Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Solving the "Rubik's Cube" of Social Skills

by Jamell White, Clinical Director, JSSA

Making friends, joining in group games or projects, attending parties, and relaxing with extended family are often among life’s pleasures. However, some children, teens and young adults find working, playing and celebrating with others as puzzling as trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube. Why these difficulties? Many times it is because they need help with strengthening their social skills.

What Are Social Skills?

Social skills are skills in interacting and communicating with others. This includes knowing how to start and keep a conversation going. Noticing and responding to body language and facial expressions are social skills. Sharing, listening, turn-taking, and speaking in an appropriate voice volume and tone are other examples of social skills. In short, social skills allow people to give and receive messages that show they are attuned to others.

Social skills are important because they lead to the development of positive relationships with family, friends, neighbors, teachers, classmates, bosses, and co-workers. Strong relationships are vital in developing happiness and self-esteem. Being welcomed, included, and trusted feels good and self-affirming at any age.

How to Develop Social Skills

Social skills develop and mature during childhood, as youngsters meet and learn from a wider array of people and situations. Some people, however, have difficulty reading the social cues others are communicating to them. This can have an impact on their relationships with others.

Fortunately, with professional help, social skills can improve, often through a process called social skills therapy. Social skills therapy is typically done weekly in small groups. Many times social workers, psychologists, or speech therapists lead the group members through a variety of carefully chosen activities geared towards highlighting a specific social skill area.

With school age children, many of these activities take the form of games. “Freeze dancing,” for example, teaches youngsters self control over their bodies and their impulses. “Show and tell” allows for practicing of turn-taking and the development of communication skills through explaining a favorite toy to the group. Social etiquette skills can be addressed through something as simple as eating a snack together. Children and adults can learn the art of “small talk” and chatting while sharing a small meal—another social skill. Board games or other group projects bring participants together to practice skills such as problem-solving, cooperation, and compromise. Role-plays are also key in teaching social skills to children, adolescents, and young adults. This technique and other approaches offer opportunities to practice and learn appropriate greetings, giving of compliments, talking in turn, and showing empathy.

In essence, social skills groups are a bit like mini social laboratories. Participants discover and learn skills they may not have recognized on their own. They are able to practice and experiment with methods to cultivate those skills within a small, safe environment. The broader objective of social skills therapy is to help individuals, over time and with the support of parents and teachers, incorporate better social skills into daily situations.

Social Skills Programs at JSSA

JSSA has developed its own method of social skills therapy which is offered year round in groups for elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, teenagers, and young adults ages 19 to 30. Groups run at various times at the Ina Kay Building in Fallsgrove, Rockville, and at JSSA’s Fairfax office. For children, JSSA also offers a summer day camp with the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax that focuses on social skills development within a recreational camp setting. This summer in Rockville at JSSA’s Fallsgrove office, a late afternoon enrichment group for children, the BFF (Building and Fostering Friendships) Club, will be offered and will focus on teaching social skills.

In addition, JSSA offers Going Places, monthly social clubs with group recreational activities organized and supervised by professional staff. Going Places provides a range of socialization opportunities—from theater excursions to pool parties—all of which provide an environment for group members to practice social skills in the natural environment of their community. Due to the great success of JSSA’s first social club for young adults with Asperger’s syndrome (offered in Northern Virginia), two Rockville programs—one for teens and one for young adults—will also be offered beginning this January.

Jamell White, LCSW-C is clinical director of special needs and deaf services at JSSA. For more information about JSSA’s broad range of social skills therapy group offerings for children, teens and young adults, please visit www.jssa.org