SOCIAL SKILLS GROUPS: INFORMATION FOR PARENTS
By Robert E. Kifer, Ph.D.
Since 1986, the social skills groups program initially developed at the Institute for Behavioral Health and which now continue in the same location at Behavioral Health Services has existed to improve children’s social competence, or ability to get along well with other children. To accomplish this task, the social skills groups focus on teaching self-relaxation skills, thinking skills, and interaction skills. This is to enable children to stay calm and maintain sufficient emotional control, to think effectively and make the right decisions, and then act effectively to carry out their chosen course of action and achieve their desired outcome. A partial list of the specific skills taught in these groups includes Anger Control, Dealing with Frustration, Responding to Teasing, Cooperative Play, Joining In With Others at Play, Friendly Conversations, Giving Negative Feedback, and Conflict Resolution.
All skills are taught within the context of small (maximum of 7 kids) therapy groups that meet once each week. Each group is conducted by a licensed mental health professional.
Groups are formed primarily according to age, so that the children have opportunities to learn with others their own age. An individualized assessment is conducted (usually in just two Intake sessions) prior to a child’s joining a group so as to achieve the best match between the child’s needs and the group’s resources. Whenever the child’s parents give permission, the child’s teacher and other key professionals are contacted to get their input into the child’s treatment plan.
The general orientation of these groups is an educational, positive approach aimed at building skills that will make things better, rather than focusing on problems or working towards long-term personality change. The groups emphasize “learning by doing” rather than just talking, and hence feature role playing lifelike social situations rather than lengthy discussions of what has gone wrong in the past. The group is used by the child as a safe, neutral environment in which to learn and practice more effective ways of getting along with others. As the child becomes more effective and confident at using these skills through practice in the group, he or she is encouraged to put them into practice outside the group.
At the start of each session, the children are questioned briefly about events of the preceding week, specifically focusing on if group members used skills previously taught in the group sessions. Information is obtained on the outcome of these attempts and is incorporated for use in further teaching. The next few minutes are spent practicing relaxation and self-control skills. The majority of time in each group session is devoted to practicing each child’s specific social skills goals in the context of life-like situations. The skill practice takes the form of structured role-plays or guided cooperative play with real games or “make believe” play as appropriate to the child’s developmental level.
During role plays, each child takes a turn at practicing skills relevant to their own goals within the context of social situations acted out in as life-like a manner as possible using their group members as peers. The group leader instructs the child (and others in the role-play) in what and how to act in the simulated situation. After a role-play ends, the children who watch the role-play, and the group leaders, give the child feedback on their performance during the role play.
During cooperative play oriented sessions, children play various games or imaginative play activities under the close supervision of group leaders. The emphasis is on such skills as playing by the rules, taking turns, resolving conflicts that occur during play, coping with the frustrations that occur during play, and being a “good winner” and “good loser.” The group leader intervenes frequently during play to reward instances of good social skills and to teach more appropriate alternatives “on the spot” when poor social behavioral occurs. All group sessions are videotaped so that role plays or critical events that occur during play can be see as “instant replays” to help children better understand their behavior and its effects on others. Video feedback has proven to be a very valuable teaching tool to help children “see themselves as others see them”. This helps them to understand social sequences (the causes and consequences of their social behavior), and to help children understand certain aspects of behavior that are hard to explain using words alone (such as voice tone and posture).
A token reinforcement system is used within the groups to encourage attending and participating. Approximately 15 minutes before the end of each session, a free time period occurs during which children can exchange tokens earned for various prizes (food is not used) or preferred activities. This free time period creates further opportunities for group leaders to observe children’s social skills in less structured situations and to intervene as needed.
Parent involvement is crucial to the child’s social skills improvement. The group leader communicates with the parents of group members at the end of each group session, and schedules individualized parent sessions periodically to review each child’s progress within and outside of group. During these sessions, they set goals, discuss methods, and otherwise manage the child’s treatment so that progress can occur in the shortest possible time.
Since 1991, we have consistently measured our success by asking the children and their parents. Results from a standardized self-concept scale have consistently shown improvements in children’s self-esteem, especially in the area of popularity, with smaller improvements in behavior and anxiety. We regularly ask for parent feedback regarding a number of key general goals. These data indicate that, after their children had attended group for at least two months, most parents reported improvements in a variety of key goals: understanding social situations (94%), acting appropriately in social situations (85%), staying calm under pressure (79%), and getting along with other kids (87%). The chart below shows some of our success rate data from over 300 parents spanning the past 18 years. For more outcome data, click here.
The standard fees are $80 for each group session and $150 for each intake or parent session. Children with insurance coverage for outpatient mental health services may have a portion of their fees paid for by the insurance carrier. A sliding scale fee may apply to those with no insurance coverage.
Importance of Regular Participation
We would not expect a child to learn reading, math, or any other academic skill if they only attended school sporadically. Because these skills are in some ways more difficult to master than academic skills, and because the groups only meet once a week, it is very important for children to regularly attend group. This will enable them to learn in the shortest possible time and thereby reduce the length of the treatment process.
How to Get Started
To arrange for an intake appointment for a social skills group, or any other service of Behavioral Health Services,
parents should contact Dr. Bob Kifer or Ms. Ronda Brooks at 631-543-4357.