18 Tips to work on Social Skills/SEL while you’re stuck at home (from a BCBA!)

How to Practice Social Skills/SEL during times of isolation.

When you’re stuck at home with only the same few people day after day, working on social skills and SEL social-emotional learning can be a challenge. I partnered with Ashley Rose of Mission Cognition to bring you some ideas of how to practice these skills with your child despite being isolated or under quarantine.

SEL social emotional distance learning

We did a Facebook Live event together and I have embedded it below. But, if you want to read rather than watch, I transcribed it. I edited it to take out filler because our original conversation was almost 10,000 words. Here is a bulleted list of her ideas, and you can read more details if you wish.

Tips for Social Skills/SEL Practice at Home.

  1. Prioritize your child’s strengths and areas of need to determine targets that you’re going to work on during this time.
  2. Some ideas for target skills: turn-taking, reciprocal conversation, making choices, functional play, tolerating loss, flexible thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, orienting toward faces, looking for social/body cues.
  3. Use what opportunities and resources you have at home.
  4. Ask questions of your child. Try to get reciprocal conversations alive and going.
  5. Imitation and functional play skills as a foundation.
  6. Make sure you’re not overwhelming your child with too many choices. Narrow it down and make sure the child knows how to engage with that toy.
  7. Video chats, guided with Q&A sessions, or show and tell.
  8. Websites (2 listed below)
  9. online games and activities (details below): Four Corners, Scavenger Hunts, Freeze Dance.
  10. Build a foundation, with emphasis on imitation.
  11. Competitive games for learning to lose or win gracefully; using toys with different rules for flexible thinking.
  12. No talking: Guessing games with only facial expressions. This forces your child to orient toward a face to get the answers they are seeking.
  13. TV: Watch shows (soap operas & novellas are great!) with no sound, discuss facial expressions and what you think is happening.
  14. Hide essential or preferred items to force your child to engage in conversation.
  15. Embed preferred items or pictures in video learning.
  16. 1:1 teacher training can be for the parent, not just the child.
  17. Sports, card games and other activities that encourage reciprocity.
  18. Do the best you can with what you have–even 10-15 minutes a day is better than nothing!

AR: I am Ashley Rose, the Owner/Director of Behavior Analyst and a special educator. I started off going into homes, providing one-to-one support, using the principles of applied behavior analysis. And I was seeing that there were such significant deficits when it came to social-emotional learning, building and maintaining friendships, which really weren’t being prioritized as much as I thought they could be. I made that my mission to take that on. I opened centers where we’re exclusively focusing on that. We’re providing instruction on play and on social skills. In addition to our onsite center-based services, I also train other professionals to provide the same types of intervention- behavior analytic play and social skills instruction.

Lisa Lightner:  We’re only going to be taking questions as it pertains to social skills and social-emotional learning. I have not really seen anyone except for my husband and my kids for, you know, going on four weeks and I don’t have any social skills issues myself. I know what I’m supposed to do and I’m, I know that I’m not getting enough practice. So I can only imagine what the challenge is like for my son who really struggles with social skills, playing and communicating. There just aren’t many opportunities to practice right now. I mean, here we are, we’re all stuck in our homes with our nuclear families for the most part and new opportunities to practice anything.

child finger painting

AR: So first I would say that there definitely are opportunities to practice. So coming down to how we’re defining social skills. For me, that’s really just about interaction. You do have to interact with each other quite a few times throughout each day unless you are completely isolated in your own rooms. We want to break that apart and start to identify what is it that we should or can be working on during those times. That’s going to be different for everybody depending upon your child’s age or areas of strength or areas of needs. It’s going to look a little bit different for everybody. But we want to prioritize those targets and you can do that by first seeing. In what ways is it challenging to get along or in what ways are you having to do a lot of the work to keep an interaction going?

If you’re trying to have a conversation with your child, do you find yourself asking a lot of questions to keep that conversation going because they’re not adding a lot of spontaneous information to that? That gives you a lot of information about where you can start. If you’re trying to prepare dinner and your child is struggling to fill that free time independently, that gives you a lot of information about where you can focus those efforts on building that solitary play or leisure skills repertoire. There’s definitely a lot of opportunities to practice things even though there aren’t peers accessible at this time. It’s just a matter of reframing some of those priorities or reframing some of those targets. Even though we do offer social skills, group instruction in the center, there are plenty of targets that I can work on with case one to one. Not all of the skills are related to a peer to peer interaction. So talking about a conversation or talking about flexibility or teamwork, sportsmanship, all those types of skills we can work on in a one to one teaching situation or just with members of your, of your family. It’s really gonna come down to, again, reprioritizing some of those targets.

mom and child talking

Functional Play and Leisure Skills

LL: Okay. Let’s start with if your child kind of lacks that functional playing skills without a parent getting involved. Start with that.

AR: Right. So a lot of times I find that the play area may be overwhelming. Maybe you’ve purchased a lot of toys trying to find something that’s going to spark your child’s interest. You may have too much out at once. Try to narrow that down a little bit and then also thinking back to–we don’t always like what we’re not good at, so a child may just not know how to play with that toy. It’s not that they don’t like it or they don’t have an interest in it. There’s just no history of reinforcement and what they spoke for them.

As I mentioned that we run social skills groups. And, in response to COVID, we had to close our onsite centers. Obviously we couldn’t provide those basic social skills groups anymore. So we moved to a virtual learning platform. I’ll be honest, I was initially very skeptical about doing that. We’re such a hands-on program active and experiential learning. I just didn’t know if there was really going to be a benefit to that. But I turned out it was just going to be, you know, it’s a new skill that we had to learn on our own as facilitators with how we could make our Screentime, those video calls, how we could make them interactive and engaging. I would encourage you to have your kids video call her friends, FaceTime their friends, whatever it might be, you know, depending upon what their level of skill is, structure it, plan activities.

AR: There is a website called two-player games, which you can play with another player on utilizing Zoom. But I do pay for all the bells and whistles. There are a lot of settings that you can go in to make sure that you are secure, but do your due diligence when choosing something like that. If you’ve heard about the zoom bombings on the TV news. So be careful with that kind of stuff. But there are options for the kids to interact with others through that. I am doing a game of four corners, which was actually quite simple. I just had the kids label the corners of their room, whichever room they were playing from. And then we picked numbers from a cup or I had numbers on a slideshow. I played some music when the music was on and they were able to run around when the music stopped me, froze in the corner if their number was called, they were out.

AR: We’ve done scavenger hunts, we’ve done freeze dance. There are a lot of things that you can do to include peers or include other family members. Also just having a conversation or I gave the example of the show and tell show and tell or show and share is great. You’re making comments, you’re asking questions, all of those components, other reciprocal conversation. So hopefully that helps give some ideas for the person who asked about a virtual playdate. For us, we did, we do that in a little bit of a more structured way because it’s in-group, I have very specific goals and objectives for the kids. So all they, all I wanted them to do was hold up their item and say this is my shark tooth. That was it. And then the other audience or the other participants all had to each ask a question about that, that item, that was their target scale asking questions, they gained more information.

AR: So just the way you structure activities, you could highlight certain skills. Back to our population of learners or our kids who are really struggling to fill their downtime or their free time. Maybe they’re engaging in a lot of stereotypical behavior or repetitive behavior. I really think it is important to explicitly teach our kids how to play. Not every child needs to love to play with cars or playing with dolls or playing with farm animals, but they need something that they enjoy playing with. When we talk about play, it should be spontaneous. It should be enjoyable. You should see a positive aspect. You should see variation. Why I feel that’s so important is because I’m always saying if you can’t play alone, you can’t play with others.

AR: You’re not able to build those higher-level social skills if you didn’t build the first. Build that foundation. You need that functional place skills repertoire so that once you’re playing with something, it opens up opportunities for all ours to then join you in that play, play activity. Or if you see others playing with something, you can join them and make some sort of on-topic contribution. I gave the temper strategy to limit the number of toys that you have out and really go through and systematically teach how to play with each of those. But try to teach it in a very fun, engaging, exciting way. It shouldn’t feel like work. If play feels like work, take a step back. You may just be coming on a little bit too strong.

LL: Okay. Yeah, I know for us it kind of feels like seat work too often.

AR: I think I’m really glad you said that because you really want to place an emphasis on imitation. So if I sit down and I just start to play with something and I have a really good positive action and I’m having a good time, I want to see that child approach me, so approach me, see what I’m doing. Maybe I just kind of casually offer a car to them. If I’m playing with ramps, if they take that car, great, then maybe I put my car down the ramp. Maybe they’re imitating. I don’t want to see a lot of do this, copy me, follow me. That’s teaching the child to follow directions. I argue that that’s not necessarily teaching play. I want to teach you to see toys play with toys, so do a lot of modeling. Make your play look as fun as possible and try to lower the kids to want to approach you.

AR: If you have a child who hasn’t shown a lot of interest in toys or play activities and they approach you, that’s a win. That is great progress on its own. So then systematically work your way out to have them accept an offered item, then copy an action. But imitation is really crucial. It’s really how we learn. If you have kids who are at home and are, you know, attached to the iPad or attached to you to think about how you can get a little bit more creative in that way too with increasing some more interaction. If they’re watching a video or something, are there actions that can be imitated Can you pause Can you say hi to the characters Can you follow along and do what it is that the characters are doing Imitation is really so important. so that’s a nice, easy thing that you can do and embed because I know so many of our kids are just, you know, stuck on YouTube all day.

LL: The video playdates are better than no contact. And I completely agree. And I would say, you know, my son is, has a lot of challenges and he doesn’t have great joint attention. He doesn’t have a lot of focus. And I’ve, I’ve said this for a month now that I was the first person in line saying that, “Hey, online learning is not gonna work for us” and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. I’m also hearing from his schoolmates’ parents, you know, of his schoolmates that our kids are responding much better than any of us anticipated to video stuff. So I would say even if you’re thinking it’s not going to work, give it a chance.  The first time when he heard a familiar voice and saw a familiar face, you know, after not having seen anyone for about two weeks, you know, it’s not going to be like the regular classroom. It’s not going to be like a regular play date, but it’s still is going to have some benefit.

AR: It’s gone far smoother than I could have ever imagined. I really had to look through all of our cases and say who, who do I think was a candidate to make that move to virtual learning it and who wasn’t. And I have had a couple of kids I was on the fence about. There’s some challenging behavior, disruptive behavior, and they have really taken me by surprise.

LL: A viewer question: As a school social worker, wondering how I can support my kids with social skills during this time.?

AR: I would want to break that down further. When you’re talking about social skills, what are the specific skills? We talked about social interaction skills. So art is it a skill set that can be worked on with siblings, with family members. You want to have those goals in mind, those specific measurable, observable targets. We really want to be more specific in what we’re talking about. If it’s flexibility, for example, we really want to still make sure we’re sticking to some sort of routines that we’re all not completely losing our minds as we’re home all day long. But introducing some flexibility within those routines. Maybe playing games and common themes in a new or different way or using materials in a different way than they’re designed are promoting some of that cognitive flexibility.

AR: If tolerating losing is an issue, making sure that you’re playing some sort of competitive game. For a lot of us with anything, you don’t get better at it unless you practice. And we’re locked down. We don’t want to make our lives miserable, but you have a lot of opportunities now. We’re not running around to all these different activities or therapies, you know, rushing home from work, whatever it might be. Pick one priority target and commit to focusing on that. Identify multiple times throughout the day where you can embed that.

LL: When Amanda and I talked last week, we talked about, you know, you don’t want to be antagonizing your kid all day every day. That’s not helpful. But at the same time, we still have to give them some challenges and challenge them and give them opportunities to succeed and opportunities to fail. Because otherwise then when we go back, if they haven’t been challenged or confronted with anything non-preferred for six weeks or however long this ends up being, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to go back.

AR: Right. Well, yeah, we’re setting them up for failure. And really that’s where growth comes from too. You have to challenge the case, but you also don’t want to make sure that you put in levels of support to help them be successful and work through that. So we don’t want to set them up. We don’t want to set them up for failure, but we do want to set them up for growth.

Perspective-taking Skills for Kids

LL: Right. We were talking about functional play and leisure skills. What about perspective-taking?

AR: Okay, so perspective taking, I often tie to nonverbal communication. In our center, we have a large ASD population. And a very large ADHD population. So it’s my group of kids that are just really very impulsive. They’re kind of talking at you, not really with you. They’re missing the mark. They’re not reading and responding to those nonverbal cues. Something easy you can do at home is what we call no talking games. So do any type of, common routine activity or some sort of game wherein order for you to accomplish it, you’re giving the response with just your face. For example, you may say something like, I’ll try to figure out which shirt I want to wear today and your child might hold up this shirt and you’re just shaking your head no.

Or you’re shaking your head yes. Teaching to orient toward the face and recognize that your facial expression, these types of gestures can give you a lot of important information. So that’s a foundational level. Just orienting to that reading and responding to cues to determine likes and dislikes. You can then expand upon that. Maybe you put out a bunch of different items or activities or you write things on index cards and it might be things that you hate and then things that you love and you’re changing up your expression a little bit more to convey different intensities and the kids can start to put them in, in order.

So that’s something, even if you just took 10 minutes a day and, without talking, it’s so interesting to see how much they slow down and how they have to orient toward the face to accomplish their goal.

AR: That’s a nice foundation for working towards the perspective-taking. There are some online activities. If you’re familiar with Everyday Speech, that’s a great website. They have a lot of nice video models. Watching just regular TV shows on mute and then trying to narrate that and ask questions about what you think is happening. And, really emphasizing, “Hey, did you know that we can communicate without words? How do you think so-and-so is, is feeling Is there a problem here? What do you think the problem is? But did they tell you that? How did you know that?”

We call it acting public accompaniments, but that just means that you got that information because there’s something in that scene or that picture that you can label. “I think that they’re upset because I see them frowning or I see the ice cream cone on the ground or I see that toy is, is broken.”

If that’s a target skill for your child, that’s something you can embed into your day. Watch a show for 15 minutes on mute or 30 minutes. If you look on YouTube, there’s a lot of silent film clips. There’s a very funny one with birds on a, a wire is one that I often use in, in the group. So narrating that scene and then asking questions about what you think is happening is starting to draw some inferences that can really help with that.

If your child is struggling to get their wants and needs met, that’s going to be first and foremost. So making sure that they’re able to request the things that they want any throughout the day, they’re able to start to self-advocate to say no or to make choices. That’s going to be a very important foundation. Then we want to move more toward, requesting information. So for higher levels of requesting you can hide. If you think about your daily routine, they came to know where things are in the house. So you want to increase that motivation to ask questions because asking questions is an important piece of conversation.

You can hide common items. You can hide the device or hide the toothbrush. If you have a child who really does want to brush their teeth, which if we’re home on quarantine, that’s probably a fight in itself. Hide the iPad, hide things that are typically in, you know, a designated area that increases the motivation for them to ask where now the answer is serving as a reinforcer. They really want to access that answer. You can do that throughout the day.

One of the foundational things that we do is working on reciprocal commenting. So I might say something like, “Oh, I’m wearing a black shirt.”

He might say, “me too.”

Or if you’re having breakfast in the morning, I’m having cereal, I’m having waffles. Starting to get into that back and forth of, on-topic commenting also starts to build a nice foundation for our conversation. Conversation is very complex. Break it down. Conversation includes questions and comments. But also then that nonverbal communication piece. Break it all down and pick one target and then find a way that you can incorporate that throughout your daily routine, for multiple opportunities for practice each day.

LL: Okay. Marcy has a question. A student doesn’t react while the video chats. Is there anything she can do as a distant teacher?

AR: Well, that’s a little tricky. I would try to find out more information about why that might be aversive to them. Is there something that’s highly preferred that you can embed into those video chats? And just really work on building that rapport initially. Try to pair it with something a little bit more reinforcing.

LL: I just got an error message that says Facebook’s having high service loads. That’s the issue. We’re going to make one last attempt to kind of wrap this up and if it doesn’t work then we’re going to call it a day because this is crazy. Where I got cut off is someone had asked at the teacher that their child wasn’t responding to the video chats and I said the teacher can also train the parent.

It doesn’t have to be one on one with the student. It can be one on one with the parent and whatever designated time, you know, she had set aside to work with the student, work with the parents. My message to parents was, you know, just do the best you can. I don’t want to put more pressure on you.

AR: Absolutely. It’s already a stressful time. This is meant to be helpful, not add additional stress to that plate. I was commenting that in our center, our youngest is two and a half. Our oldest is 20, but we know it regardless of age. It doesn’t mean that all of our learners had the attention span, to be able to attend to the screen or have the quantitative abilities to really benefit. We have a large population of learners that we just, it wasn’t appropriate to do the virtual learning. So we moved towards working in coaching the parents, “Hey, let’s look at your day to day routine. Let’s break that down. Where can we embed some of this play in social skills instruction so we can keep the momentum going?”

But I’m certainly not going to send a two and a half-year-old across the screen from me and try to run group. It would not at all simulate the type of work that we do in the center. It would certainly add extra stress to the family. It’s just not developmentally appropriate. I’m, I’m very glad that you brought that up.

LL: Let’s see. What else do we have on our list? And talk about ways, just other ways for families to stay connected with others, family, friends. Or, you know, my son doesn’t have any friends.

AR: I think really just trying to build a rapport within your own family and saying, Hey, you know what It’s a stressful time. But in some ways it’s a more relaxed time too because I mean, I think a lot of us are in the same boat where your schedule is just packed, you know, moment to moment every single day and you’re rushing. So now is the time. For some, it’s a little more difficult. If you’re in a situation where you are working from home. But even in that situation, sit and think and really start to reprioritize those targets.

AR: Again, if your child is not able to safely or productively fill that downtime, focus on that independent play and leisure skills repertoire. That’s going to be critical. It’s huge for them. That’s a skill that’s going to be just need be needed across the board. In terms of staying connected as a family, what can you do together? Sports really are great and I know a lot of kids hate sports. But we do a lot of those types of activities. I call them hustle games because it’s just reciprocity that’s also needed in social interactions. Just a quick game of catch, the ball rolls away from you. How many of our kids would kind of just stand there and not hustle running and get it back? So turn that into a fun game.

AR: We do a game of wall ball. There are so many parallels when it comes to the social interaction. We talk about latency. If somebody walked up to you and said, “hi, what’s your name?” and it took you 30 seconds to respond, they probably walked away. So that’s a social skill in itself.

I really liked the, the back and forth or the reciprocity of, gross motor type games. And then certainly if it, again, we talked about the tolerating losing. Playing board games or playing card games, spontaneous commenting during card games is great for conversation. If you have a child who maybe isn’t ready for, central rule, rule-based schemes play in a modified way. You could put cards out on the table and say, I have a nine, I have a six, I have a seven. There’s that reciprocal commenting that you’re doing. So maybe you’re not playing the game, but you’re certainly working on a social skill or you’re working on a communication skill. Just be creative. And feel free to modify that the activities that you’re doing.

LL: Yeah. I keep reminding parents this is a time where we actually have pretty much a hundred percent control over our kids’ environment, which never happens. I do hear from a lot of parents, as far as “I wish that they would try this or I wish they would approach my child this way, or I wish they would respond to my child this way instead of this way.” And now is your time to actually do that. You can do it consistently. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, but you know, keeping a note pad in the kitchen, you can get great data on what’s working. And just have so much more data to go back to your team with and say, “Hey, during this for six weeks, this is what we did and this is what works.”

AR: Yeah. What worked, what didn’t work. Because you’re going to try some things that were crashing and crash and burn. And that’s also important information as well. What’s most socially significant and what’s really going to improve your child’s quality of life and the quality of life of the family members around them is increasing that independence, increasing opportunities for social interaction.

Once we go back to, you know, normal life.

Thanks again to Ashley at MissionCognition for her help with this!

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