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Social and behavior skills are essential for lifelong success, but children with special needs often struggle with these skills. For example, some kids with special needs have difficulty greeting others properly, a skill deficit that could later translate into occupational challenges. Other children have trouble interpreting and using facial expressions and gestures, which interferes with communication. The first step in addressing social and behavioral deficits is to identify them. It’s critical for parents and educators to collaborate to assess the child’s current level of functioning and determine areas that could use some extra help. For best results, corrective strategies should remain consistent from the school to the home. If the child has not yet entered preschool, parents can strive to collaborate with day care providers and other caregivers to ensure consistent responses to behaviors.
Developmental milestones help determine whether a child is developing at a rate that is on target for his or her peer group. This comparison assists parents and educators in assessing whether the child is struggling in certain areas. For example, by about four months, most children begin to mimic the facial expressions of others, and by a year old most play simple games such as peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. However, it’s important to remember that every child develops differently, and that failure to reach a milestone doesn’t necessarily indicate that he or she will experience long-term behavioral or social challenges.
Social Skill Deficit Identification
It can also be helpful to identify specific types of social skill deficits. The child might not understand that he is behaving improperly, for example; this is called an acquisition deficit, and it stems from a lack of knowledge. A child with a performance deficit understands a particular social skill, but fails to implement it consistently, while a child with a fluency deficit needs practice or coaching to use a skill effectively. Additionally, parents and educators must identify the types of social skills with which the child struggles, such as interpersonal skills (i.e. taking turns), problem-solving skills (i.e. making decisions or asking for help) or conflict resolution skills (i.e. coping with peer pressure or losing a game).
Implementing Corrective Strategies
When potential social skill deficits and developmental delays have been identified, implementing corrective strategies as soon as possible will accelerate the child’s progress. Parents and educators should discuss the issues at hand; the parents can then decide whether to enlist the help of additional professionals. Corrective strategies should be consistent in all environments so that the child does not become confused about expectations. Regular communication between parents and educators regarding the child’s progress is helpful to everyone involved.
Children with special needs often benefit from regular routines; for instance, children with autism often do not cope well with change. Parents and educators can work together to adjust the child to specific routines, such as:
• Johnny will hang up his coat and put his lunch in his designated cubby as soon as he arrives at school.
• Johnny will sit at his desk as soon as the teacher says that it’s time for class.
• Johnny will show his mom his schoolwork upon arriving home.
These routines can be tailored to each child’s particular behavior problem. Johnny’s routine of putting his belongings away promptly may curtail morning horseplay, for example.
Establishing a Behavior Contract
Older kids with behavioral deficits may be motivated by a behavior contract. This is an informal contract developed by the parents, the educators and the child. The contract should detail expectations of behavior, the types of behaviors that are not acceptable and a system of rewards and consequences. The age at which a child will respond well to a behavior contract depends on his or her level of understanding.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a time-tested technique for correcting behavior and social skill deficits in children with special needs, particularly those with autism. It is based on the understanding that children are more likely to repeat desired behaviors when these behaviors are met with positive reinforcement, and that they are less likely to repeat undesirable behaviors that are not rewarded. One significant part of ABA is discrete trial training (DTT), in which a skill is broken down into its most basic components so that these components may be taught one at a time.
Repetition is the cornerstone of a successful ABA program. It might seem tiresome to remind a child to make eye contact 30 times per day, for instance; but, eventually that child may begin to regularly look others in the eye. Another example of teaching a child a desired behavior with ABA might involve teaching a child how to take turns by having the child take turns while playing a board game, sharing a toy, etc. When the child successfully uses the skill, he is rewarded with praise or a small trinket. Trained specialists in ABA can work with the child and teach parents and educators to use this system.