6 Reasons Social Skills Group Backfire

I am privileged to regularly speak with parents who were referred to my practice, Ride the Wave Counseling because they are looking for help their child improve their social skills.  Most of the time when a parent begins sharing their child’s social history with me I can usually predict with great accuracy what they’re going to say about their child’s social skills as well as their experience attending previous social skills groups.  The most common themes include the following:

  • He’s great talking to adults and younger kids, it’s kids his age he has trouble with.
  • We first noticed he was having trouble making/keeping friends in 2nd grade.  Now that he’s in middle school he is more socially isolated than ever before.
  • He says he has friends at school who he sits with at lunch but doesn’t seem to know anything about them.
  • The psychologist we saw thought his social skills were good because they had intelligent conversations about topics my son enjoys talking about.
  • I can tell he feels jealous when his younger siblings have friends over.
  • He knows all the Social Thinking® vocabulary terms but doesn’t seem to know how to apply the concepts.
  • We’re worried that he seems to be getting more inflexible as he gets older.
  • He says he doesn’t need to have “real” friends because he has friends through Xbox. 
  • We’ve tried multiple social skills groups over the years and at this point we’re pretty skeptical since none of them seemed to help.

Here are some of the most common reasons why I believe social skills groups backfire and how I have learned to design our programs to avoid these common mistakes:
1. The student has significant social anxiety which has not been adequately addressed
It is common for individuals diagnosed with ADHD and in particular Asperger’s/higher-verbal ASD to present with significant social anxiety.   When an individual with social anxiety walks into a social situation where they are expected to interact and (unnaturally converse) with strangers whom are of a similar-age this can significantly exacerbate their anxiety and create a stressful group experience.  
Prior to starting in our programs, I meet each prospective student to assess their social learning needs.   Additionally, I am looking to determine if their social anxiety would be an obstacle to their learning in our programs.   Should this be the case, I work with the student individually to help them learn strategies to manage their social anxiety enough that they will be able to benefit from our programs.

2. The students in the group have diverse social learning needs
On a regular basis parents tell me that their child attended a social skills group and were told by the group facilitator that their child was a role model for the rest of the group.   When students are grouped together who have very different social learning needs some will find the content in the group to be too basic because their social cognitive skills are further developed than other students in the group who may have more significant needs.  Other times students will not be able to recall any information they learned in a group because they were not taught the foundational skills required to develop social competency.
When a student feels that the information that are being taught is not age-appropriate or too basic they will “tune-out” and often become resistant to receiving help to improve their social cognitive skills.    When I receive any referral for one of our social skills programs I screen prospective group members using the Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment® to ensure that our programs are a good fit for the individual. 

3. The groups are boring
Boys who present with social learning challenges are often self-conscious and feel a sense of shame around their social challenges.  When they are asked to sit around a table together and talk about social skills or practice scripted, socially appropriate behaviors their feelings of incompetence or shame intensifies which often leads to acting out behaviors.  Furthermore, many boys do best with talking when they have an activity to focus their attention on rather than being expected to make eye contact with a group of boys whom they are probably not familiar with. 
All the social skills programs we run at Center for ADHD are activity based.  I believe that the activity should be the focus with instruction built around the activity.  Furthermore, when the activity leads the instruction experiential learning happens which allows skills to be generalized. 

4. The group follows a set curriculum or has a different topic each week
Social interactions are dynamic, fluid and can change at any moment.    When social skills groups teach a set curriculum in which a different topic is introduced each week it is assumed that students will know how to modify that skill and their social communication to appropriately fit the context of any situation.  Social cognitive skills cannot fit into a narrowly defined framework, rather concepts need to be taught repeatedly and “taught deeply” as described by Michelle Garcia Winner in this article.  
We teach a limited number of concepts in our social skills programs because we want to revisit these same concepts each week and help students understand how these skills are context dependent.

5. Students are learning scripted behaviors rather than learning how to develop critical social thinking skills.
Social skills group often rely on teaching social scripts to initiate social communication. The problem with this approach is that many students we work with have a strong ability to “script” or retain dialogue in their heads.  Frequently this ability does not translate into using these skills effectively.  During our programs, we often need to unteach students skills they have learned in prior social skills groups because the social communication skills they learned are often too formal and do not sound organic to the way boys communicate with each other.  As an example, we never teach students to ask questions such as “What are your hobbies?” or “How’s your day going?” because boys typically do not ask each other such broad questions in their social communication.

6. There’s too much focus on learning “social skills” rather than learning what is enjoyable about spending time with other boys in person.
Very often the students who attend our programs have attended social skills groups, often for years at a time.  Parents regularly report that their sons did not connect with any of the other students in the group outside of the group setting.
While we sometimes see generalization of some basic skills such as making eye contact, greeting others, etc. what is often left out is helping boys to understand why spending time with other boys, in person is enjoyable.  We also teach our students that there are other boys at their school who would like to be friends with them however they need to learn how to understand when someone is trying to become their friend.   
For those students who have never experienced the enjoyment of being part of a peer group we believe it is of critical importance to create a feeling of camaraderie as the “hook” for learning.  We accomplish this through using activities and trips as the structures for our program.   When boys feel a sense of belonging and emotional connection to each other their social motivation increases which makes teaching social cognitive skills much easier.   If students take anything from our programs we want them to develop the social motivation to want to spend time with similar-age boys in person. Communicating through video games/computers will never be a replacement for genuine social connection.

You can learn about our upcoming social skills programs by visiting our website: http://www.ridethewavecounseling.com
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, CAS  is the Director of Ride the Wave Counseling in Linwood,  NJ.  Ride the Wave Counseling provides social skills programs for boys, therapy, Summer Travel Camp and executive function treatment.    Ryan is one of the only professionals in the Philadelphia area to have received a Social Thinking Clinical Training Level 1 Certificate of Completion.
Social Thinking was created by world-renowned expert Michelle Garcia Winner.  You can learn more about Social Thinking by visiting their website: www.socialthinking.com

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