Social Skills in a Special Education Environment

As for most teachers, the first few months of school have consumed us with assessment, IEP development, getting to know new faces and getting reacquainted with old faces.

We've spent a considerable amount of time liaising with parents and the dynamic teams of our students to ensure every 'i' is dotted, and every 't' is crossed. The planning stage is over and we're knee-deep in the implementation stage...the "how" of what is set out in IEPs and monthly goal statements.

By this point in your relationship with us, you probably know that we service a significant number of special education students; though we work with neurotypical kiddos too, we certainly have a niche in specialized instruction. Our holistic approach to education supports the development of hidden curriculum goals like social skills development.

Time and time again I speak to parents or professionals who can't help but wonder:

"How exactly do you target social skills effectively in a predominantly special needs environment, where the majority of the population exhibits social needs of some kind?"

I find the question kind of funny, and I say that with absolutely no judgement for those who are still thinking..

" but really, how do you?!"

Though social needs may be more pronounced (or perhaps more observable) in a special education environment, they exist as readily as they do in a general education classroom. I can't tell you how many general ed. classrooms I have worked in, supported, or consulted to where typically developing kids demonstrates needs very similar to what I am used to seeing in a more specialized environment.

A special education environment requires more systematic instruction of social nuances, but not necessarily a greater focus on them (proportionality wise). In a special education environment, social skill development won't always happen by accident; you usually have to actively plan for it (like in the development of math, language or other curriculum goals). The teacher plays a vital role in determining the success of his/her students--but we knew that already, right?

As it turns out, teaching social skills is just like teaching any other curriculum strand--not everyone has to be top of the class in order for the class as a whole to make gains in that subject.

Consider: Circumstance over category

The truth, from a developmental perspective, is that all kids benefit from a social skills curriculum; from what I have seen, it's often individual circumstance rather than category (special ed. or general ed.) which dictates how substantial a child's particular need is (this is not just specific to social skills development, by the way).

So, an only child who is neurotypical may have more substantial social needs than a child with exceptionalities who has a plethora of siblings; but maybe not, and you just never know! On the other hand, you may have a neurotypical child with multiple siblings who exhibits far more social need than a child who doesn't have any siblings at all--go figure, there are no universals.

Consider: Your role, The Facilitator

Frankly--I think teachers who don't acknowledge this (and I would venture to say most dynamic teachers do in fact recognize this) are missing the mark in at least one aspect of their role. So, whether you teach a general education class, or a special education class, I encourage you to consider how a variety of child variables (i.e. circumstances/contexts) within your class (including those who are not categorized as special education) could stand to benefit from intentional social skills instruction where you play a vital role: The Facilitator.

Consider: Learning Profile

Why do some children benefit from systematic instruction? It's their learning styles and preferences (being a visual learning, a hands on learner, a tactile learner, an auditory learner, a learner who benefits from repetition, prompting strategies and so on) which dictate how they learn; it's not their categorical classification as 'special ed' or 'general ed'. Learning preferences exist across the population of students; special needs or general education, learning preferences are a reality that most modern/dynamic teachers are aware of.

Consider: The Rebuttal

So, how do I reply to those who feel you cannot effectively teach social skills to a special education population?!

-If it's true that we CANNOT teach social skills in a special education classroom because the majority of students share the need for support/extra instruction, than by the same logic it is true that we CANNOT teach math to a remedial group of mathematicians, because all the students share the need for support/extra instruction. Obviously, this is not the case.

-If it's true that we CANNOT teach social skills in a special education classroom because

there are a vast number of learner profiles and circumstances, than by the same logic we can't teach anything meaningful to any class whether learner profiles vary and circumstances vary...that would be...every single class in the history of education. Obvioulsy this is not the case.

So hopefully, it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that social skills can, and are being, targeted effectively amidst both general education and special education classrooms. I welcome questions, comments or concerns...

Thanks for stopping by,


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Toronto Campus: 37 Southbourne Avenue - School Wing, Toronto, ON

Phone:  647-404-6349 OR 647-985-7001  

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