Maryann Campbell, MHA, is executive director of The Glenholme School, and Marc Bonaguide is acting clinical director of The Glenholme School. The Glenholme School, a center of the Devereux organization, is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) therapeutic boarding school for young people with high functioning autism spectrum disorders; ADHD, PDD, OCD, Tourette’s, depression, anxiety, and various learning differences. For more information about The Glenholme School and its program, visit http://www.theglenholmeschool.org.
Social coaching can be a powerful tool to help children and adolescents understand the social challenges they are faced with and how to gain mastery over them. Coaching can be conducted in a contrived, structured setting, and requires planning and creativity. It can also take place in the classroom, residential setting or even at home. Meeting the child in the environment where they experience their challenges has tremendous benefits.
Truly effective social coaching begins with building awareness. Until your child fully understands what behaviors they are engaged in and why they are problematic, they can never truly gain any ownership over the process. Observations and feedback in the moment, including filming and reviewing footage together, can help to build awareness. Once your child is aware of their behavior, next comes the need to understand the function or why he or she is engaging in this behavior or what is causing the behavior. This can be a challenge for any child, let alone a child with autism. Effective coaching focuses not on the problem behavior itself, but on the trigger or antecedent that prompts the child to act in such a way. If the child is tuned into what environmental factors encourage or hinder behavior, he or she will be better equipped to access the learned skill sets more proactively.
Videotaping and reviewing footage is an excellent method of helping a child begin to gain a better sense of cause and effect. They can see firsthand how they respond to a particular peer, social interaction, task or activity without the stress of being in the moment. With an understanding of triggers, the focus now turns to practicing the individual social skills with guided support and feedback from the adult. The needs of the individual child will determine which form of coaching should take place.
Coaching may take place in a contrived setting with one or more peers, engaged in a specific, pre-planned activity. It may also take place in the environment itself, which if the social coach has done his or her homework, can be given its own level of structure and predictability. The form of the coaching itself also depends on the child and their learning style and/or their comfort level. As the coaching progresses, the adult should track progress on a continual basis and review with the child regularly. Once the child has achieved some level of consistency in their successful implementation of skills, the adult can begin to take a step back. Videotaping, both in contrived and real-world settings, can again be a useful tool to assess how a child is doing without the adult present. The ultimate goal of coaching should obviously be the ability to independently implement learned skills.
Here are some helpful tips on creating a successful framework for coaching:
- Use clear, step by step instructions. It is not enough to cue your child to “Go start a conversation with Billy.” What are the specific steps to starting a conversation with Billy? Step one may be to identify if it is the appropriate time to start a conversation. Step two may be to identify a topic of interest. Step three may be to open with a greeting.
- Involve your child. For social coaching to be truly effective, the child needs to have some ownership over the process. Involve them from the beginning. Illicit from them what they think their greatest challenges are. Don’t tell them what their triggers are; rather help them determine that for themselves.
- Know your child. Understanding how your child learns is essential. A more visual learner might buy into the coaching process much quicker and more fully by using visual cues like color-coded cue cards. Other children may prefer the verbal cue but can be reluctant to have the adult in close proximity during a social event and may prefer being pulled aside to be given feedback. Still, others may need the quick phrase or cue word immediately in the moment.
- Know the environment. While coaching in the environment has incredible benefit, valuable time can be wasted if you don’t take the time to plan ahead and understand how that particular setting is structured. For instance, if you were working with a child on turn-taking, coaching during an interactive game activity would be productive and worthwhile. Coaching during a quiet homework period would not. Involving the other adults present in the process is essential.
- Generalize. The focus of coaching, as discussed, should of course be for the child to become more independent in their use of learned, pro-social skill sets. You want him or her to ultimately generalize to the larger environment when the social coach is not present. In the same vein, this can be more quickly and fully attained if the coaching itself is generalized. Educating the teacher, staff member or parent about the specific skill sets being taught and their accompanying steps can broaden the availability of coaching opportunities considerably. Practice makes perfect.
There is no single, perfect method of coaching social skills to children and adolescents. However, positive and sustained outcomes can be maximized through a creatively structured plan that empowers the child and considers all factors.