Social Skills Groups Frequently Asked Questions
I have always been a firm believer that social skills are the most important skills in life. In fact, I have often stated that the greatest predictor of “success” in life is the strength of an individual’s social skills. I understand that “success” can be defined in a multitude of ways, including:
- being happy and healthy
- being the best parent you can be
- being a loving, supportive spouse
- being independent, responsible, and capable of meeting one’s own needs in life
- being financially successful
- having power, control, or influence over self and others
If you thoroughly examine the various ways people view success, you will discover that strong social skills are really the foundation for each of these areas. For example, being an exceptional parent requires excellent communication and listening skills, maintaining appropriate boundaries, developing proper conflict resolutions skills, and having leadership/positive role-model qualities. Also, being financially well-off often requires having excellent interpersonal skills in leadership, networking, and developing and maintaining relationships. So, without a doubt, social skills can be deemed essential life skills.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons most parents equate the future successes of their children directly with academic performance. However, I have yet to locate an empirically validated study that links straight A’s with overall happiness and health in life. We all know people in our own lives that are extremely “book smart,” but are totally lacking in social graces. We also know people in our lives that did not excel in school or graduate from the most prestigious universities, yet are socially very skilled. I would bet these individuals more closely fit the definitions of “success” from above.
In 1999, I began developing a social skills group program at Psychological & Life Skills Associates, P.C. Since that time I have developed a group strategy to foster social skills in children and adolescents. My one-of-a-kind group format is entitled “Peer Process Social Skills Groups.” The primary intervention style I implement in group is entitled “incidental teaching,” and allows me and fellow group members to teach skills in the moment. I will be describing more about the group process and how children and teens benefit from it in the following sections.
The term “Peer Process Social Skills Group” was coined by me, and refers to a group treatment modality to teach social skills to the participants. There is a significant difference between my peer-process groups and most other groups that psychologists facilitate.
Most social skills groups that other therapists implement are based on “structured” approaches - approaches which dictate the skill that is learned that day. Basically, this means that the therapist follows guidelines or chapters in a book and teaches the specific skill that corresponds with the chapter for that week. For example, week 1 is “friend making” skills, week 2 is “conflict resolution” strategies, etc. The approach is called “structured” because each week a specific skill, deemed in advance, is taught to the members.
My approach, called a process approach, is quite different - but far more effective in my experiences. A “process” approach allows the group members to interact and discuss whatever issues are important to them in the moment, and then receive direct feedback from the therapist and other members regarding the issue. In addition, interactions between group members are significantly focused on, including aspects like personal space, positive communication skills, listening skills, etc. The process approach allows for the teaching of multiple skills in any given session. The therapist facilitates the “incidental teaching” approach as often as possible - meaning an intervention is made at every opportunity to teach a skill, regardless of what the skill is. This approach provides greater flexibility for the therapist and offers more direct, in-the-moment, feedback to participants.
In order to participate in the group, each potential member (along with their parents) must schedule a 50 minute intake appointment with the therapist facilitating the group. In the first session, potential members and their parents will be asked several questions to determine if a Peer Process Social Skills Group is the best treatment modality to meet the needs of the client. If the group is deemed appropriate, the potential member will then be required to participate in one or more additional individual appointments with the therapist to talk about what to expect in the group, discuss group rules, and answer questions he/she may have.
There are literally hundreds of skills and sub-skills that are needed to have excellent social skills. The following is a list of the “basic” skills that are taught and reinforced in the group.
- eye contact
-voice tone and volume
- non-verbal facial cues
- body language
- personal space
- listening skills
- initiating conversations
-problem solving/generating alternatives and solutions
- telephone/IM/MySpace/Facebook skills
- conflict resolution
All groups, regardless of age, typically follow this sequence during the 50 minute meeting:
2. Processing of Check-in
3. Social Skills Game
At the start of group, one member is always assigned to be “group leader.” The group leader’s primary responsibility is to engage each member in a dialogue about important things (both positive and negative) going on in their life. The group leader performs this check-in with all other members. The check-in phase usually lasts 15 minutes.
The next phase of the group involves processing information discussed during check-in. Usually, themes develop in the check-in phase. These themes may include friend-making, dealing with bullies, family conflicts, issues with teachers, etc. Specific skills are then talked about and taught based on that particular theme. Group feedback and problem solving strategies are encouraged as well. This phase lasts approximately 20-25 minutes.
The third phase of the group is the social skills game. Often times, children express themselves best through play, and social skills games are implemented to reinforce skills that have been learned. Please see the section on games for a more detailed synopsis of this phase.
The final phase of group is always relaxation and settling time. Being able to “chill out” is an essential life skill. The last 4-5 minutes of group are spent teaching this skill.
1.) Peer feedback can be more powerful than feedback from a parent or therapist. In the group, feedback is offered from a variety of role models. This allows for more ideas, and in turn leads to greater problem solving skills.
2.) To teach social skills in individual therapy, the therapist must “pretend” to be a child to role-play with the client. In the group format, children have the ability to role-play with real-life peers. The group format is far more effective.
3.) I often view the group as a “microcosm” for real-world experiences. That is, if a child can learn and implement a skill in the office, the skill is likely to be transferred to real-world experiences.
4.) When teaching social skills individually, the therapist must solely rely on the observations of parents and teachers. In group therapy, the therapist not only has that valuable information, but is able to witness the child first-hand with peer interactions. This gives the therapist a significant advantage in the assessment and treatment process.
5.) Group treatment allows for immediate interventions in a social situation. In individual sessions, the therapist teaches the skill, the child goes out and attempts to implement the skill, and then the child comes back to report how he/she did. In the group modality, the therapist makes interventions in-the-moment and can assess with his/her own eyes how the child responds. Additional feedback and skill building can then be done - again, in the moment.
6.) My most basic goal for any group member is that group is a safe place to come and interact with peers. Unfortunately, at school and in the community many children do not feel safe and secure around their peers. At the very least, group can be a safe haven to develop new, positive peer relationships.
7.) One of the most important aspects in life for children and teens (and even adults) is acceptance. Group is a wonderful opportunity to gain acceptance from peers.
After completing the initial intake appointment all potential members must first participate in one or more individual sessions with the therapist facilitating the group. This is done for several reasons. First, it is essential for the therapist and group member to have a positive treatment relationship. It is extremely difficult to develop this in a group format, and is much better handled in individual sessions. Second, individual sessions can minimize pre-group “jitters.” All Peer Process Social Skills Groups are “open and ongoing,” meaning that when one child gains the skills he/she needs and then terminates from the group, another child is welcomed into the open spot of the ongoing group. When the new participant joins, however, all the other children already know each other. Because the new member has participated in individual session(s) with the therapist and a positive treatment relationship has developed, any anticipatory anxiety will likely be reduced. Third, individual sessions are used to assess the potential member’s ability to listen and settle. Children who have difficulty with listening and settling may need additional individual sessions to improve these skills. Without learning these two skills, new participants will likely distract fellow members and take away from the entire group process.
When a new member attends group for the first time, the only expectation placed on him/her is to listen and observe the group process. All other members will make direct eye contact with the new participant and share their name, where they go to school, and what they do for fun. Most often, the new participant is able to introduce him/herself as well, but this is not necessary the first session. Usually, because introductions include sharing what the members do for fun, the new participant is able to bond with other members who share common interests right from the start.
The way children naturally express themselves is through play. Given their limited life experiences and inability to put feelings into words, child psychologists often encourage play to teach skills and facilitate self-expression.
Social skills games are implemented in each group (except the high school group) for about 15 minutes near the end of the session. The following list contains some of the games conducted in group, as well as the skills taught in each.
1. Action Figures
This game is only implemented with younger children. A variety of action figures are introduced into the group milieu. Through their group play, skills of sharing, cooperation, and impulse control are taught.
2. Group Draw/Group Lego’s
Again, only played with younger children. For group draw, the members sit around a circular table. One child starts by picking a colored pencil and making one line, shape, or mark on a paper. The paper is then passed to the next child, who adds one mark, line, or shape. The paper is then passed to the next member, and the process continues until the group has a final masterpiece (which we all sign). Group Lego’s involves the same experience, only we start with one Lego and then build upon that piece. This game fosters teambuilding, working together, learning to give constructive feedback in a positive way, accepting the choices of others, and creativity.
The classic game of charades is an excellent way to teach non-verbal communication skills. Members act out certain activities without the use of words. The remaining members take turns guessing what is being acted out.
4. Group Chess
Group members are split into two teams and play each other in chess. Teams are allowed to collaborate/conference/strategize together, but they must rotate who makes the next move. Group chess is an excellent way to teach planning, organization, working together, conflict resolution, turn taking, frustration tolerance, and cognitive flexibility.
5. Are you for real?
Another great game for learning verbal and non-verbal facial cues. One member makes a statement that may be true or false. Other members must assess tone of voice, facial cues, body posture, and other clues to determine if the person is being honest or fabricating the statement.
6. Group MindTrap
MindTrap is a game that can be purchased online or at Toys-R-US. This game involves reading a clever riddle and then problem solving to generate potential solutions. For example, my favorite is “Two mothers and two daughters went fishing. They caught three fish and each person went home with a whole fish. How is this possible?” This game is great for group problem-solving, accepting the viewpoints of others, working together, taking turns when speaking , and enhancing listening skills. By the way, I don’t want to leave you……the answer is “It was a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter.”
The ideal size for a social skills process group is 5 to 8 members. This number allows for a variety of personalities, each possessing their own unique strengths and weaknesses. There will never be more than 8 in a group, as too many members dilutes the group interaction process. Because the groups are “ongoing,” they are held year-round, including summer time. With many families taking well needed and deserved vacations during the summer, average group size during June, July, and August tends to be smaller.
The average time spent in group varies, because children and adolescents enter group with different skill sets. However, some children have shown dramatic improvement in just 5 or 6 meetings. Others, though, need a considerably longer period of time to learn all the social skills taught. Feel free to pose this question to your therapist for a more accurate estimate.
“Parent Meetings” are meetings solely between parent(s) and the therapist, without the child present. These meetings are an integral part of the process of teaching social skills to children and adolescents. From a parenting standpoint, it is essential to know and understand your child, including his/her social strengths and weaknesses. Although the group alone can be a great benefit to participants, it is even more beneficial to have parents involved in the social enhancement process. In addition, with the help of the therapist, parents can then share with teachers and other family members how to best help the child grow.
Parent meetings are an opportunity for the therapist to talk about the child’s strengths and weaknesses, offer advice and support to parents, and answer questions they may have. I recommend that parent meetings are scheduled every four weeks, especially during the early stages of the group.
If there is ever an immediate need for a parent meeting, please let the therapist or office staff know.
There are many ways to assess the progress of group members, including simply asking the group member how he/she feels they’re doing. Also, feedback from parents and teachers is extremely helpful as well. Of particular importance is how the child is responding to others at recess, in lunch, and in the neighborhood after school.
However, the best way of assessing progress is a simple question. “Since starting the group, has your child made and kept a friend?” The ability to make a friend and keep that friend over time is a good indicator that many of the skills taught in group have generalized to real-world experiences.