurotypical adults) are perfect at this social life all the time! Social growth and success are possible, but it is slow and steady intervention that wins this race.

I love Lucy (the other one)!

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I have had the opportunity to work in my church’s special needs class for the past few years.  The kids can have significant sensory, cognitive or medical issues that make it more challenging for them to be in a larger group (as we are part of a BIG church).  Our class offers sensory activities (swings, trampolines) and a modified curriculum for the weekly bible lesson (thanks Boardmaker and Kathy E.!).  My friend and room coordinator, the amazing Karen, recently bought some new materials for our class, and Lucy the Calming Companion (see above) was one of them!

She immediately became the favorite class pet and the kids loved how soft her fur is and how the weighted body was perfect for a snuggle!  I cracked open the accompanying story and we read all about how Lucy uses her strategies to feel calm and offers ideas that the kids can use too. What a fun companion to add into your Zones of Regulation tool box or counseling sessions!  You can adjust the amount of weight via the zipper on Lucy’s belly, as needed for each of your student’s sensory needs (wouldn’t that be great if WE could do that too??).  There is even a tutorial of how to wash Lucy when she gets a little too much love, grime or drool.

Lucy was  created by  Christy Bennett, an OT, and Stephanie Tishgarten.  A kickstarter fund gave this little pup a way to be shared and you can check out the website and video (including the real Lucy) about how Lucy, the Calming Companion, came to be.  You can order your own Lucy at this site as well!  For my friends with sensory needs, the wiggles or just those in need of some hypoallergenic hugs, Lucy is the perfect addition to our room!  I know you will love her too.

 

 

Celebrating MLK Day with a social language craftivity!

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The life and words of Martin Luther King Jr. are embedded throughout the city of Atlanta (and beyond), where I live.  I love the idea of volunteering to honor his lifelong work by helping others on MLK Jr. Day.   The social challenges that sparked this Pastor’s passion for peace are complex and difficult for some of my students to understand.   With my younger students, I like to focus on the concept of why we should help others.  It fits beautifully into a social thinking framework of taking someone else’s perspective, thinking about how our actions and words make someone else feel and the value of doing something kind for another person, without expecting anything in return.

At first glance, these are pretty big social concepts, right?  However, when you look at Dr. King’s vision and the words of his sermons, you will see the essence of his message is to love and accept other people.  A big part of being able to do this is to be able to think about how other people might feel and think, in relationships to our words and actions.  In order to talk about this concept, we break big picture ideas into scaffolded steps,  like this helping hand wreath.

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I found these great free clip art hands  from Teacher’s Clipart on TPT.   I printed them, cut out the shapes, and then let my kids pick a hand.  Your students can also trace their hands on construction paper and cut them out too for an ink saving version with a fine motor bonus.  Add to the lesson with Readworks , a free website that has many articles at different comprehension levels/grades that help us talk about MLK in the context of history and social change like this second grade passage with great pictures.  It is important to talk about why we honor someone, what that looks like and how helping other people can do this.

Next, I ask the kids to think of a way they can help someone and we talk about the idiom “give someone a hand”.  They can then write or draw how they can help someone on their paper hand.   It doesn’t have to be formal volunteering, it can be as simple as bringing the garbage can in for an elderly neighbor, holding the door open for someone or picking up your room without your mom asking you to do it. The object is for their actions or words to help someone  (and in turn that person will have good thoughts and feelings about them)!  It can even be a “secret mission” as the point is not recognition for a good deed or even telling others what you did, but that doing for others makes us feel good too.  They often come back and share how it went and it is a great time to connect how their actions and words made other people feel.  I hope this activity lights a tiny flame of altruism that they carry throughout their lives and effects positive social change for them too.

How do you teach the bigger concepts of kindness and service?  Share here…

 

Escape Speech Room Boredom

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I love a good puzzle and a challenge, so naturally my curiosity was piqued when my son came home after a Breakout adventure with his friends.  These adventures are themed rooms where you are “locked” in, such as a jewel heist or the CDC during a Zombie outbreak, until you solve several clues. They are elaborate and creative fun and the group has to work together, or nobody gets out alive  wins the challenge. After thinking about how cool this idea is, my second thought was why not try this in speech?

One of the skills that I find I need to address over and over again with my social language students is the concept of working in a group successfully with peers.  There are so many social concepts to scaffold prior to working in a group such as sharing personal space, whole body or active listening skills, turn taking, maintaining a topic,  perspective taking, emotional regulation, executive function and more!  However, we are requiring even our Pre-K kiddos to master this skill pretty quickly in the school setting.  These skills are also embedded in the common core under the Speaking and Listening strands  Working cooperatively is a life skill and if our kids can’t learn to develop these skills in their early years, how do you think college, jobs or even living in a community is going to go?  Not well.

Out of this skill set, my Connect the Dots: Cornucopia Caper group work product was born! I wanted a fun way to work on a tough social skill with my upper grade students.  It’s always good to shake it up a bit to avoid boredom, right?

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I created a print and go packet of activities perfect for November social groups with seven puzzles and challenges to solve.  I set up a secret mission for my students and they must work together to solve all of the challenges (logic and physical) to “escape” the speech room.   I have included templates for group rules and a rubric for data collection on this skill set.

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Setting up for success

There are “How to Use” instructions included as well as mission descriptions for your students and an instruction guide/answer key for the SLP in each section.

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7 challenges to solve

Your students need to work together to solve each puzzle,  like this Pilgrim’s Peril physical challenge  (the construction paper is the Mayflower and the floor is the ocean, all must share space to stay on the boat for thirty seconds).

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Pilgrim’s Peril

The missions can be completed in one or even over two sessions, if the students work together.  There are two HELP cards included for the SLP to intervene if they cannot figure out a puzzle or are having difficulty working together.

The last mission is the “key” to escape and they receive a mission accomplished clue as the meet each challenge. These use these clues to solve a riddle.  I also tell my students, because they tend to be very literal thinkers, that when I tell them they are working to find the key to escape the speech room, this doesn’t mean we are actually locked in the room.  This reduces anxiety just a bit before we start the activity.  If the idea of a timer frustrates your students within the challenges, you don’t have to use it, it’s just a suggestion to move the activity along.  The goal is successfully working together, not beating the clock.

I hope this has given you a fun idea to try when practicing the social concepts of working successfully in a group !  This product is the first in a series, so check back soon for Holiday Hijinks, the next in my Connect the Dots series!

How do you work on the social concept of working in a group successfully with your students?

 

 

 

Sociables

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I presented on a professional learning day  to a group of SLPs who work with the preschool population. We talked about teaching early social language learning concepts in a preschool setting for most of the day.  I was very excited to share how I use the concepts of Social Thinking, The Incredible Five Point Scale and Zones of Regulation with them!  The concepts in these teaching methodologies can be pretty complex but I tried to find examples of how they can be simplified for little people too.

One of the ideas I had was to create these social concept mobiles  (social+mobile= sociables, get it?!) . Conceptually, Pre-K and K students are working on identifying feelings and emotions in themselves and others, learning to regulate those feelings and emotions and then figuring out how their thoughts and emotions make other people think and feel too.  Heady stuff for four and five year olds, right?  But the color coding system approach of the Zones of Regulation and the Incredible Five Point Scale are fantastic visual tools to work on these skills from a very young age!

My sociables align with the color system as well.  Read more about the use of Zones and the Incredible Five Point Scale (you can thank me later) and consider investing in both of these teaching products, it’s money well spent. Think about applying for a Donor’s Choose grant or a PTA grant through your school to fund your own social language library!

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At the top of the sociable, I cut out square pieces of colored construction paper that align with the Zones:  red (mad), yellow (frustrated), green (happy) and blue (sad) . For the sake of the discussion, I simplified the colors into one emotional state, but the Zones goes into variances along the spectrum of emotions in each color much more in depth!  You can cut out pictures from magazines or print Boardmaker pictures of things/situations that might elicit these feelings or emotional states.  For example, for blue, I might have a picture of someone losing a game or watching a sad movie.

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Then I attach three cut outs along a string that hangs from the colored square. I created a thought bubble (what am I thinking?), a heart (what am I feeling?) and a speech bubble (what would I say?) using PowerPoint shapes.  You can  color code the string, yarn or ribbon with the color to give more visual cues for the zone or use the same zone color for all the construction paper squares for your sociables.  This could be a great co-treat project to do with your Occupation Therapist (OT)  to work on cutting, threading, gluing and identifying sensory regulation ideas!

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For example:   Green Zone and the picture at the top is of two friends, my thought bubble could be thinking, “I like my friend!”, my feeling heart could be, “I feel happy!”  and my word bubble might be “I like playing together!”.   For your littles who aren’t writing yet, you can have them dictate to you and you write them down on the pieces or they can glue picture representations on each one .  Your students might need picture choices to scaffold responses (use these with your non-verbal students to support their participation too). Emoji stickers would be a fun way to identifying feelings, for example.  I laminate my teaching model (so I can reuse it), and I show the kids my final product before we start, to give them a visual of what we are working towards.

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Hang these sociables from your class ceiling or create a bulletin board for your class!  You can extend the conversation to include talking about the strategies we can use to move from red, yellow or blue feelings back to green feelings (calm and happy) using the Zones and Incredible Five Point Scale curriculum.  Don’t forget to talk about how it’s okay to have ALL of these feelings and that no one is in the green zone all the time, but we have tools to use to get us there. You have built in a visual support for emotional regulation right into your room all day long!

How do you support this skill with your young students?

Stuck Thinking

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I had the misfortune of walking into a spider’s web the other morning.  I was caught up in my own thoughts and didn’t see the web draped across the hedges until it was too late.  There’s nothing quite like a spider web freak out, and I am glad no one was nearby to witness it (or they would still be on the ground, laughing).  It took me a good twenty minutes to untangle myself from the sticky webbing, and at least another twenty minutes to calm down.

This experience made me think of my students who get caught in their own thoughts but can’t get “unstuck”. Mental health is a big issue in our society, especially with our older kids. Many of our students with social language impairments, anxiety, and ADD struggle with managing their focus internally and externally.   It’s easy for someone who doesn’t struggle with these thoughts to say, “Just stop thinking about it!”, but it is harder than it seems.   Negative or perseverative thought patterns often upset our students, keep them disengaged in learning and conversation, and make it difficult for them to establish friendships if they become stuck in a chronically negative mindset.

This is one of those gray areas that overlap speech therapy and counseling’s scope of practice.  It doesn’t have to be one or the other, as our students can benefit from the support of both specialists.  From a social language perspective, helping our kids connect the concepts of keeping their “brains in the group“, taking the perspective of others, connecting how their choices might make other people think or feel, and emotional self-regulation  are all valuable tools in their coping toolbox. Using a five point scale to talk about the size of a problem and matching the size of a reaction to that problem, are also helpful strategies with our kids. We need to make sure that we are working on these skills  outside of the moment, as our students are often not available when they perseverate.  They need to hear the message that they don’t have to do this on their own,  and there are supports all around them!  If the anxiety or compulsive thoughts are overwhelming for the student, then we need to dialogue with the family and encourage them to involve their pediatrician or psychiatrist in the conversation.

A friend once told me that she can’t be in her head too much because it’s a bad neighborhood to linger in.  What she meant was that she can get stuck in dark and negative thoughts when she thinks too much on her own.  She needed to talk through her worries with others who could put her concerns into perspective when she couldn’t. This is a similar  premise of cognitive behavioral therapy .  CBT is a “short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.”  This sounds like an approach that aligns with social thinking concepts and emotional regulation strategies, doesn’t it?

I created a TPT product for my older students to work on strategies and problem solving to get unstuck in their social thinking.  It walks them through the steps to learn to “change the channel” in their mindset from negative to positive! Want to check it out?   Social Skills: Change the Channel from Negative to Positive .

 For your younger students, I really love the book by Kari Dunn Buron,  When My Worries Get Too Big , or Julia Cook’s fantastic book,  Wilma Jean the Worry Machine .

How do you work with students who are chronically stuck in an internal or negative mindset? Share here!