Since almost all of us are in classrooms where we have a few too many students and a few too less staff members (insert angry emoji face here), we can all appreciate a small silver lining in our overcrowded classrooms – embedded social skills. That sounds like something an administrator tells you through a fake smile as the place the 311th child in your classroom, “but think of all the social skills you’ll be able to teach!” I get it. But it is true. When our staffing and schedules have forced our hand on putting kids in groups bigger than we would like or pairing up students how maybe would be better off with one on one instruction, just tell yourself – at least they are getting some social skill practice.
Working in a group is a good goal for any of our learners. Our kids don’t exist in a bubble and they need to learn how to work and learn around others. How complex you make this goal depends on the skill level of your student.
For some of our kids a good goal might just be parallel work to get started. Think about parallel play. I play with my toys next to you playing with your toys but we don’t play together. Same with parallel work. I do my work. You do your work. But we don’t need to interact. And guess what? That is an awesome goal and skill. Our kids need to learn to work even while another student is nearby or making noise or moving around. For your students who are working on this skill, provide extra reinforcement for on-task behaviors especially if the other student is engaging in potential trigger behaviors.
You can start by having two students sit at opposite ends of the table and gradually throughout the school year bring their chairs closer together. This is a good starting off point for students who have previously only been working in one on one settings.
Basic Turn Taking & Material Sharing
The next step is to get some basic interactions down. Check out this post on sabotaging your students and utilize some of these same strategies to use a little teacher trickery to get your kids interacting. If Johnny needs the red crayon, give it to Suzy and prompt him to ask her for it. Divide up the pieces to an adapted book between two or three students and have them pass the book around so the pieces get on the right pages. Bingo is one of my favorite games for students at this level because it is simple and straightforward but I can sneak in some turn taking. I have students take turns pull the calling cards or handing the calling cards to other students. I also like having them share from one pile of bingo chips.
Structured Group Work
The next level of difficulty is adding some structure and rules to group work. Group learning and group activities are hard. Think about the last time you worked in a group. Maybe you blocked out all of those memories of dreaded group assignments in undergrad. Group work is tricky to navigate as an adult so imagine how hard it is for some of our learners! I like adding some structure and visuals to group work to help teach my students how to work together. I love structured centers, guided interviews, and turn taking games for this level.
Unstructured Group Work
Now it gets crazy. Release the reigns and give some group assignments. Have your students work together to write a story, play a game on their own, or create a group art project. I know that sounds terrifying so ease into by using some group rules that you can review before the group activity. Practice some of the common group sayings like, “Who wants to do this part?” together. I have a post coming next week on using visuals when teaching social skills and will go more in-depth on this idea. While your students are working in a group, monitor but don’t jump in too quickly. Give them opportunities to solve problems on their own and communicate effectively with each other. Take note of who takes a leadership role and which students are especially cooperative. When the group work is over, provide specific praise to each student.