Can We Teach That?

Social/Emotional Skill Development


On the forefront of parents’ minds about their deaf or hard of hearing child often is a question about well being: Does my child make and keep friends? Can my child get along socially in the world? Will the world appreciate the gifts that this child brings into it? We know much of the dark side of social/emotional development.  We know that our children who are deaf or hard of hearing face a higher risk to be bullied or harassed, to experience abuse or neglect, to have a smaller circle of meaningful connections outside of their families. They may even see themselves as “less than” when compared to their peers, or worse yet, an outsider in their own family circle. Many parents and teachers understand the need to be proactive, but can be at a loss to plan for the social/emotional needs of an individual child during the IEP process.  Can we help to address social/emotional needs in the goals and services of an IEP?  For kids who don’t have the benefit of an IEP, can school environments create a more deaf-friendly culture?

Recently, the Institute for Community Integration, connected with the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota dedicated an entire impact issue (Spring/Summer 2011) to the topic of supporting the social well-being of children with disabilities. We thank the authors of one particular article, Jo Montie, Founder and Consultant, Doors to Useful Learning in Minneapolis, and Brian Abery, Ph. D., a Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration who gave us permission to excerpt and discuss the publication. 

The author’s definition of social and emotional wellbeing is a “balanced, healthy way of interacting with others and the ability to appropriately respond to our own emotions.” This two tiered capacity figures as a key part of any child’s (or adult, for that matter) perception of their own quality of life. We don’t hesitate to set goals and design services focusing on speech and language, meeting content objectives in reading, math or science- and yet discussions about a child’s ability to navigate the social-emotional part of their educational experience is often left without any action plan or support.

A positive in many states is the adoption of the Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights. This document, properly used, can help ensure that a child who is deaf or hard of hearing has greater access to inclusive experiences, regardless of the communication mode or the number of peers and adults available to that child who is using a similar mode. Allowing a child to have an FM system during sports or to modify the environment to make it more communication friendly during a school sponsored club activity can only increase exposure to other kids in the school and widen the possibility of making friends. On the flip side, facilities such as schools for the deaf where communication is already direct and shared among all students  will need to create opportunities for that child to integrate into the community, learn to use interpreters, and navigate life outside the school setting.

Another positive is the growing awareness that it is important to guide our young people into self-advocacy roles. Nationwide, there is “growing support for students becoming a stronger presence in their IEP meetings (Hawbaker, 2007.) Self advocacy goals and curricula are more common in our consciousness, including the early ability to identify parts of a hearing aid, communicate to a teacher that one needs to change chairs to see better, all the way to letting the CART or interpreting service know that one needs services for a particular class in high school or sharing about the quality of that service.

Actually teaching, modeling and supporting students in social-emotional skills can be a challenge. As one mom put it, “My son can smell “therapizing” at 500 yards. We have to be either very subtle or somehow get his buy-in if any social skills goals are going to fly in the tween world.” Some IEP teams balk at even addressing social needs, but the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is clear on this issue.  They have come out in support of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) use in schools to create positive environments where “all children can feel safe and can learn.” The latest bill in the US Congress for revision of the No Child Left Behind Act includes references to promoting emotional and social well being. 

Parents may know that support is needed, but not know what to ask for. Let’s look at just two examples of children with hearing loss and linking social emotional skills with the IEP. 

Example: A student sits quietly in the classroom, having few interactions, sitting alone at lunch.
If the child appears to be in no particular distress, some IEP teams will be hesitant to take action. We know, though, that positive social behavior in school is linked to and predictive of academic achievement. (Haynes, Ben-Avie, and Ensign, 2003.)

One goal or service is likely not enough to address this isolation. Consider the possible causes: is it lack of skill development in approaching peers? Difficulty with communication? Perhaps on a more practical level, a child doesn’t know everyone’s name in class far behind the time when hearing students have learned the majority of names.

Possible Actions: Speech therapy emphasis on conversational repair, connection for family to parent support organizations, invitations to child/teen outreach events relevant to child, pairing with older deaf/hh deaf adult mentor from the community, goal of personally inviting child to participate in sports/clubs/after school activities with support to meet friends, work on introduction to group skills; create a role for child in club or sport of choice (volleyball manager, etc) in line with interests.

Example B: A student interacts with peers in an “off” way, perhaps sharing too much information too soon, misinterpreting social communication, and interrupting others in an attempt to fit in. 
While many students seem to come wired with the ability to manage their own classroom behavior, many students (not not just those with hearing loss) need the support of a classroom routine to manage school life more effectively. Classroom procedures could be explicitly taught, including entering the room, gathering materials, greeting classmates appropriately, maintaining attention while the teacher is working with others, and transition times, and even giving and receiving social feedback, negotiating (who is on my spelling bee team?) and apologizing. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL 2005) suggests that students can learn social awareness cues from both routines and direct instruction. Perhaps the student’s class focuses on predicting how others might feel about a particular action in middle school, leading to the development of empathy in high school age students. Individual work might focus on the use of social stories and identifying his or her own feelings and motivations for their own behavior. Regular reports of progress and including progress on the report card would serve as a frequent reminder to the whole team, the child, and the parents about how important social skills are.

To the question “Can we teach social skills?” we answer: yes. We can teach communication skills with kids and include their peers; we can teach what we typically expect kids to absorb: the so called “hidden curriculum” or common sense that helps students through their daily lives. The hidden curriculum includes all those social rules and mores that can hold a student back from fully realizing their potential in later work and social arenas. The challenge is ahead: what can your child’s IEP team create along with you?

By Sara Kennedy

See Impact, a Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, Volume 24, Number 1 Spring/Summer 2011

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