Questions parents need to ask before enrolling their child in a social skills group

The field of social learning is a relatively new field and widely misunderstood by parents as well as professionals in the mental health, medical and education fields. There are no standards or criteria put in place by any professional organization that require professionals who run social skills groups meet certain educational or training standards. Because of this lack of standards and criteria anyone can run a social skills group and most parents do not know what questions they should be asking before enrolling their son in a social skills group.  I wrote this article to help parents as well as professional understand what questions should be asked before enrolling a child in a social skills group.

When I hear from a parent of a boy with ADHD who has attended social skills group in the past I hear recurring themes from parents:

“He was considered the role model for the group because the other kids in the group had much more significant needs”. 

“I didn’t really see that he got anything out of the group.”

“He hated going because all they did was sit around and practice social skills” 

Some important things to know:

  1. One’s ability to effectively teach “social skills” is not predicated upon one’s educational level.

The field of social learning is not taught in graduate programs thus having a masters or doctorate degree does not automatically qualify someone to run a social skills group. Some of the most talented people I’ve seen “teach social” are bachelors level teachers who are naturally gifted at understanding how to teach concepts.
Someone who is committed to teaching social cognitive skills seeks out training on their own and often makes a personal, financial investment in learning whatever program they may be using.

2. Kids do not improve socially simply by being around kids with more developed social skills.  The idea of “positive peer role models” is a myth.  Kids with ADHD struggle socially because they did not learn social information intuitively. Many parents believe that if they son participates in activities with kids who do not struggle socially they will somehow improve socially.  This is not the case as it is essential to teach skills that have not developed in an age-expected manner.

3. Social cognitive skills do not need to be taught in a group, they can effectively be taught individually. Some students with social learning challenges have difficulty working in any kind of group with peers thus would not be successful in a social skills group. Many do best with individual instruction, with the intention of transitioning into a small group when they are ready.

I created this list of questions to help parents understand what questions they should be asking before committing their child to attending a social skills groups.

1. How are the students grouped together?
Most social skills groups utilize a “one size fits all” approach meaning kids of varying needs and abilities are group together solely by age.  If this is the case it is likely that the instruction is going to be too abstract for some in the group and too basic for others creating boredom, disengagement or acting out behaviors. Social learning challenges are not diagnosis specific, nor are they similar solely based on age. When taught correctly, students are grouped together because they share similar social learning needs.

2. What methodology or program are you using and what training does the group leader have in using this methodology?
Parents whose children receive social skills instruction in school often tell me that their child’s school uses the Social Thinking® methodology. Upon meeting their child and assessing them I find that while most know the Superflex® characters and Social Thinking terminology such as “expected behaviors “and “unexpected behaviors” they have no understanding how these terms are tied into the learning concepts. This is not the fault of the school faculty, most have not had the opportunity to attend a Social Thinking conference or training program. If it’s helpful to know if whomever is facilitating social skills groups has received any training in the program they are using.

3. What exactly do you do in the groups?
Most social skills groups consist of teaching scripted, socially appropriate behaviors through adults prompting conversations or they teach a new “social skill” each week. This is unnatural to the way we learn social cognitive skills and in my experience are not a productive use of time.    Neither of these methods go “deep” enough to teach how to think in a social context.  A competent group facilitator focuses on teaching concepts, not skills.  They also focus on revisiting concepts and teaching them with greater depth and complexity.

4. How do you teach natural sounding social communication?
I frequently find that boys who attend social skills groups learn overly formal etiquette and social communication skills that are not natural to the ways boys communicate with each other.  To put it bluntly, many social skills groups teach boys to communicate like adult women.   Boys cannot connect with their similar-age peers if they break the “hidden rules” of male-male social communication or sound unrelatable to their peers.

The field of social learning (teaching social skills) is unregulated which is why parents need to do their homework and go beyond what is advertised on a website or what they’ve heard from other parents.  Parents really need to ask relevant questions to determine if the social skills group is a worthwhile investment in their time and money.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the Director of Ride the Wave Counseling and is featured on the ADHD Dude YouTube Channel .

Social Thinking was created by Michelle Garcia Winner. Learn more about Social Thinking by visiting their website.

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